The other day, a friend tagged me in a link to a Hi-Fructose article about a mural by Norwegian artist Henrik Aa. Uldalen. She thought it would be of interest to me in light of my recent series on destruction in art. The mural was beautiful and the image of the wall being demolished was striking, but as I read the article, another issue struck me: wow, that machine sure is beating the shit out of that naked, unconscious woman’s body.
“I love the idea of art being fleeting like smoke or indeed life itself,” Uldalen says in the article. “I find the concept of destruction beautiful.” Of course, I also find the concept of destruction intriguing. I wouldn’t have dedicated several blog posts to it otherwise. But why is this sentiment frequently illustrated with images harm being inflicted on women? Perhaps more importantly, why is it still the go-to symbol for beauty in destruction?
It’s not just Uldalen. He’s merely the most recent in a centuries-old legacy of violence against women being depicted in art as a “beautiful tragedy” by male artists. From Banksy’s Butterfly Girl to depictions of the rapes of Proserpine or the Sabine women.
There aren’t many examples of women in art being in control of their image in regards to destructivity. One could possibly point to Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Susanna and the Elders, or Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece. But even then, these works are a response to the emotional and physical destruction of women, rather than a celebration of it. Even Ono’s Cut Piece, which very nearly spiraled into an exhibition of violence, was not an invitation to destruction or violence, regardless of what detractors may say.
Women already endure so much violence in the world–holding up violence against women as beautiful and symbolic is problematic at best, and destructively incitant at worst. Uldalen hauntingly posits, “One could say that destruction is as humanistic as it gets and the meaning of bestiality and humane ought to be swapped.” What is meant to be a cynical, edgy outlook on the nature of humanity comes off more as an indulgence in an ages old patriarchal system—hardly cutting edge. And while the world’s cycle of fabrication, conquest, and destruction continues, maybe, just this one time, we could leave a woman’s body out of it?