Criticism — From the December 2013 issue

Damage Control

The modern art world’s tyranny of price

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Much of the story of twentieth-century art can be told as a series of acts of vandalism. Cubist collage attacked the expectation that a painting should look like something in the world. “In my case,” Picasso said, “a picture is a sum of destructions.” Abstract painters criticized Cubism for not going far enough: “Cézanne broke the fruit dish,” Robert Delaunay reportedly said, “and we should not glue it together again, as the Cubists do.” Marcel Duchamp, not satisfied with assaulting painting from within, abandoned the medium after 1918, turning his attention to the presentation of ready-made objects as art, the most infamous of which was the urinal, entitled Fountain, he submitted to the American Society of Independent Artists under the pseudonym “R. Mutt” for its inaugural exhibition, in 1917. Whatever else Duchamp’s gesture was — a provocative way of blurring the boundary between art and mundane objects, a critique of the idea of authorship — it was also a metaphoric micturition on the history of creative expression. Another work of Duchamp’s, L.H.O.O.Q., consisted of a cheap postcard-size reproduction of the Mona Lisa, on which he drew a mustache and goatee. Pronounced aloud in French, the title sounds like Elle a chaud au cul, which translates colloquially to something along the lines of “She’s horny.” Duchamp’s focus was on degradation, setting the stage for the deskilled and frequently scatological experiments of a range of progeny, from Dubuffet to Warhol to the Andres Serrano Piss Christ that so pissed off Jesse Helms.

From Insult to Injury, 2003, a portfolio of eighty of Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War etchings, “reworked and improved” by Jake and Dinos Chapman, 14 9?16? × 18 1?2? © The artists. Courtesy White Cube, London. Photograph by Stephen White

From Insult to Injury, 2003, a portfolio of eighty of Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War etchings, “reworked
and improved” by Jake and Dinos Chapman, 14 9?16? × 18 1?2? © The artists. Courtesy White Cube, London. Photograph by Stephen White

As a kid, when I first saw images of Jackson Pollock at work, I thought I was watching somebody vandalize a painting, not create one: the canvas was on the floor, paint was splattered and poured, and he was indifferent to the ash falling from his cigarette. Trash — nails, tacks, buttons — can be found encrusted in his paintings’ surfaces. In 1953, Rauschenberg erased a de Kooning drawing; now in the San Francisco MOMA, it’s widely considered a landmark of postwar art — ghostly traces in a gilded frame. In 1966, Gustav Metzger and others hosted the Destruction in Art Symposium in London, inviting a number of participants, especially those who worked by burning, cutting, tearing, and blowing up. Metzger, the author of the manifesto “Auto-Destructive Art,” conceived of such art as “an attack . . . on art dealers and collectors who manipulate modern art for profit.” Some in the London press referred to it simply as “organized vandalism.” (Metzger’s subversions were the subject of a 2011 retrospective at the New Museum, in New York.) One notable antecedent of the conference was the work of Jean Tinguely, whose giant “méta-mécaniqueHomage to New York beat itself to death in the MoMA sculpture garden on March 17, 1960. Autodestruction was also a theme and technique in Body Art, performances in which flesh was medium: Yoko Ono inviting an audience to cut away her clothing; Vito Acconci biting himself; Chris Burden being shot, or nailed to a car.

Examples could be multiplied easily, almost endlessly — this highly selective catalogue only takes us up to the Seventies; what’s clear is that modern art is inseparable from the destruction of modern art. Demolition, defacement, and debasement are not just fates artworks suffer at the hands of vandals; they’re often what those works are. It’s against this backdrop that vandals often claim to be artists — claim that they are moving the history of art forward by renovating received ideas or performing what artists and critics have come to call “institutional critique” — and that artists claim to be vandals, attacking the notion that art is property and ridiculing existing canons of taste. It’s precisely when vandals and artists are so difficult to tell apart that an act of vandalism can raise important and often uncomfortable questions about how we really define and value art.

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’s new novel is forthcoming from Faber and Faber. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Contest of Words,” appeared in the October 2012 issue.

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