Published June 14, 2023 | Version v1
Thesis Open

The Intersection Between Law and Art History: Comparing Interpretations of the Intentional Destruction of Art


  • 1. University of Glasgow


The intentional destruction of art is a highly contentious and complex topic. In recent years the importance of the destruction of art has been increasingly recognised but, thus far, very few studies have directly compared law and art history’s approaches to destruction. As a result, it is unclear whether art-historical and legal approaches to destruction are consistent or even compatible. This research addresses this gap in the literature by conducting a socio-legal comparison of interpretations of the intentional destruction of art in law and art history. This comparison is structured around four categories of destruction identified from recent art-historical literature on destruction, including conflict-related, religious, political, and artistic destruction, as well as the distinction between the destruction of art and destruction as art. These categories are used alongside case studies to determine whether interpretations of the intentional destruction of art differ between law and art history, and whether art historians’ interpretations do or could influence legal interpretations. In addressing these questions, this research contributes to a better understanding of the concept of ‘destruction’ as well as the relationship between law and art, in both theory and practice. Overall, this comparison shows that interpretations of the intentional destruction of art differ between law and art history and the role of art history in influencing law is limited – although this varies between areas of law and art-historical categories of destruction. While art historians effectively differentiate between different categories of destruction and interpret the meaning behind individual destructive acts, the law struggles to do this. As such, this research exposes a fundamental limitation of the regulation of the destruction of art. Under the current legal framework, the law regulates the destruction of art without looking to art history to understand what destruction means to art. Consequently, the law risks confusing important creative expressions and artistic practices with intentional acts of violence and harm.



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