In the Age of Artpocalypse: Beauty and Damage on TV

Whether destroying the Mona Lisa or whole museums, why does contemporary film and TV want us to watch the art world burn?

It’s not as though it’s necessary for the resolution of the plot of Glass Onion that the Mona Lisa should go up in flames at the close of that highly mannered and carefully designed bagatelle. Similarly, there is no reason that the protagonists escaping a postapocalyptic city near the beginning of The Last of Us should need to make their getaway through a zombie-haunted museum, a course of action leading to further damage inside that already derelict structure. The prevalence of unnecessary and yet elaborate moments of this kind really stands out when one starts looking for them. For example, what possible plot or thematic concern leads to that extended scene of frenzied action early in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse during which an Italian-speaking villain from another dimension (evidently modeled on the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci) devastates the Guggenheim Museum and reduces many of its important holdings to so much debris?

It is notable that the violent, even euphoric, destruction of valued cultural artifacts has become a recurrent feature in recent movies. But what is more remarkable is that there is so little effort to design a sensible reason for the damage or for the giddy euphoria or emotional relief that often accompanies the injury.

It has struck me lately that the recurrent frenzy of destruction of prized objects in popular culture may tell us less about our current relationship to the past than it does about our fears for the future. After all, each effort a culture makes to preserve an object of admiration involves a wager about how later generations will need access to material that is already in some measure outmoded. If every museum may be understood to indicate something about what a culture anticipates or hopes will happen in the years ahead, to depend on a secular prophesy of value, the loss of protection, the acceptance of injury, even the cheerful anticipation of acts of violence may in turn need to be understood to be forceful indications of fundamental changes in values.

And, indeed, the relationship between admired objects, values, and destruction is written into what may well be the earliest literary account of the demolition of an admired object, and what is certainly the most influential. Here is Daniel reciting the events of a king’s dream to a worried monarch:

You were looking, O king, and lo! there was a great statue. This statue was huge, its brilliance extraordinary; it was standing before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked on, a stone was cut out, not by human hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, were all broken in pieces and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.1

What a dream! Its splendid emblematic excess is matched only by Daniel’s confident interpretation, a self-assurance that begins with the odd fact that he is able to narrate the king’s own dream to him. “This was the dream,” says the prophet, “now we will tell the king its interpretation.” The passage is the source not only of that well-known vision of tyrannical overreach, Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” but of that idiom we sometimes use to warn one another that people we admire have “feet of clay.” Below their apparent brilliance and strength, we fear that our idols are made of a substance liable to shatter when struck. As the claim of vulnerability puts into question the virtues we project onto things and people, the turn of phrase has naturally become a claim about our own judgments more than about the inherent properties of things. Indeed, the idiom is broad in its reach, making us doubt our idols, ourselves for admiring them, and the values by which we come to admire them.

Daniel’s dream has been on my mind because I’ve been thinking about the unmotivated visions of the destruction of antiquities or treasured works of art and culture that have been so prevalent on our screens of late. A counterinstance from an earlier movie may be helpful, say that iconic scene at the end of Planet of the Apes when the space traveler, played with arrogant self-confidence by Charlton Heston, comes to the horrible realization that he has been on earth all along. The unmistakable evidence for this shocking insight is the damaged yet clearly recognizable top part of the Statue of Liberty, still carrying its torch and book, but lying on a beach that looks like nothing one would associate with New York Harbor. The designers of Planet of the Apes evidently intended to capture the viewer’s attention with the sight of a storied monument brought low, transfigured into a ruined antiquity. Like in the dream Daniel interprets, the seemingly secure statue’s actual vulnerability is what matters.

In its time, the scene was immediately legible as an evocation of the aftermath of nuclear war, hence the unhesitating recognition in Heston’s response: “My God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time … we finally, really did it! You maniacs! You blew it up. Oh, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

That is the end of the film because it’s the point of the film.

But whether biblical, satirical, or politically moralizing, the instances I have mentioned differ from more recent scenes of cinematic injury to antiquities. I was up late watching The Last of Us the other day, that ambitious new series set during a zombie apocalypse caused by the emergence of a parasitic fungus, and I found myself inevitably interested in an episode that revolves around an elaborate struggle staged at a museum. The battle against the “clickers,” a particularly distressing species of grotesque zombies, entails a great deal of violence and fear among once-prized old things in vitrines, and the whole sequence culminates in an extraordinarily destructive act of self-sacrifice. The building destroyed at that moment is the Capitol, a structure marked as another museal ruin. It has struck me that the feelings represented and set in motion by such an urgent sequence of events are of an entirely different order from the always retrospective ironies of “Ozymandias” or Planet of the Apes, but also from the interpretative clarity of Daniel, that analyst who is able to recount the dream of another so lucidly.

Still from The Last of Us via Netflix.

Recognizing the value of decay made the Austrian art historian Aloïs Riegl the major theorist on the modern passion for ruins. What Riegl calls “age value” is among the most interesting analytics proposed in his fascinating morphology of reasons we find broken old things moving. The signs of the passage of time, he explains in his seminal 1903 essay, “The Modern Cult of Monuments,” are what move the viewer to a sublime experience of a nature in which one, as a living being, always participates, though in ways that are generally too difficult to fully recognize or to be reconciled with as a thinking subject. It is the impossible experience of the time the ruin has lived through, the evidence of which its injuries make visible, that moves the viewer, that teases us out of thought—as John Keats puts it, thinking of the Elgin Marbles—like eternity. What would a thought that included all the time through which the Marbles have existed (and to which their injured state bears witness) feel like? Would it be a thought at all, or more of a feeling of ineffable pain or wonder?

Riegl distinguishes the category of “age value” from what he calls “historic value,” which is the interest an object holds simply because it gives us material access to a past to which we are linked by the processes of cultural development but do not otherwise know. A key difference between the relationship of individuals to the objects that provoke each kind of value is Riegl’s shocking proposition that, while objects that manifest historic value need to be preserved, when it comes to age value, decay needs to be embraced to the point that repair itself would be a failure of care. Ultimately the viewer has to feel that the processes of time are still at work on the object for their value to be truly manifest.

At every turn, through its representation of everything from old cans of soup to still-operative cassette tapes, the carefully textured world of The Last of Us is designed to occupy a space between the experience of historic value and age value. And yet, if all things since the zombie apocalypse are entering the condition of irrecoverable loss necessary for age value to emerge—as no new cans of Chef Boyardee are being produced, no new songs are being recorded—so all we can witness is the further loss of already decayed elements from a now vanished source, the question becomes all the more interesting: Whence the need to set a scene in a museum in this world museum? What is the relationship between preservation and destruction?

The deeply imagined vision of the world The Last of Us offers the viewer has itself an odd cross-medial quality. The show surpasses and yet somehow keeps evoking the uniquely powerful realism of the game on which it is based, which contributes to advancing the age-value/historic-value dialectic that its moments of violence highlight and make us forget. We don’t spend much time fretting about the fact that things will outlast us when we are in danger or people we love are. Indeed, the damage to things is welcome when it is a means for our protagonists to save themselves or others.

I have found myself wondering if the violence set in a museum brings to the surface a kind of rivalry between the world creation of the show and of the institution. As the world itself becomes a museum, is the museum’s value attenuated by being everywhere, so that the actual institution becomes redundant, in need of demolition? Or, is what is being put into question the sense that the museum can domesticate age value into historic value? It may be that we go to the institution to manage the sublime terror of the passage of time itself, which would lead to one more question: Is it the inadequacy of the institution to manage that function today that leads to the pleasure in seeing the attempt to carry it out frustrated?

I think I am proposing that these little festivals of violence that we are so into lately may amount to so many flamboyant confessions of the expectation of disappointment. The terrible DC film Black Adam, for example, seems to have been created as a vehicle for the frenzied destruction of massive statues, like a particularly simpleminded backstory for “Ozymandias.” Given how unbearable Black Adam was to watch, I did not focus on its plot, but the film struck me as essentially designed to showcase the demolition of colossal monuments in a vaguely Middle Eastern culture (call it an “antique land”) in the process of a superhero origin story built on a small but important reversal: the hero was not good but angry, not motivated by altruism but by rage. In orthodox fashion, the protagonist’s metaphoric clay feet are revealed by the physical destruction of notably vulnerable idols.

When people insist on something beyond what we find necessary, it feels like we are hearing words they need to say rather than an attempt at communication. At each heroic punch in Black Adam the viewer is seeing the literalization of an idiom, feet of clay: idols have feet of clay or, the role of heroes is to destroy false idols, because: feet of clay!

A more remarkable, because far stranger, instance of the drive to destroy works of culture on television is the bizarre art apocalypse at the end of Glass Onion, which not only features the immolation of the Mona Lisa, as I have already mentioned, but also a euphoric smashing up of a collection of what appears to be copies of largely modernist or contemporary art (is that Jeff Koons’s balloon puppy?) made out of glass. The vulnerability of these objects has evidently been part of the point of this flamboyantly pointless jeu d’esprit, hence their crystal nature, their liability to smash up, hence also the elaborate but fruitless measures to protect da Vinci’s masterpiece behind yet more glass (in this case, bulletproof—as though someone was likely to take a gun to The Gioconda!). The collection itself plays no role in the plot of the film, being apparently another moment of generic self-awareness, making the island on which the action takes place evoke the sumptuous, ostentatiously classy lairs of villains from prior film eras.


You Are Never Alone at the Museum

By Claudio E. Benzecry

“The dream is certain, and its interpretation trustworthy,” says Daniel. But I can’t be so sanguine about the waking dreams of destruction that haunt the insomniac watcher of streaming television. Does the need to represent idols being destroyed mean we value the things they stand for too little or too much? Should we understand them as a modern return of the vision of Daniel, in which what is admired and apparently permanent is brought low, but without the imagination of a compensatory new dispensation? Feet of clay are crushed, but the stone that destroys them evidently does not feel like a part of a mountain that will stand forever.

In novels and films of an earlier era, the museum—as a location combining the reserved glamour of the precious and protected and the promiscuity of the public—might feature as an evocative site for a romantic rendezvous, or as the location for a daring theft of a treasured object. More recently, as in The Da Vinci Code, it might be the location for hiding and discovering complex messages of a divine import available for the expert interpretative attentions of the “symbologist.” While I do think all the destruction at the museum has to be understood as symptomatic of the emergence of some new relationship to treasured objects from the past, the nature of that relationship is not especially clear yet. We might see in the phenomenon a traumatized cultural response to the refusal of a shared history entailed in the destruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra by ISIS, or of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan by the Taliban, or to the refusal of a shared future that found material form in the moving wreckage of the World Trade Center. Such an interpretation may rush too quickly, however, to put the viewer and the filmmaker on the other side of the violent actors in those cases. What troubles the imagination is the thought that it is not only religious iconoclasts who do not want to admire the past they have been left with.

It is not the material out of which idols are constructed that makes them solid enough to outlast the values that shape them. A broad cultural consensus is what rescues objects from the past, what offers the most long-lasting protection. The king’s dream in Daniel is about faith, of course. It is faith that is permanent, not the objects that the instinct to believe latches on to. The point of the dream is that the moment in which permanence and merit meet lies in our future, not in the present of the idol. The dream, in that sense, is a record of progress written with broken things.

Although museums house the past, they depend upon a vision of the future to give them their meaning. Preservation and protection are markers of current value and future hope. In a modern condition more assured of destruction than during an epoch when all we had to fear were the irrational decisions of leaders who might press the buttons leading to nuclear annihilation, when our global commitment to the path of climate catastrophe has made the future bleak, when the widespread embrace of atavistic forms of nationalist populism often robed in religion has made the future seem neither shareable nor liable to be made up of rational beings contemplating with benign curiosity the historic value of objects in the museum, our doubts about a shared future are bound to make it difficult to fully credit those operating myths of the museum: a common past, a shared future.

Does the need to represent idols being destroyed mean we value the things they stand for too little or too much?


The Duke is a quieter, gentler film than all the ones I have mentioned so far. And, fanciful as it is, it is based on the true story of the theft of a Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London in the 1960s, which places this movie in a register of realistic representation quite different from the flamboyant genre play of the other works I have discussed. It is not the mysteriously smiling Mona Lisa that is stolen in this case but a stiff and worried Duke of Wellington embarrassingly radiating a vague ceremonial pomp into a gritty postwar England in his medal-ridden red uniform jacket. The duke’s hard-won military triumphs, and even the specific policies the noted reactionary supported, are of no interest to the film. Goya’s achievement as a painter, or his ability to capture the reserved British leader who liberated his nation from the French but also installed a despotic new king in the place of Napoléon’s brother, have no role in the movie. Art does not matter to the film any more than the more distant history of England or of Europe does. For the main characters in the movie, as for the movie itself, the canvas is just an expensive picture of a rich toff hanging in a rich person’s institution.

In short, the object itself does not matter to the film. For it to matter would be for the film to think of the work of art as having a value for either the society in which it is set or for the movie’s protagonist and moral center, Kempton Bunton, a working-class dreamer with aspirations both political and artistic. The question of responsibility for the theft is a little complicated and involves a twist I can spare my reader. Still, it bears pointing out that one reason the police are befuddled in their search for the object is their certainty that the crime could only be the work of expert criminals. That class-based idea was given a fictional endorsement when, a year after the actual theft, the painting features prominently in the collection of the connoisseur-criminal Dr. No, where it is spotted by James Bond.

The missing painting was, in fact, not on display in a supervillain’s island lair. It was hidden behind a cupboard in a home in a poor neighborhood in Newcastle. Kempton Bunton’s goal was not art appreciation but to hold the work ransom in order to get the government to provide as much money as it had spent on the work on the acquisition of television licenses for retired people who did not have the money to afford them. His utopian view of the egalitarian possibilities of the medium is a matter of principle for Bunton, who early in the film has a confrontation with the authorities sent to claim his payment of the license fee. Needless to say, the viewer in a later era has reason to recognize these particular hopes as highly ironized by circumstances. Ultimately, no ransom is paid, and the jury and the viewer find no crime was committed.

The Duke is both sentimental and gritty in its evocation of a time when Britain was in that postwar funk from which it can seem in retrospect it only ever recovered in illusory fits and snatches. Still, even in the class antagonisms underpinning Bunton’s positions, it is possible to find more hope than it is easy to make out in our current situation, when antagonists are much harder to identify. And of course it would be reasonable to propose both that Kempton won and lost the day. The government in Britain provides concessions for elderly owners of televisions who need them, but as we sit at home at all ages and watch collections destroyed on television, no government collects the fees we pay for our viewing. icon

  1. Daniel 2:31-35
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. Featured image: Still from Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.