The Week Link
Wednesday 14 February 2001

The Week Think

Destroying and Recreating

Three news stories this week came together to form resonances in my mind. The first was the tale of an artist destroying everything he owns as an act of performance art. This drew unsubtle 'I don't know much about art, but give me the Saab' responses from MetaFilter critics, which seemed to miss the point—or perhaps that was the point. The fact that people viewing or hearing of this artwork feel the need to make bids for Landy's belongings should give them serious pause. Why on earth should they care whether someone they don't know destroys something he owns? Is materialism that important, that we should feel its pull in relation to strangers as well as ourselves? Aren't our consumerist urges exactly what Landy wants us to examine, rather than to reflexively reassert? Whether you agree with his actions or not, think about them—that's the whole point of the exercise.

'Performance art wank,' nothing—this is one of the most powerful artistic acts of recent years. And the fact that it can move us even one step removed, through a simple retelling as a news story, speaks of its power. (There's more from me along these lines at MeFi—or go here to see the essence of it.)

The most disturbing part of Landy's performance is not that a Saab is being turned into sand—after all, that's just mass-produced Stuff, and destroying Stuff is not that different from the KLF's act some years back of burning a million pounds. I was more disturbed by the destruction of 'a Gary Hume painting valued at $30,000', because there Landy is destroying someone else's art in the name of his own. That's more provocative than squashing a Saab.

It resonates with my second news story for the week, the incompetent restoration of a Confucian temple in China which resulted in the destruction of artworks hundreds of years old. Hearing about this sort of destruction always makes me feel like time is running out to see the world's wonders before they're gone. That in itself is strange, since I have no plans to visit Qufu; but to be reminded so forcefully of the hand of entropy is always disturbing.

And yet we all achieve our own small victories over entropy, by creating art, creating great works, creating offspring. And one story of victory of entropy this week has been truly awe-inspiring: the development of new techniques to read ancient Roman scrolls recovered from the ashes of Herculaneum, among them the lost works of Aristotle. When the West rediscovered the works of the ancients after driving their Arab custodians from Spain, it was enough to usher in the Renaissance. These new finds may not have the same world-changing impact now that the world is so much bigger, but the thought of the lost becoming found and the unknown becoming known again is breathtaking.

Unearthing the ancient equivalent of squashed Saabs can tell us much about the civilisations that made them, but unearthing pure ancient knowledge takes us right into their minds. Now that's exciting.

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