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Should it ever be okay to destroy a work of art?

Over the course of several weeks in 2001, the Taliban used repeated dynamite explosions to destroy the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan - large scale sculptures carved into cliff rock in central Afghanistan. In 2009, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei exhibited a series of three black and white photographs in which he’s shown dropping and shattering an ancient Chinese vase. The first incident has been condemned as an act of iconoclasm (literally “image breaking”) by a terrorist group, the other as a provocative example of contemporary art. Why is it that one of these acts of destruction has been deemed acceptable, while the other is criticized? Are there different kinds of destruction when it comes to art?


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Additional resources to think about

Icons and Iconoclasm in Byzantium
Visit The Met and learn about the long history of destroying art, or "iconoclasm," which dates back thousands of years.

Make It, then Break It. | Carolina Borja and Amy Toscani
This episode of The Art Assignment takes us to Minneapolis's ArtPrize to see how two artists invited the audience to destroy their artwork. Follow the instructions to make (and break) your own artwork.

Author Alice Walker Decries the Efforts to Censor San Francisco’s George Washington Murals as ‘Ignorant and Backwards’
Read about a debate over a controversial mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco, CA.

An Art Critic Was Mocking A $20,000 Work She Didn't Like — Then It Shattered
What is the response when a museum visitor seemingly accidentally destroys a work of art on display?

What Makes Someone Attack a Work of Art? Here Are 9 of the Most Audacious Acts of Art Vandalism—and What Inspired Them
Explore a list of some of the most famous instances of vandalism against art.


Who created this message?

  • What kind of “text” is it?
  • How similar or different is it to others of the same genre?
  • What are the various elements (building blocks) that make up the whole?


What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?

  • What do you notice (about the way the message is constructed)? 
  • What’s the emotional appeal?
  • What makes it seem “real?”
  • What's the emotional appeal? Persuasive devices used?

How might different people understand this message differently from me?

  • How many other interpretations could there be?
  • How could we hear about them?
  • How can you explain the different responses?

What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?

  • What type of person is the reader/watcher/listener invited to identify with?
  • What ideas or perspectives are left out?
  • How would you find what’s missing?
  • What judgments or statements are made about how we treat other people?


Why is this message being sent?

  • What's being sold in this message? What's being told? 
  • Who is served by or  benefits from the message
    – the public?
    – private interests?
    – individuals?
    – institutions?

5 Key Questions of Media Literacy used with permission from the Center for Media Literacy.
Copyright 2002-2021, Center for Media Literacy,


Should it ever be okay to destroy a work of art?

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