“Much of the story of 20th century art can be told as a series of acts of vandalism,” novelist and poet Ben Lerner wrote in a recent essay in Harper’s Magazine. The work of artists such as Pablo Picasso, who broke the picture plane into pieces with cubism, and Marcel Duchamp, who bestowed on everyday objects the elite status of art, constituted acts of deconstruction. Those modernist artists attacked traditional aesthetic and cultural ideas by creating art that put forth an alternative philosophy. Their work amounts to conceptual vandalism.
Artists in the 21st century, however, are taking this commandment of vandalism quite literally.
In August an anarchist artist using the open-source nom de guerre Monty Cantsin — who is thought to be Hungarian-born Canadian performance artist Istvan Kantor — splashed red paint in a giant X on a gallery wall of the Whitney Museum to protest the high prices commanded by the slick works of the featured artist, Jeff Koons. The same month, a graffiti artist who goes by the name Sintex defaced a Detroit mural painted in remembrance of Vincent Chin, a local Chinese-American murdered in 1982, because he felt he had a territorial claim to the wall it was painted on, much to the chagrin of the neighborhood. On Oct. 19, the Koons show was attacked again — by a graffiti artist again calling attention to the high prices of the work on display.
Other acts of artistic vandalism are more costly. This February, artist Maximo Caminero picked up a painted vase installed in the Perez Art Museum Miami and smashed it on the floor. The vase, part of an installation by the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, was estimated to be 7,000 years old and worth about $1 million. Caminero claimed his act was a spontaneous protest that underlined how the museum ignored local artists. It was also a referential one: One of Ai’s important early works consists of photographs of himself smashing similarly ancient Han dynasty urns as acts of iconoclasm against what Ai sees as China’s obsession with its dynastic history and its inability to move forward.
These acts against art may take the shape of aesthetic or ideological rebellion, but they are far from effective. At its best, artistic rebellion happens either in the form of works that collaborate with the institutions even as they critique them (such as those of Hans Haacke, which have long pointed out unsavory truths about the hallowed art world) or works that operate outside the institutions altogether (such as the Guerrilla Girls’ feminist billboards that overturned how the public viewed museum collections). But the recent examples of iconoclasm are motivated less by true artistic critique and more by a simple urge toward destruction.
The rising pedestal
Visual art today struggles to resolve a schizophrenic conflict between its status as a commodity and its need to be revolutionary. We live in an era of record-breaking monetary valuations of art in the private market. The art market keeps beating itself, anointing new works each year as the most expensive ever sold at auction. Koons’ “Balloon Dog (Orange)” took home that distinction just last year for a work by a living artist; it went for $58.4 million to an unnamed buyer. The extreme prices promote the public perception of visual art as the world’s costliest luxury objects, with single pieces worth more than what the vast majority of humans will earn in a lifetime. Thus the objects are precious and must be protected, surrounded by guards and buffered by white gallery walls.
Yet art is far more outwardly ideological and affective than a Louis Vuitton bag. It still inspires anger, joy, nostalgia and fear, intense emotions that sometimes get cheekily classified as the Stendhal syndrome, the perhaps psychosomatic disorder of becoming overwhelmed by an experience of art. In an essay for The Atlantic, Lerner calls this discrepancy between static commodity value and spiritual impact “museum guard syndrome,” after a moment in “A Heart So White,” by the Spanish novelist Javier Marías, in which a guard moves to burn a painting that angers him.
“On the one hand the painting is an object of immense financial value that has to be protected,” Lerner writes. “On the other hand it is a masterpiece capable of evoking emotions that overwhelm any economy.”
The impulse to bring venerated objects to our level is what seems to motivate artistic vandals such as Kantor and Caminero.
Given the current myopic focus on price and an increasingly internationalized art ecosystem, we are all subject to a form of museum guard syndrome, in which economic value and elitist cultural attitudes prevent us from interacting with visual art in a productive, personal way. The impulse to bring such venerated objects to our level is what seems to motivate artistic vandals such as Kantor and Caminero: They give in to museum guard syndrome and attack the object in order to stop its influence over them. Even Banksy, whose work is supposed to exist outside the art world but has been integrated nonetheless, is the target of such aggression. A recent piece the artist installed in public was vandalized almost immediately.
To vandalize art is not to deny that the objects in question have value. After all, most of the recent cases involved works by the kings of the inflated art market. Rather, such acts only reaffirm that value and uphold the art as a symbol of the dominant ideology. This can explain the tagging of a Mark Rothko mural at the Tate Modern in 2012 by Wlodzimierz Umaniec, a founder of a crackpot movement called yellowism, which means about as much as its name indicates. “It’s not art, it’s not reality, it's just yellowism,” he told The Telegraph. “In yellowism, all the possible interpretations are reduced to one — are equalized, flattened to yellow.”
The tagging was Umaniec’s attempt to integrate a culturally acknowledged masterpiece into his nihilistic ideology by appropriating it — or perhaps denigrating it — through his signature. When he told reporters, “I am not a vandal,” he was incorrect. He is no artist, just a vandal. Unlike Picasso or Duchamp, whose works moved artistic discourse forward, Umaniec presented no valid alternative to the work he defaced. He apparently felt bereft of speech and thought and instead accepted violent action as the only way forward. That path leads nowhere: Umaniec was jailed for two years.
Art, the provocateur
In many cases, the ability of art to shock and surprise is enhanced by its existence in the museum and gallery ecosystem. When I was a teenager, I attended an after-school program once a week at a local contemporary art museum. One weekend, a curator at the museum led our group on a tour of Chelsea, the locus of New York City’s art galleries. We stopped in dozens of galleries that day, but I remember only one piece.
In a white-walled space an artist had installed a group of delicate sculptures made from pulped paper. One sculpture was a tall gray rectangle, like a model of a skyscraper. Walking around the piece, I noticed a tiny airplane made of the same color material attached to the side, its nose just meeting the edge of the building. It was, of course, a representation of a plane hitting the twin towers on 9/11. But the artist had turned it into a gentle meeting, a delicate union instead of an earth-shattering explosion.
The sculpture unexpectedly enraged me. My fists balled up. I had the urge to knock the soft sculpture over, to crush it, to stop its mockery of an event that had changed my world indelibly. I grew up in Connecticut, and that gallery tour day wasn’t so far removed from 9/11, the anxiety of which still pervaded the city and the tri-state area. In that moment, I suffered from museum guard syndrome. Why was the work so personally offensive?
The curator later asked what I thought of the work. I said I couldn’t believe it was portraying 9/11 in — as I had interpreted the piece — such a cynical, sarcastic way. She responded that art existed to be provocative, that artists have license in their work to depict their perspective as they see fit. I’ve spent the past decade coming to terms with that statement in a way I suspect Umaniec, Kantor and Sintex have not.
Years later, I don’t remember the name of the exhibition’s artist, nor do I consider the 9/11 sculpture a particularly good work of art. It’s too simple, a one-line joke that exhausts itself quickly and goes no further than a superficial critique. But I still defend without question the piece’s right to exist unharmed.