Destroying Art

Destroying Art June 25, 2020


History records many instances of protesters taking out their rage by destroying art.  It happened in the ancient world, at the beginning of the Reformation, during the French Revolution, and it is happening today with some of the Black Lives Matter protests.  This time the art world, which usually opposes censorship–even to the point of praising “offensive” art–is silent.

I can understand why monuments honoring heroes of the Confederacy who fought to defend slavery would be targeted for demolition.  But the destruction of statues now goes far beyond–and sometimes even contradicts–the demands for racial justice.

Not just Jefferson Davis but Thomas Jefferson–author of the words that Martin Luther King, Jr., leveraged to get the Civil Rights Bill passed–is having his monument vandalized.  The iconoclasts are tearing down statues not just of confederate generals but of Ulysses S. Grant who defeated them.  Not just monuments to slave holders but also monuments to Abraham Lincoln who abolished slavery.

Monuments to abolitionists–Americans who fought slavery–are being torn down.  In Madison, Wisconsin, protesters attacked a statue of Hans Christian Heg, a Norwegian immigrant and anti-slavery activist who formed a militia to fight slave chasers–enabling untold numbers of slaves to escape–and who was killed in the Battle of Chickamauga, giving his life for the cause.  His statue was decapitated and thrown into lake Monona.  In Boston, a monument to the Black soldiers who fought in the civil war (the 54th regiment portrayed in the film Glory!) was vandalized.

Protesters who consider themselves anti-fascists have defaced a statue of Churchill and vandalized the National World War II Memorial, dishonoring those who actually took down fascism.

The iconoclastic frenzy is extending to monuments that have nothing to do with race or with America.  Activists in St. Louis are not only demanding the removal of the statue of the 13th century King of France the city is named after, they are wanting to change the name of the city.   Why?  Because St. King Louis IX fought in the crusades and is therefore “Islamophobic.”  In San Francisco, protesters defaced a monument to the pioneering Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, who was himself a slave, having been captured by Muslim pirates who sold him into slavery until relatives purchased his freedom after five years.

And, yes, today’s iconoclasts have also come for Jesus.  The leftwing activist Shaun King tweeted this:  “All murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down. They are a gross form white supremacy.”

A few decades ago, Christians protested works of art such as a photo of a crucifix immersed in the artist’s urine, and a painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung.  These works described as “postmodern blasphemy” were funded with taxpayer money.  But the protests went nowhere.  The Art World rallied in their defense.  Some denizens of this world said that the protesters just didn’t know how to interpret the art, that the photo of Jesus simply portrayed the depths of His humiliation and that some African tribes considered elephant dung to be a symbol of honor .  But the usual defense went like this:  “You are offended?  Well, that’s fine.  Art is supposed to be offensive.”

I have heard nothing from the art world defending these of art that are being destroyed or defaced.  I have certainly heard nothing praising the “offensive” quality of those art works.

But advocates of the arts need to realize that the new iconoclasm will not stop with the statues on display outside the museum walls.  If the personal beliefs and actions of the artists take away the value of the work that they created, modern and contemporary artists will by no means be spared.  Picasso mistreated women.  The Futurists supported Mussolini.  Lots of Jewish artists support Israel.

Luther came out of hiding at Wartburg Castle, setting aside his work on translating the Bible, precisely to deal with the iconoclastic riots in Wittenberg, in which protesters–fired by the Reformation–were smashing stained glass windows, breaking crosses, and burning religious art.  Luther also opposed the veneration of images and turning them into idols, but he insisted that mob rule and rampant destruction were not the solution.  He preached the eight Invocavit Sermons in which, in the words of Wikipedia, “he hammered home the primacy of core Christian values such as love, patience, charity, and freedom, and reminded the citizens to trust God’s word rather than violence to bring about necessary change.”

Luther addressed the iconoclastic controversy and the question of religious art in his treatise Against the Heavenly Prophets (1525).  He explains why the Commandment against graven images does not rule out all art and shows that idolatry has to do with the heart’s faith in a false god, rather than the religious use of physical objects, as such.  He then shows how artistic images are connected to the images we constantly form in our minds–that is, to the imagination–which arise of themselves, particularly when we read the Bible.  He criticizes the way religious images were used in the medieval church, but says that destroying them in an act of mob violence is an offense against the love of neighbor and those with weak consciences.  “I have allowed and not forbidden the outward removal of images,” he writes, “so long as this takes place without rioting and uproar and is done by the proper authorities.”

Read this prescient article from three years ago by my former colleague Kevin Vogts in the Federalist, which applies Luther’s balanced and nuanced approach to the issue of controversial public monuments:  Lessons From History’s Iconoclasts On How To Handle Controversial Public Monuments Without Vandalism. Kevin, who also surveys the various iconoclastic controversies throughout the history of the church, agrees that sometimes monuments do need to be removed–or altered or re-interpreted–but there is a right way to go about it, and Luther can help show us how, without lawless destruction and with sensitivity to the people on both sides who are affected.


Illustration:  Destruction of a Wayside Cross in Zurich (1523) by Heinrich Thomann – Kopienband zur zürcherischen Kirchen- und Reformationsgeschichte, Public Domain,

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