New Ideas in Art: Destruction

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the final installment of our series, New Ideas in Art. If you missed it, check out Time as an Element, Perspective, and Text as an Element

This Week’s Theme: Destruction

I recently visited the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. to view the exhibit, Damage Control: Art and Destruction. The museum’s description states, “Although destruction has been interwoven throughout the history of art, in the decades since World War ll, the concept has become an important element of artistic expression. Damage Control was curated to present an overview of artwork created in this motif since 1950.”

Here are three examples from the exhibit.

Ai Weiwei – Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn

Ai Weiwei

The work on display was a photographic triptych. In the first image, Ai Weiwei holds, at chin height, an urn from the Han Dynasty. In the second photo Ai has released the urn which is suspended in time about a foot off the ground. In the third and final image, the urn has hit the ground and is shattered into pieces. The three images lead the viewer to question the meaning behind the destruction of a 2,000 year old artifact and the act’s relationship to culture, traditions, value and even politics.

John Baldessari – The Cremation Project


As a young artist, John Anthony Baldessari was an abstract painter. As he grew and developed as an artist, he was no longer satisfied with his earlier work. In 1970 he gathered the works of art that he had created between 1953 and 1966 and drove to a crematorium where he burned all of them. He used the ashes to create a new worked titled The Cremation Project. Baldessari took the ashes from these paintings and baked them into cookies. The cookies were placed in an urn and a bronze plaque was created to commemorate the death of his early work. This piece is made complete with the addition of the recipe for making the cookies.

Pipilotti Rist – Ever Is Over




By far my favorite work in the exhibit was a video created by Pipilotti Rist titled Ever Is Over. The video piece was created by simultaneously projecting two separate videos onto two different walls with a blurred video overlapping in the middle. The video on the right simply displayed tropical flowers in a field. The main story was displayed by the video projected to the left. In it, a young woman, filmed in slow motion strolls down a car-lined city street. Her summer dress sways as she promenades down the block carrying a long-stemmed tropical flower. Cheerfully, the girl swings the long stem flower hitting a car window which, to the viewer’s surprise, is instantly smashed to pieces. The video is both whimsical and charming, while at the same time violent and tense.

Working With Students

As art teachers, we tend to use nouns like buildings or animals when giving our students themes to work with. However, with a theme like “destruction” we want to stress questions that students can answer instead of subjects to draw. The idea is to get the students thinking deeper about the concept of destruction, as opposed to having them simply drawing something that is broken. Although I haven’t used the theme of destruction in my art room yet, I might ask:  How are things destroyed? What are methods of destruction? What are reasons that things are destroyed? Have you ever had something destroyed that you wish hadn’t been? Did you ever destroy something on purpose?

Let’s generate a list of possible project ideas below. What are some ways students might answer the questions above? 

What other questions might you ask to get students thinking about the theme of destruction? 

Can you think of any other artists that might also fit this theme? 


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Ian Sands


This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.


  • Mallory

    I just had a PD day at our local art center, and the Cleveland Museum of Art came to us with their Art on the Go program (not on topic, but this is an amazing resource if you live around Cleveland….they brought 500 year old Austrian armor to US! To hold and inspect! SO COOL.) But, they also gave us a quick history about the museum itself, and the topic of destruction did come up. During the Vietnam war, protestors blew up their sculpture of The Thinker that sits outside of the museum entrance. They looked at their options, but decided to instead of repair it, to keep it as is. Pretty powerful stuff.

  • What a great topic for kids to ponder. I love your ideas! Keep them coming!

  • Kristina

    In college we had a project along that incorporated the element of destruction. We had to create to related pieces, one we would keep and one that would be destroyed. If I remember correctly, we had to also come up with a method of destruction for the second object.

    • iansands

      Your comment reminds me of another artist whose work I saw recently. This artist broke their art and after it was destroyed, used the randomness of the broken pieces to reconstruct a new work of art.

  • Shayne

    Another part of the discussion: The vandal who smashed Weiwei’s urn – Why is smashing art only acceptable if an acclaimed global artist does it?

    • iansands

      Great point and wonderful discussion topic, especially for high school level students who usually have strong opinions on right and wrong.

  • John Post

    Destruction in art isn’t a new idea – it’s Dadaism recycled – and it’s not that interesting. No one talks about the formal qualities of these artworks, the discussion centers on the performance. It always cracks me up when some museum cleaning woman sweeps up one of these art works and throws it out with the garbage. That speaks volumes about the disconnect between these art works and the real world. The art world at the top is rather narcissistic with the “big name” artists apparently feeling the need to rehash the middle of the 20th century discussion about what is and what is not art. All the while there are countless artists across the country actually mastering their chosen crafts and developing skills that are worthy of a lifetime’s worth of study. Al Wei Wei’s work is a ploy for attention in a world that has an attention span of 30 seconds. Post-modernism has cast it’s shadow long enough – it’s time to start noticing that emperor has no clothes.

  • This makes an excellent Sketchbook topic as well – my students loved to create a page in their books using this topic.

  • Ai Weiwei is one of my favorite artists! Thanks for including him. His work is such a good example of social justice and communicating a deeper message or idea. He has a piece at the Des Moines Art Center that blows my mind every time I see it. Each seed is a hand-painted piece of ceramic.

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  • Colette Bachand

    A great and inspirational video that really exemplifies this topic. Pinatas are a great project that screams destruction.

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