Art or Vandalism?

Disclaimer #1: My previous posts have all related to popular music, at least tangentially. This one does not. However, since I have previously posted on the Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950 exhibition currently at the Hirshhorn, I decided to address this statement by the museum’s director.

Disclaimer #2: I in no way condone Maximo Caminero’s destruction. I consider it vandalism and wanton destruction, not art or a coherent political statement.

On Sunday, February 16, 2014, self-declared artist Maximo Caminero destroyed part of an artwork in the Perez Art Museum Miami.  He lifted one of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s Colored Vases and dropped it to the floor where it shattered:

Afterwards he claimed it was a protest against the exclusion of local artists (like him?), claiming “the museum only displayed international artists’ art.”

Although the act was probably impetuous — if he had planned it, you’d think he’d have arranged for a better recording than this — misguided — his statement is immediately contradicted by the museum’s exhibition page, which lists many shows, past and future, that feature artists of the region — not to mention unoriginal — he did it in front of large photographs of Ai himself dropping a Han Dynasty urn (which he owned; some have also questioned whether the urn was an authentic antiquity) — it has raised some interesting questions about the relationship between art, destruction and political statements.

This sort of action is not nearly as rare as you might think. On Friday, April 1, 2011, Susan Burns tried to rip Paul Gauguin’s Two Tahitian Women from the wall of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. When asked why she did it (after being read her rights), she replied: “I feel that Gauguin is evil. He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it’s very homosexual. I was trying to remove it. I think it should be burned.” Yes, she also stated, “I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you,” but is her motive really that different from those who seek to protect children from indecency in popular culture? And remember, one generation’s popular culture may be another generation’s art, or vice versa.

On October 7, 2012, homeless Russian artist Vladimir Umanets signed a painting by Mark Rothko hanging in the Tate Modern, claiming it as “A Potential Piece of Yellowism.” Umanets even claimed he was adding to the value of the painting by appropriating it into his own artistic movement. This may seem crazy, but is it really that different from Situationist graffiti and detournement of advertisements?

A few months later, a woman wrote the inscription “AE911” on Eugene Delacroix’s La Libertes Guidant La Peuple at the Louvre’s extension in Lens, France. Apparently, AE911 is a reference to a 9/11 conspiracy theory. Was she using one piece of political art to promote another political message?

I am not condoning these acts, but they relate to issues raised in the Hirshhorn’s current exhibition on “Art and Destruction.”  Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott went to the museum’s interim director, Kerry Brougher, for his response. I found this exchange particularly interesting:

But how would you explain to, say, an art student who was inspired by your show to value the inherently creative aspects of destruction, who believes that maybe there isn’t a hard-and-fast line between vandalism and creative destruction?

The problem is one of authority. Does one have the authority to actually destroy something and thereby make a statement that is intelligent and can be communicated to the public? … An example would be Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased De Kooning,” [a work included in the exhibition, in which Rauschenberg meticulously erased a preexisting drawing by the then more famous and acclaimed artist Willem de Kooning]. He asked de Kooning for the work, and permission to destroy it. It is still a destructive gesture, but [Rauschenberg] had the authority.

Does this mean “authority” is synonymous with ownership? Now that I think of it, Marcel Duchamp put a moustache on a print of the Mona Lisa, not the real thing (of course, by doing so he also placed it among his readymades which raised different questions about the definition of art):

Since he owned the print, Duchamp had the authority to alter it.

But what if the problem is not of authority, but with authority? How does one protest authority by submitting to that same authority?

During political rebellions, official portraits and symbols are often altered. (Does the difference between vandalism and detournement depend upon which side of the battlements you stand?) After a dictator has been overthrown, it has long been a ritual to tear down his (and it’s always his) statue.

It has been estimated that as many as 90 statues of Lenin have been toppled in the current revolt in the Ukraine:

Isn’t this “vandalism” a potent symbol against authority?




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