“I played the guitar for 10 years
before I realized it wasn’t a weapon.”
BY MIN CHEN
The hole-ness of it
Fittingly, the first and last Destruction in Art Symposium, held in London in 1966, was inaugurated by an act of demolition. On September 8, media and punters gathered in the basement of counterculture store Better Books for a press conference publicizing the symposium and a rough exhibition of its participating artists. Then arrived Canadian artist Robin Page, ready to perform his piece, KROW I. Outfitted in a silver helmet, suit, and rubber boots, he proceeded to dig, axe, and bore a hole in the bookstore’s concrete floor. “After half an hour, Page struck water,” according to a Daily Mirror report, before he “downed his shovel, sat in the hole, and drank a bottle of beer.”
Over the next three days, more artists would assemble at the Africa Centre, the war-battered environs of which would become the site of further excavations—not literal, but conceptual ones. In panels and talks, practitioners from Wolf Vostell and Otto Mühl to Yoko Ono and Susan Cahn dissected the history and function of destruction in art. “DIAS artists wielded destruction against destruction,” noted Kristine Stiles in her 2005 study of the symposium, “as a means to deconstruct cultural assumptions about artistic creation.”
The event was spearheaded by German artist and theorist Gustav Metzger, who’d penned some of the earliest treatises on auto-destructive art (John Latham’s Skoob series and Jean Tinguely’s Hommage à New York are also some pioneering exemplars of the practice). “Self-destructive painting, sculpture and construction,” he wrote in his 1959 manifesto, “is a total unity of idea, site, form, color, method, and timing of the disintegrative process.” Auto-destructive art, then, was less about final form than about process, during which matter and material would be disassembled in a reflection of real-world ruin. It was a political act that mourned the toll of capitalism and totalitarianism; it was a mirror held up to art and society. As Metzger said of Page’s work, “A hole is a hole.”
Performances were not permitted during the symposium itself (though Günter Brus did, at some point, execute a spontaneous action by crushing a blown-up paper bag down on a table with his head). Which meant that attendees received an artistic and academic reading on auto-destruction, not the actual practice. For that, they had to search elsewhere.
Or they could simply go see The Who.
The bits on the stage
Pete Townshend never planned to smash that first guitar. In the late summer of 1964, at one of The Who’s Tuesday night residencies at London’s Railway Tavern, he’d accidentally cracked the headstock of his Rickenbacker by driving it into the pub’s thin, low ceiling. He was embarrassed; girls in the audience tittered. Out of frustration or in retaliation, he wrecked the entire instrument. “I proceeded to make a big thing of breaking the guitar,” he told Rolling Stone in 1968. “I bounced all over the stage with it and I threw the bits on the stage and I picked up my spare guitar and carried on as though I really had meant to do it.”
Of course, musicians had always taken it out on their instruments. By the time Townshend demolished his first guitar, Charles Mingus and Jerry Lee Lewis were already known to break bass and piano, while artists like Nam June Paik and Raphael Montañez Ortiz had worked instrument destruction into their pieces. Keith Moon was also not adverse to desecrating his drum kit. But only Townshend managed to convert a fluke into a thing, like he did indeed mean to do it. By 1966, his destruction—in addition to his windmilling and superhuman leaping—had been worked into a permanent spot in The Who’s live shows (here’s a breathtaking document of every smash). Audiences awaited it. It was thrilling and dramatic to watch, a spectacle that supplemented the band’s already explosive act.
As the infamy of the deed grew, so did Townshend’s statements on it. He’s described it variously as pure impulse (“I smashed up two guitars at the end of the show… I thought, ‘What the hell,’ and smashed them both”) to a calculated measure (“What I was looking for was not a good-sounding guitar but one that was strong”). In his 2012 memoir Who I Am, he characterizes his act as “confronting my audience with the awful, visceral sound of what we all knew was the single absolute of our frail existence.” And there’s more: “As I raised the stuttering guitar above my head, I felt I was holding up the bloodied standard of endless centuries of mindless war. Explosions. Trenches. Bodies. The eerie screaming of the wind.”
That histrionic description exists for a reason: sometime after destroying his first guitar, Townshend chose to class his instrument slaughter as a form of auto-destructive art. As a student at Ealing Art College, he’d no doubt come into contact with Metzger, who was a guest lecturer in 1962, and his ideas. Rather than developing practice from theory, then, Townshend found a theory to accord to and amplify his practice.
And he’d stumbled on the perfect match. What could have been idle, willful destruction is suddenly, seen in this light, an action underpinned with profound intent and significance: a shattered guitar bearing the weight of a shattered world. Unfortunately, Townshend also embellished his claim with cringe-meriting pontification. “Those [guitars] I did break were broken as part of an artistic manifesto to make my role as an artist harder and more honest,” he explained in 2006. And on 2007’s Amazing Journey documentary: “People say to me, ‘It’s just stagecraft, isn’t it? Just showing off, smashing up your guitar.’ To me, it was far, far more than that.”
The guitar became
But hark, along came Who frontman Roger Daltrey late last year to bring Townshend back to earth with his memoir Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite. Of his guitarist’s antics, he writes, “Pete will tell you it was art. That he was taking the work of Gustav Metzger to a new level. Gustav who? Bollocks. He’s journalizing. The hole in the ceiling had nothing to do with Metzger and everything to do with the sniggering girls.” He goes on to lament all the broken guitars, the cost of replacing all the broken guitars (“Back in 1965, his artistic expression was very expensive”), and how the broken guitars became such a hallmark of the band’s sets.
For all the grousing, though, Daltrey does appreciate the electric effect of Townshend’s gesture. “With the aid of a few ex-army smoke bombs, it was a good visual,” he adds. “It had impact.” And certainly, it was a supreme mark of showmanship and stagecraft, auto-destructive or not. Even Townshend himself has contended, “It’s a performance, it’s an act, it’s an instant, and it’s really meaningless.” Except the spectacle of trashing a guitar was not an end in itself. Instead, as Daltrey writes,
It was about the noise… [Townshend] used to stick the neck of it right up into the amps and through the speakers to make all kinds of surreal noises. It was animalistic. It was sacrificial. The guitar used to scream, and it used to go on for about five minutes until it was wrecked… The critics missed it, but the fans got it at first, they understood through the energy it created. The critics were writing about what they were seeing, they weren’t listening. That was the problem with the smashing of the guitars; I feel that in the end it stopped people listening.
In any act of destruction, after all, lies an act of creation. No artist can dig into a concrete floor without creating a hole, just as no guitarist can wreck his instrument without making it scream. Or as Mikhail Bakunin famously averred, “The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.”
So perhaps the emphasis in Townshend’s guitar destruction should be less on destruction and more on guitar—it is, ultimately, the tool that as it’s being decimated, continues to generate, sing, and reverberate. Forget auto-destruction; this is auto-creation. Not for nothing, too, are bits and shards of the guitarist’s clobbered guitars so coveted by fans and collectors. Townshend himself, he who is trailed by a line of gig-weathered Gibsons and Fenders, already understands the bold and brazen promise of his instrument. In the midst of yet another telling of his ties to Metzger in Amazing Journey, he nonetheless revealed, “The guitar became, when it was electrified, in my case, an instrument of control, aggression, and latent violence.”