Iconoclastic fury

History tells us that tearing down statues is divisive and traumatic, a sort of village-by-village civil war.

The Ghent Altarpiece survived destruction because of the courageous actions of a few.
Yesterday, red paint was splashed on the statue of Theodore Roosevelt on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This comes on the heels of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s appointment of a commission to review monuments, and calls by activists to remove this particular ‘racist’ statue. These follow a nationwide wave of monument destruction.
There is a word for this in English: iconoclasm. This specifically means the destruction of icons, images or monuments for religious or political reasons. It happens during political revolution and periods of religious fervor. We decry it when it is done by the Taliban; are we willing to examine our own behavior with the same critical lens?
Remains of Reformation iconoclasm, Clocher Saint-Barthélémy, La Rochelle, France, courtesy World Imaging.
The Protestant Reformation unleashed a wave of iconoclasm across Northern Europe and England in the 16th century. The result was the destruction of significant cultural works, including many more Northern European Renaissance paintings than were ever saved.
These attacks went by different names: the Iconoclastic Fury, the Beeldenstorm (Dutch), Bildersturm (German) or, in England, the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In France, the violence was part of the Huguenot Wars. Whatever it was called, it was part of the anti-Catholic revolution we now call the Reformation. The violence was often official.
No thought was given to the artistic heritage of the destroyed works. In England, 90% of religious art was destroyed in the years following the Reformation. The percentages are probably similar in Germany and the Low Countries. The purge extended equally to music and literature.
Altar piece in St. Martin’s Cathedral, Utrecht, attacked in the Beeldenstorm in 1566. This was hidden behind a false wall and rediscovered in 1919. Courtesy Pepijntje.
Occasionally, great works were saved by individuals or families. The most well-known is the van Eycks‘ Ghent Altarpiece, an outstanding example of Early Netherlandish painting. It was already famous in August of 1556, when the Beeldenstorm hit Ghent. An attack on the Cathedral on August 19 was deterred by guards. On August 21, the iconoclasts used a tree trunk as a battering ram to break through the doors. By then the panels and the guards had been hidden on the narrow spiral staircase within the tower. The panels were then hidden in the town hall. The original, elaborate frame was destroyed.
In Britain, Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in his dominions. He took their income and sold, appropriated or destroyed their assets. Much of this served to fund his military campaigns in the 1540s.
Shrines to saints were destroyed, libraries were burned, and many precious relics were lost. The more fortunate of cathedrals and abbeys saw their jeweled reliquaries stripped, precious metals and ornaments looted, and their painted walls covered with whitewash. The less fortunate houses were leveled and their leaders strung up. Among these were Glastonbury Abbey, legendary for the tomb of King Arthur.
Medieval altarpiece fragments destroyed during the English Dissolution, mid-16th century, courtesy PHGCOM, photographed at the Museum of London. 
Henry’s son, Edward, was depicted during his life and afterwards as a new Josiah, destroying the idols of Baal. Although he only reigned six years, they had a lasting impact on the English Reformation. His counter-reforming sister is now remembered as Bloody Mary, but she was just another 16th century leader who used murder to advance her religious agenda.
As I watch our country going through its first real experience with iconoclasm, I wonder about a favorite bronze relief in Boston. An historical illiterate might see the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial as racist. After all, it’s a white officer on horseback, surrounded by black men. But it’s not, and it’s also a masterpiece by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
As the 16th century saw, violence against objects usually goes hand in hand with violence against people. The destruction was divisive and traumatic to communities, a sort of civil war on a town-by-town basis. It’s nothing you’d wish on the people you love.

A love affair that’s ended

New York City is no longer the center of the known world for me. How did that happen?
Queensboro Bridge Approach, by Carol L. Douglas

My dream job, when I was young, was to be a cabbie in New York. That had nothing to do with going fast, and everything to do with being aggressive, and in being able to squeeze myself and my car through knot-holes.

I told this to Cornelia Foss one time, as we were scooting north along Madison Avenue. She shuddered. Now I realize that’s because she was older and wiser. (I wish I could take another class from her. At 86, she continues to break new ground as a painter.)
Today I live in a state where the locals, by and large, drive the speed limit and are polite. You’ll never get anywhere here in Maine by driving aggressively. Jump the queue and there will just be another slow-moving vehicle ahead.
Under the Queensboro Bridge, by Carol L. Douglas
This was a strange concept in driving, but I learned to embrace it. Now I roll down my windows and enter that quiet state of pokiness that drives the visitors crazy.
Last time I drove to Queens to meet my pal Brad Marshall, I found myself really irritated with New York drivers. That same exuberance that once goaded me to pass on the right, to joyously sound my horn for no reason, to budge into the box at intersections—it all just annoyed me. We had somewhere to go, and Brad offered to drive. Rare for me, I happily agreed.
In my youth, I said that I would stop going to New York if the vista crossing the George Washington Bridge failed to move me. I saw it a lot in my younger days. I commuted from Rochester to take classes at the Art Students League. I had a crash pad with my friend Peter, on the Upper West Side. We would take classes all day and then I would drive home to Rochester. Rinse and repeat. If I die young, it will be with the consolation that I lived my life very fast.
Underpass, by Carol L. Douglas
I voided that test by moving east. I no longer use the GW to get into the city. Instead, I come down through Massachusetts and Connecticut. There’s no astonishment along that route.
The first sign I was growing cynical about New York came a few years ago, when I met a Southerner for a weekend. She remarked, in passing, at how filthy the city is. That’s one of those things, like your aunt’s fascinating chin hair, that everyone sees but doesn’t mention. But once she commented on it, I began to see detritus everywhere.
I used to love to paint in the city. Now I understand that was the granite calling to me. Much of New York, Washington and Chicago are built of Maine granite. Somehow, I enjoy it more in its natural state.
Staples Street, by Carol L. Douglas
This morning I’m heading back down to Westchester County for Rye’s Painters on Location. Brad’s floating around in the North Atlantic somewhere, but he loaned me his flat. I’m on my own for both painting and driving. Luckily, Painters on Location is always a blast, and I’ll see lots of other friends there.
I still admire New York City, but I’ve met other art scenes that match my personality better. I’ll visit for a blockbuster show, or to see friends. But, as for it being the center of the known world, those days are, sadly, gone for me.


Literature. If you look closely, you’ll find Van Reid in there.
Why listen to me talk about art when you can look at windows from Bergdorf Goodman on 5th and 58th in New York City? Their theme this year is “Inspired” and their windows revolve around the arts.
The music window is everything you want from New York–brash, bubbly, shiny.
And it wouldn’t be New York without Broadway.
“We decided to base each window on a major art form, drawing equally from the fine arts, performing arts and applied arts. For our main windows, we settled on literature, architecture, theater, painting, music, dance, sculpture and film. Each window would be designed independently from the others. Each would be made from its own set of materials. But the entire set of windows would constitute a sort of eight-lesson course in art appreciation,” the store announced on its blog.
Sir Christopher Wren presides over the architecture window.
More than 100 artists and display artisans contributed to the windows, which take the store nearly a full year to finish.
The movies…
Happy holidays!
The Rochester window. Ice and monkey and ice tongs.

I will be teaching in Acadia National Park next August. Read all about it here, or download a brochure here

Louis Comfort Tiffany need not apply

Pastoral window in Second Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL, installed 1917. Too bad Tiffany was an artisan, not an artist, right? Luckily for him, he could have bought his way into SoHo several times over.
Only a Philistine could doubt that New York is the center of the art world, but I have to admit there are times it gets on my nerves. For example, this piece by Sharon Otterman in yesterday’s New York Times talks about the process of certifying artists for purposes of snaffling up desirable real estate in SoHo.
Only New York State would be daft enough to have legislation defining what an artist is: “a person who is regularly engaged in the fine arts, such as painting and sculpture, or in the performing or creative arts.” Only the City of New York would be arrogant enough to tighten that up to disqualify actors or jewelers. But assigning two visual artists to rule on who is or is not an artist strains rational thinking.  They have rejected people who did not “demonstrate sufficient depth and development over the 20 years since the awarding of his degree,” or lacked a “substantial element of independent esthetic judgment and self-directed work.”
In the 1970s, when New York City was in a rut, there were a lot of vacant buildings in SoHo. The upper floors of many of these buildings had been built as industrial lofts, with large, unobstructed spaces. These attracted artists, who liked the high ceilings, the big windows, and the low rent. Of course they were not zoned as living space, but since the city was broke, everyone pretty much ignored this
In 1971, the Zoning Resolution was amended to permit joint living-working quarters for artists. As with all these trends, non-artists were quick to see the benefits. Therein lies the rub.
Oddly enough, Tiffany could paint, too. Here is his Market Day Outside the Walls of Tangiers, Morocco, 1873
There are several absurdities here. The first is that the current price of this real estate pretty much rules out most practicing artists. Jon Bon Jovi recently listed his flat at 158 Mercer Street for $42 million. No painter I know can afford that.
The second is that the law is so broadly flouted that it’s meaningless. “A single triplex loft at 141 Prince Street, for example, has been owned in the past decade by the media magnate Rupert Murdoch; the design mogul Elie Tahari; and Ted Waitt, a co-founder of Gateway computers,” wrote Otterman.
Joseph Christian Leyendecker was one of the early 20th century’s finest illustrators. I can’t see this getting him permission to buy in SoHo.
The third is that there is tremendous overlap between fine art and fine craft. Louis Comfort Tiffany was trained as a painter, but rapidly became interested in interior design and glassmaking. It is absurd to think he’s not a fine artist as well as a craftsman.
And lastly—and most telling—is that the contemporaries, including collectors and other artists, are almost never right in their assessments of emerging art and artists. The real artists of the 21st century are undoubtedly in Queens or the Bronx, or in in Providence or Beijing. The denizens of SoHo wouldn’t know them if they tripped over them.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!