In terms of destroying art itself, one might think of Gustave Courbet’s successful proposal, in 1871, to topple and disassemble the Vendôme column during the events of the Paris Commune, a monument he claimed was “devoid of all artistic value, tending to perpetuate by its expression the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty.” Or more recently, of British artist Hannah Black’s conversation-fueling but unsuccessful 2017 open letter requesting that Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, which reproduced the famous image of Emmett Till at his funeral, be removed from the Whitney Biennial and destroyed. Both of these cases, however, are gestures of framing. The proposals to topple the column and ruin the painting are not artworks in themselves.
In 1997, the German artist Christoph Schlingensief pulled off one such work when he organized Tötet Helmut Kohl! (Kill Helmut Kohl!), for which he gathered as many unemployed people as possible to swim in then-German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s favorite holiday destination, the Austrian Wolfgangsee, while the politician was on holiday. He claimed that all of Germany’s unemployed would together displace the lake’s water. In 2014, Lawrence Abu Hamdan made the work The All-Hearing, for which he asked two sheikhs in Cairo not to deliver their usual weekly Friday sermons, but instead to deliver city-wide speeches about the dangers of noise pollution as a public health issue. Schlingensief and Abu Hamdan alike disrupted a status quo to force a change.
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