Three chapters from Klavierzerstörungen
exlusively in English translation
(illustrations in the book are not reproduced on this

The Anarchy of Vaudeville
Destructivity in Slapstick

The book can be ordered from Reimer Verlag


A minor short story, reprinted several times in 1862[1], though not even attributed to a named author, tells of an eccentric musician. This impoverished and amiable misfit commits a sacrilegious act against his precious piano. He spends an entire night freeing the instrument of all its ornaments in ebony and gold, of the woodcarvings and painted embellishments that adorned it. All that remains is a hacked, scratched worthless thing. The motive for this deed is an ambivalent mixture of a hatred for art and a will to renew it. It transpires that his music student, Marie, always enjoyed looking at the painted vignettes during her lessons, much to the distaste of her teacher, the picture hater. Driven by a kind of platonic-cum-Islamic fundamentalism, he demonises the pictures and exclaims to his student, “You are destroying my work because you have been looking into an unfaithful mirror […]. Muhammad forbade painting. Mohammed was right. Why contemplate a canvas when one can gaze at the sky and the mountains.” Johann Karlowski, held for a madman by those around him, is working on a “true music of the future”, as we are told at the end of the story, a form of music that is even acknowledged, retrospectively, by the adult Marie. The reactionary tenor of his speech and his progressive intentions appear to stand in an antagonism similar to that of the destructive deed and the constructive artwork. Yet this literary display of aesthetic radicalism is more than an entertaining quirk: its roots lie in the thinking of nineteenth-century circles of anti-traditionalist artists which paved the way for the destructive radicalisms of the early twentieth century.[2] The dementedly iconoclastic behaviour of the fictitious musician Karlowski stands for something that, almost exactly one hundred years later, would emerge as a rationale for performances with piano destruction. The piano as a piece of furniture, as a fetish and cult object of bourgeois prestige, has nothing to do with the fundamental concerns of music: its sole purpose is to serve as a medium for seeking expression and form in sound.

In 1919 this radicalism was given a name and an agenda. The Dadaist artist Tristan Tzara proclaimed, “MUSICIENS CASSEZ VOS INSTRUMENTS sur la scène” (“MUSICIANS, BREAK YOUR BLIND INSTRUMENTS on stage”.[3] For the time being, as long as the quest for spontaneous anarchistic immediacy continued, this went no further than a rhetorical challenge. Another forty years passed before a few artists of the second avant-garde movement risk the step of putting this call into practice. When a number of artists between 1957 and 1962 started demolishing pianos in San Francisco, New York, Vienna, Nice, Cologne and Wiesbaden, it was perhaps not explicitly true music they had in mind but, similar to the literary protagonist Karlowski, they were concerned with future music. And like Karlowski, they too were decried as lunatics[4] for daring to demolish an outdated image of the artist.

These events provided the point of departure for the following study of the phenomenon of piano destruction in art. Although certain destructive actions have already been canonised in cultural studies and art history, more detailed research reveals that further acts of piano maltreatment had taken place in the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In view of the accumulation of such events – found not least of all in genres of popular culture such as slapstick, cartoons and vaudeville performances, but also in literature – what emerged was an overall image of an epochal furore of destruction. Performances often intended to be no more than funny and brash impressed me with their unflagging consistency in quite a different way: I sensed in them a hidden despair and sadness, closer to abreaction, referring to traumatic experiences, rather than displaying high spirits. Ostensibly superficial events became sucked into the maelstrom of mystification, seeming to signal concealed layers of meaning.

What prompted my systematic depiction and venture to theoretically reflect on the phenomenon of piano destruction was an enigma. This study endeavours for the first time to bring into focus the cited genres between art and pop culture where instruments are demolished, and to highlight the correspondences between these cultural segments. However, this synopsis is lent coherence through methodical orientation. Even if different kinds of highly detailed formal analysis and conceptual art discourse are set forth and discussed as to their relative status, this enterprise serves primarily to detect an underlying intensity or energy. Hence this study is intended as an affectology of culture. According to this approach, emotions are conserved in enactments of performative expression, both regenerated by them and rendered indecipherable. What appears to be a contradiction is described in recurring discursive loops as a process of psychological condensation. In methodological terms it is appropriate, looking ahead, to denote an epistemological assumption that will structure the line of argument: in its origins and development symbolic form is directed by more than just its inherent systemic logic. Were this the case, the destructive element would simply be a self-reflective operation within the art system, through which nothing more than traditional art concepts could to be called into question, ultimately using differentiation to ensure that the system survives. This view has now established itself in broad sections of the discursive milieu of cultural studies. Its predominance is hardly surprising given that self-conceptualisation as an anti- or avant-garde artist is a recurrent theme of artistic discourse. Correspondingly, piano destructions are also frequently featured in popular media when it comes to taking a stand against an outdated art form. Contrary to this perspective, this study conceives destructive action as a form of response that provides information about agitatory impulses derived from reality and how these are processed. However, the postulate concerning art’s responsiveness to reality gives as such no indication which of reality’s imperatives are relevant to art. The following interpretations take into account the immense unleashing of destructivity so characteristic of the twentieth century, as manifested in economic disasters, military conflagrations and the attendant moral disruptions and psychological traumas.

To ensure that this monograph does justice to the material with any degree of clarity, its referential scope has been confined exclusively to piano performances, as opposed to the relatively broad category of artistic piano objects, in which the physical integrity of the instruments is also subject to harm – often to the extent of becoming unplayable. Here, too, one would be right to speak of destruction. Since these works are characterised predominantly by sculptural aspects, they are only discussed peripherally – for example, objects by Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, Rebecca Horn and Carles Santos.[5] At the same time, with the focus of this study being directed at, as it were, transient works of art this has in part raised the problem of reconstructability. Even where photographs, eyewitness accounts and recollections, in addition to conceptual artistic writings, are available, in only very few cases were these works documented in film and sound recordings. In cultural scholarship retrospective modes of interpretation have to some extent been decisively shaped by media-specific modes of conserving and passing down cultural events; these interpretations are discussed whenever historical reconstruction creates strong arguments for a radically different perspective. The fortunate circumstance that a number of protagonists active in the heroic period of upheaval between 1959 and 1968 showed such immense kindness and patience to supply me with detailed information enabled me to undertake this task of compiling a new and differentiated assessment.

Translation: Matthew Partridge

[1] Anonymous: Das alte Klavier. In: Erheiterungen. Eine Hausbibliothek zur Unterhaltung und Belehrung für Leser aller Stände, 34. Jg., January to June, Stuttgart 1862, pp. 786–789; Der Bazar. Illustrirte Damen-Zeitung, No. 18, 8. May 1862, VIII Jg., pp. 131–132; Unterhaltungsblatt. Beilage zur Regensburger Zeitung, No. 99 a. 100 (1862), s.p.

[2] Dario Gamboni: The Destruction of Art. Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution, London 1997, pp. 277ff.

[3] Tristan Tzara: Proclamation sans pretention, in: Œuvres complètes. Tome I (1912–1924), Paris 1975, pp. 368–371.

[4] On the poster advertising the Internationale Festspiele neuester Musik (Wiesbaden 1962) someone wrote: “Die Irren sind los” (“The lunatics are on the loose”).

[5] For an overview of these objects see Marina Bignami (ed.): Pianofortissimo, Museo Vostell, Malpartida 2006.