LEFT: This photograph by Chinese artists Ai Weiwei apparently depicts exactly what the title says: “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.” Which means the vase we see in the process of destruction was perhaps some 2000 years old. Ai has made something of a specialty of treating ancient objects with what seems insufferable contemporary disdain, including painting a Coca-Cola logo on a Neolithic pot. It is a very brutal form of iconoclasm, the deliberate destruction of objects held by many people to be sacred, for their historical importance and rarity. The purpose seems to be one of confrontation, forcing people question why they so highly value these objects, and also forcing people to consider the vast destruction of cultural heritage perpetrated by the authoritarian government in Beijing. But the loss can’t possibly be worth the transmission of that message, which might well be sent in many other far less destructive ways. The act feels narcissistic, and adolescent, and it greatly diminishes the Ai’s stature as an artist—even given his admirable resistance and persecution by the Chinese government. RIGHT: This 2006 photograph (seen here in detail) by artist Thomas Demand appears to show shattered ceramic pieces on a stairway landing, and so it does. But the photograph is a meticulous recreation of an accident that happened at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, when a visitor accidently stumbled and broke three Qing Dynasty vases. Demand’s photograph reproduces an image made by the museum, to document the accident. The museum’s purpose was essentially documentary and forensic. Demand, on the other hand, is using an image of destruction to document his own defiant act of recreation, in a sense, throwing into the void of loss and wreckage a work of art that insists upon the necessity of moving forward and reconstituting the world.

Two works face off at opposite ends of a long gallery in the new Hirshhorn Museum exhibition “Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950.” One, by Ai Weiwei, is a set of three large-format black-and-white photographs that depict exactly what the title indicates: “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.” The other, by Thomas Demand, is titled “Landing.” It shows broken pottery shards on a stairway landing, with a hint of manicured green grass through a window.

Those become two of the many poles of argument in this excellent exhibition, which deals with destruction as a subject, a fetish, a motivation and finally a haunting, dark shadow that seems to have lurked behind the whole of artistic production since long before the 1950 date that bookends the show.

Ai, if he is to be believed, destroyed an actual vase, perhaps made more than 2,000 years ago, documenting its release from his outstretched hands, its free fall and finally its shattered form lying on the ground as the artist stares impassively at the camera. Demand was doing something very different, meticulously reconstructing the scene of an accident at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, in which three Qing Dynasty vases were broken by a visitor who tripped on a staircase. Demand’s photograph replicates a forensic image taken by the museum immediately after the accident to document the unintentional wreckage.

So while one work captures actual, irrevocable loss, the other is in fact creative, inscribing an image of destruction within a deliberate act of re-creation. But more than that divides these two works: One is stupid and infantile while the other is, if not great art, at least defiant in its insistence that art be about making, organizing or imitating. At the very least, “Landing” adds to, more than subtracts from, our sense of the visual world.

The best parts of “Damage Control,” curated by Hirshhorn interim director Kerry Brougher and scholar Russell Ferguson from UCLA, are its moments of ethical clarity, when the allure of destruction as an idea or praxis pushes artists beyond the bounds of decency. Occasionally, perhaps without intending to, “Damage Control” reveals some of the silly, provincial, narcissistic currents within contemporary art and, in so doing, also reveals what distinguishes substantial art from an adolescent lack of impulse control.

The exhibition begins with the defining event of the 20th century, the explosion of the first nuclear bombs and the lasting impact they had on culture and art. Films made by Harold Edgerton of nuclear detonations in the 1950s demonstrate both the terrifying power and hypnotic visual beauty of the mushroom cloud, the great white flash of blinding light, the shock waves and the scorching of earth and sea. Most visitors, conventionally secure in the magical belief that these weapons will never again be used, will find them beautiful in a limited, purely visual way. And that isn’t particularly strange: Since the 18th century, we have had an aesthetic category for this — the sublime — into which we place and contain things that are awesome, boundless, incomprehensible and beyond imagining. There is even a measure of old-fashioned pride in our love of the sublime: Look what man has wrought.

The exhibition then takes up destruction in more focused, constructive ways: How accidental events can produce beauty; the use of destruction to move forward and create anew; and the sometimes indistinguishable line between creating and destroying, when both involve transformation or metamorphosis of the existing world. That last idea leads many artists astray, into a conceit that there is no line at all between creation and destruction and that anything the artist does — e.g., photographing wanton destruction — is therefore creative by definition.

Among the wonderful moments in this first chapter of the exhibition are the photographs by Arnold Odermatt, a policeman who spent 40 years documenting car crashes along rural roads in Switzerland. They are astounding, technically flawless images. Odermatt is to car wrecks what Weegee was to human wrecks, but Odermatt was a better photographer, and his images paradoxically have more humanity in them than many of Weegee’s corrosive caricatures. These cars seem to be having trysts on wet highways beneath lowering clouds, or taking a dipin a placid lake on a foggy morning.

Odermatt wasn’t photographing destruction in action but the aftermath, the wreckage, which puts him in a long line of artists who have focused on things like ruins and the beauty of decay. But it also puts him politely to the side of the main thrust of this exhibition, which is about the dynamics of destruction and how close we can get to seeing it in action. In the 1960s, Jean Tinguely, also from Switzerland, created complex Rube-Goldberg-like devices that spun and whirred and ground themselves into smoking wreckage, sometimes exploding with the help of a little dynamite. The material complexity of the work, its elaborate confection of wheels, springs and motors, seemed to reflect a society that grew ever more complex, ever more fragile and potentially self-destructive even as it embraced bromides about progress and the future.

The atom and hydrogen bombs changed the way artists related to ideas of violence and destruction. One of the central figures in this show, Gustav Metzger, declared that “The atomic bomb is really the starting point of my own work,” and he emerged in the 1960s as one of the sharpest and most productive theoreticians of destruction. In 1966 he helped organize a conclave in London called the Destruction in Art Symposium, which had a lasting impact on artists struggling to create new conceptual ways to force audiences into a confrontation with the raw and real power of destruction lurking throughout modern society.

Unlike Odermatt, Metzger wasn’t interested in the ruins or the beautiful aftermath; rather, he was seeking ways to enact or represent destruction, driven by the age-old idea that art should somehow reflect society. A self-destructive society required what he termed “auto-destructive” art.

One of Metzger’s contributions to that dialogue is particularly beautiful, a form of action painting in which he sprayed nylon sheets with hydrochloric acid. A 1961 film of one of these performances, known as the South Bank Demonstration, shows an opaque scrim beginning to dissolve, at first seemingly torn by squirts of acid, then falling to pieces as it disintegrates. Behind the “painting,” however, is a view of London, including the iconic dome of St. Paul’s, which Metzger’s street art reveals bit by bit, as if he is removing a veil that hides reality rather than destroying a nylon sheet.

Metzger is still safely within the limits of destruction as a metaphor, where what is physically destroyed (a cheap sheet) is negligible in its relationship to what is revealed (not just a postcard view of London, but a powerful sense that great art must somehow puncture existing reality). When Robert Rauschenberg asked Willem de Kooning (then a far more famous and successful artist) for a drawing that could be erased, he, too, was arguably creating more than he destroyed. The exhibition includes the resulting 1953 work, “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” which is as much an homage to the older artist as it is an act of erasure or aggression. The faint traces of the original actually draw the viewer closer, into a more intense inspection of the work than it might have merited if Rauschenberg hadn’t erased it.

There is no readily agreed upon contract for when it is okay to destroy things in the name of art, but there are degrees of transgression and limits to the acceptability of consequences. There is a big difference between Rauschenberg’s asking for and receiving permission to erase a drawing by de Kooning and the vandalism of the brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, who painted cartoon clown and animal faces onto an original set of Goya’s 1810-1820 “The Disasters of War” etchings. In no conceivable universe is the loss of these Goyas compensated for by the trivial graffiti the Chapmans have added, which not only defaces them but further victimizes the victims of war Goya originally depicted.

One can generate elaborate justifications for vandalism to put it into seemingly acceptable art terms. Ai Weiwei may have destroyed an ancient urn (given what we know about China’s art market, there’s no certainty it wasn’t a fake), but only in the name of calling attention to the Chinese government’s systematic destruction of ancient neighborhoods and historical sites (and as a further criticism of the crazy, commercial race to own and exchange antiques). And the Chapmans may have been satirizing some underlying sadism in Goya’s work and perhaps the aestheticization of war through art as well.

Those arguments mean something only within the insular and deeply provincial space of the art world, where people still have an inflated sense of art’s power and often believe it can effect direct and revolutionary change in the world. The worst of what is on display in this exhibition is driven by the false belief that art can somehow compete with political power if it finds images or ideas or gestures that are stark enough, violent enough, to cut through the noise. In fact, compared with people who have real power — over armies, economies and the means of entertainment — artists have virtually none at all and are too often driven to a kind of futile rage through a vague sense of their own impotence.

In 2001, artist Michael Landy enacted this self-defeating but narcissistic tendency of some contemporary art in a piece called “Break Down.” In a vacant department store in London, he set up an industrial-scale system for destruction, with shredders and conveyor belts and assistants dressed in blue coveralls, and slowly, piece by piece, he destroyed everything he owned, some 7,200 possessions, all of which were eventually delivered broken and useless to a landfill.

Yes, he tapped into a fantasy we all have of divesting ourselves of all this burdensome stuff. And perhaps, as catalog essayist and co-curator Russell Ferguson argues, the performance was a “metonymic attempt to destroy the consumption economy of compulsive accumulation.” But it also led to the loss of a lot of useful material things and the creation of a lot of unnecessary landfill. In the process, Landy’s spectacle seems to mock blue-collar people who “work” in this factory producing an art piece about destruction, people who might have enjoyed owning some of the things Landy was destroying.

Unfortunately, the consumption economy wasn’t destroyed, metonymically or in any other fashion. But in 2008, Landy was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950 is on view at the Hirshhorn through May 26. For more information visit www.hirshhorn.si.edu.