Destruction and Supression of Art from Antiquity to Today

  • Dr. Nausikaä El-Mecky (Heidelberg School of Education, PostDoc bis 08/2018)


It may seem as though art has lost its capacity to shock: In the West, artists would have to try very hard to break another taboo. From goldfish in blenders to migrants locked up in crates – everything imaginable and unimaginable seems to have been shown in a museum or a gallery before. The term “shock art” has become a tired definition, something that leads to eye-rolls rather than excitement. Nevertheless, the recent destruction of ancient works of art and monuments by ISIS in Palmyra and Mosul, preceded by the Taliban's infamous blowing up of the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan has once again drawn the world's attention to cultural objects that some consider too dangerous or controversial to endure. It is often difficult to imagine how works of art that appear harmless and inoffensive to a contemporary secular Western audience can be perceived as so corrupting and threatening that large groups of people feel compelled to vilify and destroy them: objects whose form or content generate such suspicion that they are branded an immediate menace to a society's national, cultural or religious order.

My research centres around the phenomenon of the destruction, suppression and censorship of art. I believe attacks on art imply that art has far greater powers than most people would grant it today – its strengths going beyond the “powerful image” that moves the viewers and gives them a profound emotional or aesthetic experience. Throughout history, some works of art have appeared to be so potent that people are willing to risk their lives protecting or destroying them. Although denunciations of the danger, corruptibility, dreadfulness, faddishness or even gratuitousness of images are as old as art itself, the actual instances in which a society has decided to systematically eradicate such images are a lot less frequent. Through a robust framework and judiciously selected case studies, I aim to demonstrate that there are general mechanisms at work when a society determines to attack its own art on a large and organised scale, from revolutionary Paris to Palmyra, and from Antiquity until today.

My research is both strongly tied to academic research and to education. Many people feel apathy when confronted with works in museums – how to deal with these mute canvases and objects? Through my research I aim to show that art is not just interesting for people interested in art, but instead is of relevance for any child or teenager interested in politics, religion or philosophy. The censorship and destruction of art also shows how powerful art can be. And I believe that talking about this power can make art relevant for educators and their target groups in a new way, beyond the teaching of styles, movements, techniques and historical facts. Therefore, I develop new teaching formats for professional educators as well as those studying to become teachers; write articles on new approaches to education and didactics as well as engage in cooperations with other art education professionals.


  • Junge Akademie


  • All those guilty marbles: Vandalisme Révolutionnaire and art policy during the French Revolution in: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, forthcoming Autumn 2018.
  • “I just want to create an explosion of people in Times Square” – Spencer Tunick’s Fight to Photograph Nudes in American Public Space in: Iperstoria, June 2018.  
  • A Very Nuanced Scandal: Gustav Klimt and the Mythologisation of the University Paintings Controversy in: Allover: Magazin für Kunst und Ästhetik, July 2018.