Graffiti is one of the most ancient forms of protest, dating back to Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Today, it papers the walls of London. But this abundance has weakened its power to protest. No longer can it garner widespread attention (with rare exceptions like Banksy, now considered an artist). Taking its place as the creative demonstration of dissent is defacing art. But this is an illegitimate form of protest, which undermines the causes that those who perpetrate it seek to advance.

Rather bizarrely, then, the Tate Britain has just opened an exhibition on destroying art. Focusing on specifically on Britain and iconoclasm, it is an novel idea, to be sure, to show perspectives on the act in an art gallery. (The exhibition also shows how some artists use destructive force in their work – though this is to confuse the definition of iconoclasm.) However, Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm left me sure that, although intense, iconoclasm never inspires empathy for the causes it seeks to progress. Plus, giving the act an exhibition lends it some legitimacy as a political or ethical statement.

'Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm' on at the Tate Britain until 5 January 2014

Art is often targeted for pure attention, even if the protester’s cause is completely unrelated. This exploits the work of an innocent individual – violating their property rights. A man was arrested for defacing a portrait of the Queen in Westminster Abbey in June 2013: his cause was Fathers 4 Justice. In the same month, another ‘Fathers 4 Justice’ member defaced a landscape by Constable in the National Gallery. Both works suffered damage, though they bear no link to fathers’ rights. This random selection is unjust to the artists and those who appreciate their work. It seems difficult to call people ‘protesters’ when what they destroy bears no relation to what they are fighting against.

The portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Ralph Heimans in Westminster Abbey, before it was defaced with spray paint in June 2013 by a Fathers for Justice protestor

The portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Ralph Heimans in Westminster Abbey, after it was defaced with spray paint in June 2013 by a Fathers for Justice protestor

Vandalising art inevitably destroys historical sources. Art is an intrinsic part of our social fabric, and is history shared by all of us as a society. Those who attack it break a social contract that the public holds together. In 1970, an original cast of Auguste Rodin‘s The Thinker was dynamited by members of the radical group The Weathermen in Ohio. Individuals do not hold sole rights to art in public institutions, and can only claim some form of ownership as a component of society. Hence they do not have the right to destroy art for their personal cause.

An original cast of Rodin’s 'The Thinker' remains in its damaged state outside the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, after being dynamited by radical group The Weathermen

In cases where art is not publicly owned, protesters are destroying private property. This is an attack on an individual. In cases where art bears some relation to their cause, resorting to the courts is a legitimate form of protest – outright and violent destruction is not. In cases where the art or artist has no link to the disputed ideology, vandalism is completely nonsensical. This random, unfair selection is found in terrorism and other forms of dissent, and is manifestly unjust and illegitimate.

The strongest argument against protest through vandalism, however, is that it paradoxically quashes freedom of expression. Art embodies this principle, sacrosanct in any democracy. In protesting against views by destroying the art that represents them, protestors are suppressing freedom of expression while exploiting it themselves. In New York, Chris Ofili‘s Holy Virgin Mary (1996) was sprayed with white paint by retired teacher Dennis Heiner, whose blind wife thought it blasphemous (it depicts an African Virgin decorated with dung and pornography). Of course, if art causes huge offence (such as Marcus Harvey’s Myra) people should be able to challenge it. But they should do so in courts, not through violence. To do so through violence is to undermine artist’s right to freely express their views – rights held by each member of society.

Chris Ofili's 'Holy Virgin Mary' being sprayed with white paint by retired teacher Dennis Heiner in New York

To destroy art arbitrarily and for attention is unjust to the public and to the artist. To destroy art as a form of protest against the ideology it presents is to enjoy freedom of expression whilst trying to suppress it in others. It is a self-defeating act which undermines both that principle, and thus the cause of the protestor. Creating art can be a legitimate form of dissent: destroying it never can. Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm‘s saving grace is that it explores the destruction of art for religious motivations during the Reformation: a chilling reminder of how much of Britain’s visual culture was lost. This part feels like a mournful tribute. But in terms of modern iconoclasm, placing the act in a gallery celebrates it somewhat – perhaps because of its greater proximity to us today. Refusing to give the protesters the attention they desire, is the more effective and defensive response.

With thanks to the Independent, the Tate Britain and for photos.

‘Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm’ is on at the Tate Britain until 5th January 2014.

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