Despite the new decrees, and the founding of museums, the Conventionnels failed in their efforts to control iconoclasm before 1795. They had sowed the wind, and they reaped the usual unwelcome harvest. As reports of the destruction mounted, the Committee of Public Instruction had one of its members (on July 8, 1794, some weeks before Thermidor) collate these reports and make known his findings. Henri Gregoire was the man assigned to the task, and he made not one but three lengthy reports from the tribune of the Convention in the last half of 1794. In these speeches, he placed the blame for the destruction upon “English spies,” “counterrevolutionaries,” and “terrorists,” although only a few months before Thermidor Gregoire himself had praised the “wise law” ordaining “the destruction of all that carries the imprint of royalty and feudalism.”
Not only did Gregoire blame the destruction upon the enemies of the Revolution; he also described this activity as “vandalism,” i.e., “willful and ignorant destruction,” and so added a word to our language, for the noun vandalism was of his coining. By the use of this term, Gregoire evidently hoped to clear the fair name of the Revolution; in this hope he not only failed but made available a term of reprobation which has served as a polemical weapon in revolutionary studies ever since. Historians have taken Gregoire’s “vandalism” at its face value, and have either denied it ever happened, or claimed that every mutilated or badly weathered statue in France is the work of “revolutionary vandalism.”
It has been shown here that the activity described by Gregoire was not “vandalism” but iconoclasm, i.e., premeditated destruction of visual symbols because of their specific emotional or ideological content. In short, the issue of “revolutionary vandalism” is a false one. The real issue involves a revolutionary dilemma in terms of iconoclasm versus the preservation of an artistic heritage; while a great deal of premeditated destruction was wrought, an attempt to preserve the arts persisted. In one sense, the problem posed by Diderot, “. . . if we love truth more than the fine arts, let us pray God for some iconoclasts,” was never resolved. It could be argued, however, that the revolutionaries did solve the dilemma in two ways. First, they encouraged iconoclasm and then called it the vandalism of their enemies. If this be a solution, it is neither creditable nor original. Second, they created a public institution called a “museum”; immure a political symbol in a museum and it becomes merely art – iconoclasm is thus achieved without destruction. This solution was quite original; it is one that Diderot never dreamed of, and it probably would have received his high praise.
Stanley J. Idzerda, “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution” (1954)