Criticism — From the December 2013 issue

Damage Control

The modern art world’s tyranny of price

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On Sunday, October 7, 2012, a twenty-six-year-old Polish man named Vladimir Umanets walked into the Tate Modern and wrote vladimir umanets ’12 a potential piece of yellowism in the bottom right corner of Rothko’s 1958 Black on Maroon with a black paint pen. It was an act made to be googled, and googling it led to Umanets’s blog, which featured the so-called Yellowism manifesto, a work of Neo-Dadaist nonsense. Yellowism, the movement Umanets founded with his friend Marcin ?odyga, “is not art or anti-art”:

Examples of Yellowism can look like works of art but are not works of art. We believe that the context for works of art is already art. . . . Every piece of Yellowism is only about yellow and nothing more, therefore all pieces of Yellowism are identical in content — all manifestations of Yellowism have the same sense and meaning and express exactly the same. . . . Yellowism can be presented only in yellowistic chambers.

Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon at Tate Modern, London, defaced by Vladimir Umanets on October 7, 2012 © Tim Wright/Rex Features/AP Images

Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon at Tate Modern, London, defaced by Vladimir Umanets on October 7, 2012 © Tim Wright/Rex Features/AP Images

Umanets, who argued that he was working in the tradition of Duchamp, was resolute that his action was not vandalism, as he believed it increased the aesthetic and financial value of the Rothko:

With my signature this work will be much more valuable a work of art and also financially, because I changed the meaning. Someone who removes this signature will be an asshole.

The previous June, Uriel Landeros, a twenty-two-year-old artist from Houston, approached Picasso’s Woman in a Red Armchair in the city’s Menil Collection and spray-painted a stenciled image of a matador and bull along with the word conquista onto the canvas. Landeros described his act as one of social and political defiance: “It’s just a piece of cloth,” he said. “What matters most is the people who are suffering.” Another museumgoer filmed the attack on his cell phone; a guard appears just in time to insist that picture-taking is forbidden. Landeros’s paintings were later exhibited at a gallery in Houston, an event that received more outraged attention than his tagging the Picasso. The decision to treat the vandal as a “legitimate” artist was almost universally condemned.

Employees of the Museum of Modern Art in New York removing the words KILL LIES ALL from Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, spray-painted there by Tony Shafrazi on February 28, 1974 © AP Images

Employees of the Museum of Modern Art in New York removing the words KILL LIES ALL from Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, spray-painted there by Tony Shafrazi on February 28, 1974 © AP Images

Umanets’s and Landeros’s acts recall other destructive performances in museums. In 1993, at the Carré d’Art in Nîmes, an exhibition included a copy of Duchamp’s Fountain. On August 24, a sixty-three-year-old man named Pierre Pinoncelli urinated into the urinal, then hit it once with a small hammer before guards intervened. During the ensuing trial he explained that his “urinal happening” was intended to restore life to what had become a mere monument; as the critic Leland de la Durantaye explains, “When the prosecution accused him of ‘vandalism,’ he was indignant, claiming that, on the contrary, he had added value to the work.” While the other urinals in circulation were “faceless replicas,” this particular copy “now had a history and was thus immeasurably more valuable than before.” (Urinating on a Duchamp is a mini-tradition: Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi, two British-Chinese artists, pissed on Fountain in 2000 at the Tate. “As Duchamp said himself, it’s the artist’s choice. He chooses what is art. We just added to it,” Cai explained. Spray-painting a Picasso is also familiar: in 1974, Tony Shafrazi — then an artist, now a well-known art dealer — sprayed kill lies all on Guernica. “I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life,” he said at the time.)

Pinoncelli had already had a busy career. Among other undertakings, he’d doused the French culture minister André Malraux with red paint; he’d robbed a bank at gunpoint but taken only ten francs; he’d cut off the tip of one of his fingers in a performance in Colombia in protest against the FARC. On January 4, 2006, Pinoncelli again vandalized a Duchamp. This time the happening was sans urine: he walked into the Centre Pompidou and hit another replica with a hammer, then more or less repeated his original arguments at trial. The courts required him to pay more than €200,000 in damages.

Few, if any, were willing to take Pinoncelli’s acts seriously as art. According to the art historian Dario Gamboni — the author of an excellent (and, interestingly, the only) book on modern art vandalism — when the French artist Benjamin Vautier (known simply as Ben) demanded that Art Press acknowledge the Nîmes attack as an artistic intervention, the editors replied:

[He] has done all that only for the Press and not for art, he would have done anything to be talked about, one cannot inscribe his name in the history of art while removing every meaning except that of whimpering for publicity.

(The translation from the French is Gamboni’s.)

Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, following an attack by Laszlo Toth on May 21, 1972, that noticeably damaged the Virgin’s face © Scala/Art Resource, New York City

Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, following an attack by Laszlo Toth on May 21, 1972, that noticeably damaged the Virgin’s face © Scala/Art Resource, New York City

Gamboni himself questions Pinoncelli’s claim to be an artist. “Pinoncelli,” he says, “could not give a convincing internal explanation of his resorting not only to ‘urine’ but to a hammer” and “showed a poor knowledge” of the history of Fountain. While conceding that Pinoncelli is not necessarily “deranged,” and that “the search for public acknowledgment” often motivates artists, Gamboni writes that “the importance of the attention-seeking element” in Pinoncelli’s act, “as well as its lack of coherence and relevance from an ‘artistic’ point of view, bring it exceptionally close to the ‘pathological’ cases ” of vandalism — cases like that of Laszlo Toth, who, believing himself to be the risen Christ, took a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pietà in 1972.

How would showing that Pinoncelli’s gesture of what he termed “creative destruction” was inconsistent, incoherent, unsophisticated, or even a little deranged prove that it was merely vandalism and not art? If a critic were to review a show in a gallery and find it incoherent and attention-seeking, she might contend that the work was horrible — but she would almost certainly assume that it was horrible art. Charges of incoherence and irrelevance are often leveled at artists without that making them vandals. It is quite easy to argue that Umanets and Landeros and Pinoncelli are bad artists — derivative, sloppy, stupid. And it is easy to argue that they are merely destructive — but then performative destruction has a long and sanctioned history in the avant-garde. (And not just the destruction of one’s own work or an attack on an abstract idea. Recently, the British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman purchased, and then drew on, Goya prints, and this year Gaylen Gerber bought and painted over two ceramics by Lucio Fontana.) If we resort to claiming that what sets vandals apart is that they compromise valuable objects, that the originals aren’t their property, or that they violate the contract between the museum and the public, we run up against the fact that the rejection of beauty and resistance to the market have been rhetorical staples of avant-garde art for half a century or more.

The speed with which artists and critics and institutions categorize figures like Pinoncelli as vandals and not radical artists betrays an open secret in the world of contemporary art: nobody is supposed to take those vanguard ideas too seriously. Like some kind of village idiot, a vandal takes literally what we’re only supposed to pretend to believe: anything can be art, traditional media must give way to conceptual performance, and the moneyhungry art world must be subject to ruthless critique.

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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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