Are We Allowed to Destroy Art?
Jimmy Carr is taking a hammer to Hitler
23 minutes read - 4840 words
A new TV show fronted by Jimmy Carr will destroy artworks from artists ranging from Picasso to Hitler. Is this a good or a bad thing? Are we ever allowed to destroy art? We look at the arguments for and against destroying art for entertainment.
Backlash against C4 show that may destroy works by Hitler and Picasso
Channel 4 has come under fire over plans for a new show that will allow a studio audience to decide whether Jimmy Carr should destroy a painting by Adolf Hitler.
… The TV channel has bought artworks by a range of “problematic” artists including Hitler, Pablo Picasso, the convicted paedophile Rolf Harris and the sexual abuser Eric Gill.
A televised debate called Jimmy Carr Destroys Art, will question whether one can truly separate a work of art from its creator – before deciding which pieces to destroy with a variety of tools. …
But the idea has provoked criticism, with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust saying the show is “making Hitler a topic of light entertainment”. … Some likened the content of the show – which was filmed on Wednesday night – to Nazi book burnings. … And some have asked if it is ever right to destroy a historical artefact, no matter who the creator is.
So, who is right? Are we allowed to destroy Hitler’s art? Are we allowed to make entertainment out of it? Read on to find out!
The first, most obvious question, would be: What exactly are we allowed to destroy and why would anyone want to interfere with our choices?
In the course of a lecture, a teacher might draw stick figures onto a blackboard in order to illustrate something for her students. At the end of the class, the blackboard will be erased. Is this a crime against art? Obviously not.
One way of looking at this would be to consider the work’s market value, which should be (in theory) determined by supply and demand. Although that teacher’s drawing is in short supply (only she can draw stick figures in precisely this way), the demand for the work is non-existent. As a consequence, the work has no value and needs not be preserved, one might argue.
So, who is right? Are we allowed to destroy Hitler’s art? Are we allowed to make entertainment out of it?
But this cannot be the full answer. For example, think of a parent who destroys a child’s picture in front of the child’s eyes. Although the picture likely has no market value at all, destroying it in front of its creator would seem cruel and morally wrong – not because of the destruction of market value, but because of the damage to the feelings of the artist.
On the other hand, a real-estate developer destroying a very valuable high-rise building that they own in order to build a theme park on the same spot might be seen as a stupid and ill-advised business decision. But we wouldn’t see it as a morally bad choice. What one does with one’s own things should generally be left to oneself to decide. We are allowed to destroy things we own, even if they have significant market value. So that cannot be the whole point in destroying a Hitler or Picasso painting – or anyone’s painting for that matter.
Although, here again, one might object. A developer’s destruction of a high-rise building that had offered housing in a particular neighbourhood is not only a matter of private choice. Others are affected: the tenants of the building will have to find a new place to stay. The housing situation in the city will become worse and other homes will become more expensive, potentially forcing some to live on the streets. Since all these people are not living in that spot anymore, nearby shops will experience a drop in customers, potentially having to close. And so on.
Depending on one’s political inclinations, one might argue that the free market forces will take care of these consequences and that the developer should be free to do what they want with their building. Others might say that the state will have to provide regulatory frameworks that make sure that a single developer does not have the power to affect a whole neighbourhood in this way (for example, by regulating what kinds of structures can be built on particular lots). Or, on the other extreme end of the spectrum, one might propose that all housing should be provided by the state for just this reason, and that no private developments should be allowed at all.
A related problem with the destruction of value is that in all our societies, no matter where we live, there exist, to some extent, financial inequality and poverty. One might argue that the senseless destruction of wealth, even if it is privately owned, is immoral because that wealth could (and should!) have been used to benefit those in need. Supporting humans who are starving is more important, one could argue, than respecting the ownership rights of the rich. So instead of allowing the developer to destroy the house, the state might force them to hand it over to be managed by the government, in case the original owner is not interested in making use of their property any more.
Now this is not the problem we set out to discuss, but these cases provide a first insight into what kinds of factors we’ll have to consider when talking about the ethics of destroying art. One has to take into account:
The rights of the owner of an artwork to do what they want with their property.
The benefits and harms that the owner’s choices cause to others.
The obligation of the state to regulate to some extent what citizens are allowed and not allowed to do with their property and to protect the public good.
The ethics of destroying value that could benefit those in need.
The power of the state to interfere with the decisions of its citizens.
But also the feelings and the rights of the artist, independently of any other considerations.
Is art different from other things?
Seen like this, destroying art is a special case of a more general issue with destroying things that might be of value to others.
One could see a parallel, for example, to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. Although no one disputes that the Brazilian part of the forest is rightly seen as belonging to Brazil, one can still argue that the Brazilian government, or its citizens, should not be free to destroy it. Like a high-rise building in a city centre, the forest provides significant benefits to Earth as a whole. Destroying it would affect humanity’s future, and therefore there must be some regulation that prevents the owner from harming others through the destruction of what is their property, even if the property rights themselves are not questioned.
The same story plays out daily all around us: farmers using Roundup to keep their fields free of weeds; vets overusing antibiotics in the production of meat, causing resistant bacteria to emerge and spread and reducing the effectiveness of medicines for all; and, of course, people flying and driving all around the place, using one-way plastics and destroying the environment for all in the process.
Another, perhaps even more obviously perverse act of destruction is the loss of food along the chain of food production and delivery. According to studies quoted in Wikipedia, between 30% and 50% of all produced, perfectly edible food is destroyed (for various reasons) before reaching the consumer. And this in a world where around 900 million people (or around 1/7th of the Earth’s population in 2012) go hungry every day.
In all these cases, we are destroying a small bit of our own property (or our share in common property), but in the process we cause significant harm to others. One could argue that destroying a privately-owned piece of art is not that different. We cause a private damage that we are thought to be allowed to cause, but in this process we harm society as a whole, by depriving everyone else from access to the destroyed artwork.
In all these cases, we are destroying a small bit of our own property (or our share in common property), but in the process we cause significant harm to others.
Some of the most notorious controversies implicating the right to destroy have involved art. One example is the Rockefeller family decision to destroy a mural that Diego Rivera had painted for them after Rivera had refused to remove Lenin’s image from the painting. Another is the story of Lady Churchill’s destruction of an unflattering portrait of her late husband, Sir Winston Churchill, which Parliament had commissioned and Britain’s most distinguished portraitist, Graham Sutherland, had painted. Art owners may wish to destroy their art for any number of reasons. The Rockefellers objected to the political message which they attached to the Rivera mural, while Lady Churchill simply thought the painting of Sir Winston downright ugly and unflattering. Are there good reasons to restrict the rights of owners such as these or others from destroying art which they own? 
Despite the similarities in the ethics of destruction between high-rise residential towers, rainforests and artworks, the latter are also special. One could argue that their value goes, in some way, beyond the purely utilitarian:
“There are two elements in an edifice, its utility and its beauty. Its utility belongs to its owner, its beauty to everyone. Thus to destroy it is to exceed the right of ownership.” Victor Hugo, quoted in .
Even the Abbey Road zebra crossing, made famous by the Beatles album cover, is a registered landmark in the UK. Clearly, the street crossing has no artistic value in itself, and its usefulness is exactly the same as that of any other zebra crossing. The only reason why this one should be protected where the others are not is its value as part of a cultural heritage. Penny Balkin Bach:
Public art is a part of our public history, part of our evolving culture and our collective memory. It reflects and reveals our society and adds meaning to our cities. As artists respond to our times, they reflect their inner vision to the outside world, and they create a chronicle of our public experience.
And this is not only true of “public” art. Even privately owned art is part of our collective memory and our self-understanding as historical beings that are embedded in a particular culture. This is easiest to see in how the movies, the music and the books we watched, listened and read as young people keep defining our tastes and our cultural identities many decades later. People will bond with others of their generation over their shared appreciation of, say, Pink Floyd music, Douglas Adams books or Stanley Kubrick films. Different kinds of artworks, some more and some less visibly, all have the same effect. We see and identify ourselves as those who have seen Guernica and Dali’s Crucifixion. Even if we don’t always consciously think of these pictures, they are there in our minds, together perhaps with a vision of serene Greek temples under a blue sky, the dusty grandeur of the Pyramids in Egypt and the staccato of Glenn Gould’s Bach. Everyone will, of course, have their own archetypal art in mind, but this doesn’t change the fact that, whatever art we think of in particular, art is an important part of a culture’s self-image. And as such, it influences not only our private thoughts, but also our political sensibilities, our relation to love and death, our views on freedom, on human dignity, and on a thousand other issues.
An initial, and very important, point to make in approaching these questions is … that each of us owes an obligation to our communities to support the institutions, associations, and infrastructure that in turn support the special sort of culture in which we live, the type of culture within which each person is able to experience life-defining freedom and to create his or her own personal identity. This is part of the obligation to support the social networks and structures that enable us to develop those human capabilities that make human flourishing possible. Some practical applications of this obligation are easy to identify. They are obligations that we usually associate with citizenship; for example, payment of taxes used to build roads, bridges, airports, and other common aspects of public infrastructure. 
And, one could argue, the preservation of culture-defining art is part of these obligations, just as paying one’s taxes is.
A flourishing or capabilities approach (see here for Nussbaum’s version) has the advantage that it can explain why we need to preserve only some artworks and not others. Our culture and its people do not depend for their flourishing on the drawing of my child or the stick-figures drawn on a blackboard by a teacher. But certainly a work by Picasso is something that will be a part of the public consciousness, that will cause many to identify with it, or to criticise it, but, in any case, to base a part of their self-understanding and of their cultural identity on that artwork.
A flourishing or capabilities approach has the advantage that it can explain why we need to preserve only some artworks and not others.
This approach also makes plausible why we should have duties towards artworks that are ancient, not very good, or whose creators are unknown. For example, hand-prints on the walls of stone-age caves are not particularly artsy or accomplished. We don’t know who made them, and we certainly don’t have any obligations to the artist to preserve them. But collectively, as humans, we draw a big part of our self-understanding from our early history: the departure of hominids from the great apes, the early history of human migration, the complex interactions between homo sapiens and the Neanderthals and so on. The rooted-ness in these historical processes provides an ever-present backdrop that defines us as what we are and that allows us to appreciate the typically human conditions for flourishing. When the Oetzi man was discovered in 1991, we were intrigued and amazed not by the cold facts of the find (sorry for the pun), but by the smallest details that made the dead man seem human and relatable: what he had last had for lunch, how worn-out his shoes were and that he had been sick three times in the months before he died.
Whose artworks are we allowed to destroy?
Now, even acknowledging the value of art, and even if we agree that culture-defining artworks should be protected, we are still not able to clearly decide in every case: yes, the Picasso might be valuable enough, but is a Hitler really something that we need to preserve? Are artworks of a bad artist (in every sense of “bad”) fair game for a TV show to destroy?
And we cannot only look at the person of the artist in such cases. Hitler did have a defining influence on the world after the 1930s, but it was not due to his art. It was also not due to his cooking skills. Let’s assume that, by a quirk of nature, we found in the depths of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin his perfectly-preserved last meal, cooked by himself, and left to rot because he took his life before consuming it. Would there be any value, or any particular public interest, in preserving that dish? If someone decided to just throw it into the bin, would they be committing a crime against culture?
Hitler did have a defining influence on the world after the 1930s, but it was not due to his art.
There is a possible asymmetry here that might be interesting. What about the non-essential artefacts of someone whom we actually like? Einstein’s postcards and letters are widely revered and preserved by the recipients, their descendants and museums world-wide, although they have as much to do with relativity theory as Hitler’s paintings have to do with the Second World War. Preserving the mundane, everyday items surrounding a beloved person or a cultural icon makes it easier for us to remember them and to feel close to them and their ideas. But, of course, few of us would like to feel close to Hitler and his world, and consequently we don’t feel any compulsion to preserve the artefacts of his life.
This is then okay, and it is to be distinguished from the historical value of these artefacts. It is for emotional and personal reasons that we keep Einstein’s postcards, not because they are part of a physics revolution. And it is for a similar emotional disinterest that we are allowed to trash a Hitler painting that has nothing to do with the man’s political legacy. Neither artefact is part of our collective self-image, or a necessary condition for our flourishing as a culture. But Einstein’s physics notebooks and Hitler’s manuscript of “Mein Kampf” would be, for instance.
One might want to clarify things a little more at this point: if Hitler’s art had any plausible connection to his later politics, then it might become part of the narrative that we should preserve. If, for instance, his art gave us insights into the way he saw people of other ethnic groups, or if his art explained his emotional development or his stance towards the world, and enabled us to appreciate the intellectual and emotional development of the man in a way that would explain his later actions – then, yes, that art might have a claim to be preserved as part of our cultural heritage.
If we agree with this, then we should probably also support the preservation of artworks that are rejected for political reasons at some point in time; say, public statues of slaveholders, art glorifying imperialism, old books using vocabulary that is today considered problematic, and Lenin statues in the cities of the ex-Soviet bloc.
Although we may not agree with the sentiments that drove the artists and societies of those times to create and display these artworks, they are indisputably part of particular societies’ histories. It seems wrong not wanting to admit that slavery, imperialism and exploitation paid for many of the grand historical buildings all around London. It seems strange to censor the use of particular words in Mark Twain’s novels, in an attempt to bury the inconvenient facts of American history. It seems wrong to topple Lenin statues in an attempt to deny a country’s communist past.
It seems wrong to topple Lenin statues in an attempt to deny a country’s communist past.
After all, one might argue, the splendid marbles of the Parthenon are no less steeped in colonial blood than any Lenin or Colston statue. The Pyramids were built upon the bones of thousands of innocents who died to erect them. And much of the art we go to see in the Vatican was only made possible by the ruthless, inhuman politics of an institution that burned its enemies alive, organised the Crusades, and suppressed education, free speech and cultural diversity in much of the world for over a thousand years.
If we really wanted to get rid of politically incorrect art, we would be left with almost no historical art. If we wanted to deny our own indebtedness to imperialism, violence and slavery, we would be left without a history at all.
Today, we are confronted with the need to weigh free speech against other values like inclusivity, respect and tolerance. We look at the arguments of philosopher Ronald Dworkin in defence of free speech.
Does the show make light of the Holocaust?
Another interesting question here is whether we are allowed to use Hitler’s art in an entertainment show. Would such a show make light of the Holocaust?
To be honest, it does not seem like Hitler’s paintings have much to do with the Holocaust. They look more like bad attempts to follow a Bob Ross painting session:
You can google “Hitler paintings” and will find a handful of them. They are attempts to paint landscapes, but they lack interest. The colours and the execution look amateurish, the composition is indifferent and one suspects that the painter must have been happy to give up this fruitless pursuit for a career in a different area. But, boring as these pictures are, I don’t see any “Holocaust” in them. They are not violent. They do not glorify violence or racial segregation. They do not hint at expansionist wars, at suffering, at concentration camps, at the destruction of Europe by a madman. They are just and simply bad art. I cannot see that displaying them would have any effect on humanity that is different from that caused by hanging IKEA art over one’s sofa. Making a fuss about them as glorifying or making light of the Holocaust seems to be excessive and not rationally justifiable.
Are we allowed to do X for entertainment?
Another interesting question is whether we are allowed to show Hitler’s works for entertainment. Are we allowed to destroy his art for entertainment? Is there anything specific to the context of this TV show, to the fact that it is a TV show, that makes these actions particularly problematic?
More generally, when are we allowed to perform any action X for entertainment purposes? Are the conditions for this different from those we’d have to obey when we perform X in private, or for other, more serious reasons?
One way to argue would be to deny that entertainment is special. If we are allowed to do X at all, then yes, we should also be allowed to do X for entertainment.
But this is clearly not true. A doctor may be allowed to operate on a patient, but to do it on TV, purely for entertainment purposes, seems wrong. Punishing criminals by imprisoning them might be morally acceptable, but surely it would be wrong to stick cameras all over the prison and make an entertainment show of it. Even taking a private, intercontinental flight might be morally permissible if there is a good reason to do it; but taking such a flight only for entertainment reasons (for example, a circular Covid flight going nowhere) seems hard to justify.
Why is this? In all these cases, the action causes some kind of harm. An operation harms the patient if it is unnecessary, or it violates the patient’s privacy and dignity if it is publicly performed, even if it is medically necessary. Observing the prisoners would likewise violate their privacy; and circling planes emit all sorts of harmful exhaust gases. We are allowed to do all these things, but only if the expected benefits from these actions justify the harm. We can watch prisoners on camera to the extent necessary to guarantee the prison’s security. We can use planes if there is a good enough reason. We can cut people open to save their lives. But entertainment seems, in all these cases, to not be sufficiently beneficial to justify the harm done.
Another approach to the question would be that of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics says that what we should aim for in an action is to display the right virtues for the occasion: every one of our actions should be the expression of a good character, should provide benefit to ourselves and to others, and should be motivated by our desire to be better human beings and to improve the conditions of human flourishing for ourselves and others.
Seen in this light, destroying art for fun, whether it’s Hitler’s, Picasso’s or my daughter’s, would be equally despicable. It could be seen as the expression of a warped mind, an act that shows a lack of cultivation, an insensitivity to cultural expression, a dissociation from our societies’ history and values, a display of wanton destructiveness and a violently negative, uncaring attitude to life. Destroying art, just like enjoying the spectacle of a Roman gladiator fight, could be seen as incompatible with developing one’s character and promoting human excellence, one might argue.
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Is the TV show “the same as book burning”?
Finally, we can ask if the claim that this TV show is “equivalent to book burning” has any merit. Book burning, as practised by, for example, the German Nazi state, had multiple aspects and intended goals: It was meant to intimidate the enemies of the state, to strengthen the bonds between the system’s followers, to stifle freedom of expression and to deprive the reading public from access to particular works.
One could argue that this TV show would achieve similar results. It will not intimidate artists to the same extent, since it is not an expression of state power; but it might influence art funding institutions and city councils, who might take the choices made in the show as an expression of the public’s approval of particular kinds and styles of art. This would be particularly problematic if the show used not only historical, but also contemporary artworks. It is not difficult to see that an artist whose works have been ritually destroyed in a TV show watched by millions is not going to become a poster child for art funding.
Certainly the show is going to achieve the goal of strengthening the confidence of art haters among the TV-viewing public. Being part of a destructive mob is one of the avenues to “escape our freedom” that philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm identified in his work, and that we can see daily in religious riots, football hooligans and Nazi marches all over the world. Facilitating the formation of such destructive mobs is never a particularly good idea in a civilised society.
Finally, depriving the public from access to the work is arguably the most practical and immediate effect of book burning. It is also the main outcome of art destruction on TV. The show did not specify whether they will be destroying originals or copies, but I assume that part of the thrill of the show will be the fact that they will be destroying original art works. Although all these should, by now, exist in good digital copies, there is still an issue with depriving all future generations from access to these works. We have seen in the past how new methods of studying artworks, for example with X-rays, radioisotope dating methods and tomography, have consistently revealed new insights into the process of artists and the history of particular artworks. These studies can only be performed on originals, not on copies or reproductions; and so future generations will be forever unable to gain new insights into the history of the artworks that this show will destroy.
I was initially sceptical of the claim that destroying artworks in a TV show should be relevantly similar to book burning, but, having come to the end of this comparison, I must say that the critics do have a point.
All in all, it seems to me personally that the virtue arguments are the strongest in this case, perhaps followed by the human flourishing considerations. What is also concerning is that the destruction of art on this TV show is not, in principle, something unique to this show. It is part of a long and sorry tradition that extends from the Nazi book burnings to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and that is based on the same disregard for human life and welfare that drives Monsanto’s profiteering, football hooliganism and pointless circular flights as entertainment.
Erich Fromm claims that freedom itself can sometimes be the cause of fear and anxiety, forcing us to find ways to “escape from freedom.” Authoritarianism, destructiveness and automaton conformity are three ways how we try to cope with the freedom we fear.
 Alexander, G. S. (2017). Of Buildings, Statues, Art, and Sperm: The Right to Destroy and the Duty to Preserve. Cornell JL & Public Policy, 27, 619.
 Sax, J. L. (2001). Playing darts with a Rembrandt: Public and private rights in cultural treasures. University of Michigan Press.
 Penny Balkin Bach. What Is Public Art? Association for Public Art website. Online here