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A $20,000 artwork accidentally destroyed by a critic? That's nothing! | Art and design

Art critics, by our very nature, are prone to taking violently against inanimate objects. Yet we are also given exclusive access to precious masterpieces, with minimal supervision. Now the inevitable has happened. Art critic Avelina Lésper has destroyed a $20,000 piece by Gabriel Rico at an art fair in Mexico City. She says the obliteration was accidental – but also confesses that she disliked the work, a sheet of glass with a variety of everyday objects inside it. When she put an empty drink can near it to take a photograph as a critical comment, the whole thing shattered. Lésper is claiming the accident as spooky critical action: “It was like the work heard my comment and felt what I thought of it.”

I have never destroyed art on this scale, although I have no idea where my Gary Hume drawing got to and I let my stick of Tracey Emin rock crumble into dust. But this incident sounds to me more like a professional nightmare come true. Theatre critics don’t sit on the stage and film critics don’t do their reviewing on set. Yet I am regularly allowed into exhibitions before they are open. Quite often there’s still work being done. Cables, ladders and buckets of water may lie around. The opportunities for slapstick are immense. And I’m quite clumsy. I once knocked an exquisite artefact off the director of the Louvre’s desk while interviewing him. He saved it. The experience haunts me whenever I am alone with expensive art. I imagine myself crashing into a Damien Hirst painting and trying, Mr Bean style, to stick the butterfly wings back on before anyone notices. Worse. What if an inexplicable impulse made me pull off those wings on purpose? Not that I would, would I?

Beyond being accident-prone, art critics can get very angry at art. That’s the job. I have in the past stated in print that if I had a hammer I would smash Grayson Perry’s pots. Did I mean it? No, I don’t think so. But I felt at the time that criticism should be capable of emotional extremes. It should be a matter of love and hate. If some art is not worth destroying, how can any art be truly treasured? Criticism means caring so much about art that you can also detest it. I learned this from the Victorian art critic John Ruskin. In his book Modern Painters, he argues that a wealthy man could do a service to art by collecting all the minor Dutch painters of the 17th century, putting them in a gallery – and burning it to the ground.

Gabriel Rico’s piece on display before it was smashed.

Gabriel Rico’s piece on display before it was smashed. Photograph: Twitter/@paveleguez

Ruskin was the greatest art critic there has ever been and his readiness to use such violent imagery shouldn’t be dismissed as facetious or inappropriate. He was making an important point. If art matters, if it has any true value, then it is also worth destroying bad art. Or being prepared to imagine that desperate measure.

Except that no one has the right to make the call. I may be wrong about Perry and his many fans could be right – just possibly. Ruskin did in fact destroy art. As JMW Turner’s executor he burned some of his hero’s erotic drawings. Nowadays we mourn their loss – though it’s thought he destroyed far fewer than he claimed.

Is Lésper a critical hero or just a critical klutz? I don’t respect what she has done as criticism. Where is the eloquence? She placed her empty soda can beside an assemblage of readymades to take a sarcastic photograph. Her point apparently being that if the stones, footballs and other objects in Rico’s piece are “art”, so is her can. That’s not an argument. It’s inane philistine prejudice.

Anger should be kept on the page. Criticism is a rhetorical art. Artists and the art world love it because it puts art into words, and into debate. In this flow of language, violent impulses have their place. But in reality, the destruction of art is abhorrent. Ruskin was a critic when he wrote about destroying art, a vandal when he really did so. I hope no one will ban me from private views after reading this because in reality I would never damage art – and I hope I would even take risks to protect it. Caring about art means getting emotional. But there is no critical value to Lésper’s flippant populist joke or its shattering result.

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