Introduction name are also added in an inscription


as a form of art is not the most likely thing that people think of when it
comes to contemporary art. How can destruction be a part of art when art is
meant to be a creative process? But what if destruction can actually be a
process of creation, whether that is as a form of protest, liberation or just
as a process. When thought about, destruction is a big part of art history, as
the art world is always changing and evolving. Such as the destruction of
traditional art with more modern ways of creating or iconoclasm, works of art
being vandalized or destroyed in the name of protest or war. Destruction is
always there it is just a matter of how visible that this destruction is. This
essay will be exploring that destruction in a number of different ways, as a
process of liberation, a means of ends and as creation.

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Destruction as Liberation

The word Destruction in itself gives a very
aggressive first impression but this may not be the case overall. Destruction
is defined as “the action or process of causing so much damage to something
that it no longer exists or cannot be repaired” (Oxford Dictionary). This
however does not mean that it has be an aggressive force. There are lots of
ways which destruction can be portrayed, one of which is as a liberating
process. In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning (fig.1) was
created and this was seen as a huge turning point in Rauschenberg’s art
practice. He approached William de Kooning and asked him if he could take a
drawing from his work and erase it, so after a long conversation, he agreed. De
Kooning picked an image that would be hard to erase due to the materials used
such as ink, charcoal and graphite, but also one he was fond of to give the act
more of a sentimental feeling. The actual process of easing the artwork was
very long and it took four weeks and multiple erasers to completely remove the
image. This was the mounted in a gold frame with the name, date and his name are
also added in an inscription under the artwork, this is specifically stated to
be shown as part of the finished piece. 

Before this
piece came into being, Rauschenberg had tried to erase his own artwork as he
was interested in the idea of ‘whether a drawing could be made out of erasing’
but he was unhappy with the outcome. Rauschenberg may have found this process
unsatisfactory due to the fact that he knew he was going to erase it in the
end, and erasing ones own work could be seen as an amendment or a result of
something that did not turn as planned. This then brings into question the idea
of at what point does something become a work of art? As he was creating work
knowing that he wanted to erase it which may have blurred the lines of when in
fact was he considered his own work completed. This is when Rauschenberg came
to the conclusion that he needed something that people already considered a
piece of artwork in it’s own right, as he later stated, “if it was my own work
being erased, then the erasing would only be half the process, and I wanted it
to be the whole” (Artsy). So when it came to de Kooning’s drawing, the very act
of easing this work is what caused so much attention to be attracted to it.

Many people saw this as an act of vandalism and that they were being defied a
piece of artwork by de Kooning that they did not feel Rauschenberg had the
authority to take. However, it was not an attack on de Kooning’s work but
instead a tribute to him. The fact that he felt as if this would only be
significant if it was already considered art, shows a great deal of respect to
de Kooning as Rauschenberg felt he was an important and successful artist that
erasing the work would be considered important.

process of erasing this artwork is very important in the narrative of the piece
as it took a large amount of time and patience to actually remove the artwork.

The time Rauschenberg says he took to erase the artwork has changed over time,
varying from 4 weeks to 2 months, nevertheless a large period of time was taken
removing the image. As destruction is usually though of as a very quick chaotic
act, this time taken creates a large contrast between the work and the actual
process of it being made. This is shown further in the way that Rauschenberg
described the process, which was as a way to ”purge’ himself of his artists
teachings’ (Walden, p.80). The word “purge” suggests an act of cleansing and liberation
that is a strong contrast to the destructive force in the work. The act of erasing
this work, is acting like a clean slate for Rauschenberg to build himself on
top of, a symbolic removal of everything that he did not want to represent
anymore. So instead of this being a harmful force on the work it is instead
looking at this erasure as a tool, much like you would a pencil, to push
himself away from more traditional teachings and liberating himself and his
artwork to grow more.

This type
of liberating act is shown further in Michael Landy’s Break Down (fig.2), however on a much larger scale. Landy spent a
year cataloging every item that he owned which overall added up to 7,7227
items, this included art, furniture and clothing. He then spent the next two
weeks systematically destroying every single item. A team of twelve people and Landy
broke apart everything he owned on a conveyer belt, almost the opposite of an
assembly line’ at a factory. This was all done with an audience of people
seeing the process, there reactions varied from shock, admiration and a mixture
of the between. The everyday things people were not as bothered about seeing
broken down but when it came to more sentimental items such as, old love
letters and his father’s old coat, people became very emotional and

Having everything that Landy owned, all the
pieces that made up his life, so efficiently destroyed leaves Landy with
nothing, all he owned after this process was the clothes on his back. This
provided him with a clean slate to build everything upon again, as there are no
reminders left to exhibit what he once was. As Landy describes, this left him with
a ‘life without my self-defining belongings’ (ArtAngel) , which leaves him with
nothing else but the means to build himself up again. No burdens of the past
and the liberation of nothing being there to hold him down. However, not only was this liberating for the artist, it was also
liberating for the audience, a viewer commented “There was something
exhilarating about seeing somebody liberating themselves from the tyranny of
ownership.” (BBC). So where as Rauschenberg’s work was very liberating for
himself personally, Landy’s work created an atmosphere within the audience of
liberation. Seeing this man’s whole life to this point laid out in front of
them is such a broken down way pushes them to think of the things that make up
their own life. What would be destroyed if they were doing this? This makes a
lasting impact on the audience, whether they treasure things more closely or
choose to cleanse their own lives and get rid of unnecessary items.

So this
type of destructive force within contemporary art can be seen as a liberating
force for both the artist and the audience. While the artists cleanse
themselves with the idea of a blank canvas and starting afresh, the audience
embraces this atmosphere of letting go which may inspire a change within them



Destruction as Art

In another
light the destruction itself is a form of art, while it can be liberating, it
can also be a process. A main figure in the ideologies behind destruction in art
is Gustav Metzger. While exploring this subject Metzger wrote a manifesto
called ‘Auto-Destructive Art’, this outlined the basic ideas behind his use of
destruction in art, including:


“Auto-Destructive Art is primarily a form of
public art for industrial    societies …
Auto-Destructive Art can be created with natural forces, traditional art
techniques and technological techniques … Auto-Destructive Paintings,
sculptures and constructions have a lifetime varying from a few moments to
twenty years'” (Metzger, p)


Leading on
from his manifesto, Metzger also co-founded the Destruction in Art Symposium
(DIAS), this involved a number of different artists each who use destruction in
their own way, and this includes a number of artists such as John Latham, Kenne­th
Kemble and Yoko Ono.

With these
theories and concepts, he created a series of Acid Paintings (fig 2), in these
paintings he set up layers of nylon fabric with a sheet of glass in front of it
and then sprayed and poured acid over it. The acid then corroded the nylon
leaving the remains of the fabric clinging to the glass. He created these works
as performance pieces in font of an audience, so they themselves could see the
destruction in action. The way that he worked was very transformative in nature,
changing the materials in his work completely or obliterating them. While
discussing his art he stated that he wanted to show the ‘capacity of human
society to obliterate itself’ (Interview), this is seen strongly in Metzger’s
work as he demonstrates it very literally, as although he has created his
artwork, he created it with the means of its own destruction. So the artwork
cannot be what it wants without the destruction but it also cannot remain for
long, existing only in the documentation made after that point. So the only way
to truly see this artwork is to see the destruction used in the moment it was
both created and destroyed.

Metzger was
very involved in political activism in his lifetime that translates strongly
into his work, as he took much of what he thought of society and translated
that through the technique. Within his work Metzger wanted to make clear that
“destruction in art did not mean the destruction of art” (Gamboni, p265), so
unlike iconoclasts and vandalism this form of art was to be a process of
creation rather than an attack. 

The fact
that he states in his manifesto that the artwork he creates should have a “lifetime
varying from a few moments to twenty years” (Metzger) embodies the idea that
destruction must be complete and absolute, even if it does take a large amount
of time to do so. This furthers the idea that the destruction is being used as
a stepping-stone to completely transform the artwork; the only thing that
matters in it is the actual act of destruction. What is left behind are only
the ruins that the destruction created. 

While Metzger’s
use of destruction is used more like a tool or a process, it can also be used
in a much more aggressive way to state a point. Yoko Ono is one example of this
in her performance Cut Piece (fig.4).

This piece was first performed in 1964 by Ono but has been recreated many
times; she did two performances of this in London as part of the Destruction in
Art Symposium (DIAS). In the performance, she sat on a stage in her best
clothing with a pair of scissors in front of her. The audience is then invited
to come up one by one and cut a piece of her clothing off, giving the audience
members a choice of how much they wish to cut or whether they want to take part
at all. All the while Ono remains motionless. The audience art the true
performers within this piece.

Cut Piece
has become quite an iconic performance over the years, and has been recreated
many times by Ono herself and other male and female artists. This elevation of
the work means that there are many different ideas and philosophies behind what
this piece stands for, a feminist display or a protest for peace. Although all
of this is a big factor within the work, there is also an element of pure
destructive force at the very center of it. Ono is giving the audience complete
control over the way that the destruction is carried out, the audience is given
a choice of weather or not to participate and how they do in fact participate. While
Metzger has complete control over his work, Ono put all

of the control
into the hands of the audience. While both artists look at the ideas within
society, Metzger looks at showing the audience the destruction caused in the
everyday whereas Ono pushes them to be an active part in it, pushing them to
see that they are in fact a part of the problem.

relationship between the audience and the artists is significant, as it is not
the typical audience watching the artist/ performers but instead the audience
are transformed into performers within the piece. This piece is a incredibly
intimate piece but also extremely aggressive, the very action of these
strangers cutting away her clothing is destructive at its most, however people
deemed it okay due to the immobility of Ono. It was mentioned that she had an incredibly
passive approach to this though, “Her quiet, self-contained, meditative
approach to the very concept of destruction had a counterbalancing…”(p


Destruction as Creation

While there
are lots of ways to use destruction in contemporary art there is also the
question of can destruction be used as a creative force? When art is thought of
it is seen as an act of creation, artists are creative and bring things into
the world, but what if it is in fact the opposite. Art is actually the process
of destruction. Every act of creation will always first be an act of
destruction, whether this is the destruction of traditional art with more
modern ways of creating, or a clean slate of which to start from the beginning.

No matter what the presence of destruction will always be there in the creative
process, it is just a matter of how visible this destruction is.  This idea is seen strongly in Gaplin’s essay,
“It becomes conceivable that any form of erasure, however violently
destructive, can be seen as constructive in some way” (Spieker, 2017, p129),
destruction is always a pathway to new beginnings and a clean slate.

Metzger based his art theories and ideologies on the use of destruction in his
artwork, however he never saw it as a pure destructive force. In an interview
Metzger stated that he has “… always seen auto-destructive art as a
constructive force, I still do.”(Art Monthly), so no matter where you start out
an action of destruction will always have some sort of creative form too. The
fact that a lot of this destructive work is done as performances is
interesting; this is as if the viewers need to see this destruction in action
to fully understand the ideas. You need to know what was there before to fully
appreciate the transformation to what it ends up being, the actual
transformation is more important that what is left over in the end. Within
these destructive acts the actual performance of the work seems to be very
important, this is as in each artwork I have looked at he actual act of the
destruction has been the most important.

While in both Metzger’s and Ono’s work they both show
the audience their actual process of the destruction. Being a spectator of the
Acid Paintings and a active participant in Cut Piece.  On the other hand Rauschenberg did not show
the process of the destruction but only the outcome, yet people seem so fixated
on the actual act of the erasure rather than the final outcome. They are
incredibly focused on what has been left behind rather than the end result,
such as in Metzger’s work; this demonstrates the use of destruction of
something can cause creation in a higher form than it was before. As de
Kooning’s original drawing would most likely never have grown such debate and
spectacle if Rauschenberg had not erased it in the first place. So while all of
these people dealt with destruction in a different way they all created a large
spectacle and even though the original artwork has been removed it would live
in the documentation and eyes of the viewers.

This idea
that the destruction of a work transforms it rather than taking it away is
something that it widely explored in this work as Pellegrini says in his essay,
“the destruction of an object does not annihilate it; it confronts us with a
new reality of the object” (Spieker, 2017, p74). So rather than the
destruction being a malevolent force it is instead one of transformation and
rebirth, like a phoenix being reborn from it’s ashes. So what these artists art
trying to create is a different outlook on what is normally seen, what if we
used an eraser the same way we use a pencil or what if the artist both creates
and destroys his work simultaneously. “… destruction lays the foundation for
future creation”





conclusion there are a large number of ways that destruction can be used as a
channel of creation, this essay only looks at a few but overall there is a
massive way that destruction can effect an artwork. Whether this is as a
performance, painting, act of iconoclasm or something else entirely. The main
point in this is that nothing can actually be made without a prior stage of
destruction beforehand, nothing can be just pure creativity and destruction is
not always as negative as if first appears to be. ­

in contemporary art








Gamboni, D. (2012). The
destruction of art. London: Reaktion Books.


Gustav Metzger on Destruction, Nature. Oct 1, 2009, Vol. 461
Issue 7264, p598, 1 p. (Interview)


Metzger, G. (1965). Auto-destructive
art. London: Destruction/Creation.


Metzger, G., O’Brien, S.

and Larner, M. (2009). Gustav Metzger. London: Serpentine Gallery.


Spieker, S (2017). Destruction. Whitechapel Gallery.


Walden, J. (n.d.). Art
and destruction.


Art Monthly
no222 7-11 d ’98/ja ’99



Oxford Dictionary


Michael Landy: Break Down


Figure 1: Robert Rauchenberg, Erased de Kooning


Figure 2: Michael Landy, Break Down


Figure 3: Gustav Metzger, Acid Painting


Figure 4: Yoko Ono, Cut Piece