“…even the abolition of art is respectful of art because it takes the truth claim of art seriously.” – Adorno
The latest urine-related art debacle occurred at the brand new Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado. The offender, Carmen Tisch, reportedly punched, scratched, and rubbed up against Clyfford Still’s 1957-J-No.2, then marked her territory by peeing next to the painting, which is valued between $30 and $40 million. This event is certainly not the first of its kind; the vandalism of art has taken on numerous forms over the years in the name of an equally diverse collection of ideologies, sociopolitical movements, and performance art spectacles.
Vandalism as a Political Act
The term vandal comes from the name of a fifth-century East Germanic tribe. Art vandalism is not a new concept, nor is it limited to only modern and contemporary works. Generally speaking, the majority of past incidents were committed by individuals motivated by social and political reasons, frustrated artists, and the mentally ill. Then there is the occasional “I don’t like Mondays” style incident, as in 1986 when Ellis Nelson shot a Richard Avedon photograph depicting a Daughters of the American Revolution convention. When questioned, he explained, “That photo always bugged the hell out of me.”
Another crime, reported in 1907, involved an unemployed woman named Valentine Contrel who vandalized The Sistine Chapel painted by Ingres with a pair of scissors. Her ensuing philippic included the following statement, “It is a shame to see so much money invested in dead things like those at the Louvre collections when so many poor devils like myself starve because they cannot find work. I have just spoiled a picture at the Louvre in order to be arrested.”
One of the most memorable “crimes of passion” against art was committed on March 10, 1914 when suffragette Mary Richardson took a meat cleaver to Rokeby Venus by Velazquez in order to protest the arrest of her fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Richardson was troubled by the throngs of male gazes the painting gathered on a daily basis and said of her attack, “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.”
Absurd crimes like Nelson’s are always fun to learn about since the explanations can be so earnest, but it seems like Contrel’s decision to become a vandal was pragmatic. She weighed the costs of her actions and rationalized that being locked up would at least get her three squares a day.
Vandalism as Aesthetic and Social Attack
The brunt of aesthetically and socially charged art vandalism appears to be geared towards works by the Young British Artists. Responding to a dream she had in which she committed the very act, London artist Jacqueline Crofton threw eggs in the room housing Martin Creed’s Turner Prize winning installation, Lights Going On and Off. In response to the incident, Crofton explained, “I have nothing against Creed, although I do not think his work can be considered as art. At worst, The Lights Going On And Off is an electrical work. At best, it is philosophy. What I object to fiercely is that we’ve got this cartel who control the top echelons of the art world in this country and leave no access for painters and sculptors with real creative talent.”
Abstract Expressionist works have garnered strong reactions as well, and Barnett Newman has been a favorite target: three of his works were vandalized over a 15 year period. The first was Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV, attacked in 1982 by veterinary student Josef Kleer, who felt the painting inappropriately perverted the German flag. Kleer hit the painting with plastic bars and placed a variety of documents around the work, including an issue of Der Spiegel with a caricatured Margaret Thatcher on the cover, and a copy of Red List, an official German pharmaceutical catalog.
Next was an attack on Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III in 1986, committed by psychiatric patient (and proponent of magical realism) Gerard Jan van Bladeren. He slashed the painting with a knife, later explaining, “When I destroyed [Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III] I was nature, reacting against vicious ideologies, and when it was destroyed and I began to destroy myself (my own abstract canvases), nature was involved again.” Interestingly enough, Van Bladeren’s analysis regarding this outburst is very similar to a quote infamously uttered by Pollock, who is (naturally) the most well-known of the Abstract Expressionist artists, “I don’t paint nature, I am nature.” Van Bladeren would become a repeat offender in 1997, when he fell with his knife and sliced Cathedra (1951).
What’s my take on these incidents? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that what’s obvious to anyone with at least some background knowledge of the principles and tendencies that have informed modern art since Impressionism: Crofton is an ignoramus for thinking that painting and sculpture are the only media in which an artist can display creativity.
Kleer’s attack on Newman’s painting is intriguing, since Newman was a product of Jewish immigration from Poland. This fact, coupled with Newman’s oeuvre of spiritually-based works, leads me to wonder if Kleer’s arrangement of documents around the painting wasn’t meant to be an art piece so much as a display of anti-Semitic sentiment. Then again, Artur Żmijewski’s Them displays ornamentation that could be considered comparable to that done by Kleer, so perhaps the whole incident could work as a performance piece. Van Bladeren’s aforementioned quote could actually pass as a statement uttered by any performance artist, perhaps one acting in the spirit of the Viennese Actionists (although without as much of a mess).
Art Intervention or Vandalism as Performance Art
Performance artists Cai Yuan and Jian Jun Xi went to bed with Tracey Emin’s prize winning My Bed in 1999. In an effort to improve it and make it less “institutionalized,” they jumped on the piece and called their action, Two Naked Men Jump Into Tracey’s Bed. They stated, “We want to push the idea further. Our action will make the public think about what is good art or bad art. We didn’t have time to do a proper performance. I thought I should touch the bed and smell the bed.” I see Yuan and Xi’s actions as part performance art event and part institutional critique. The duo may not be as well-known as Gilbert & George, but it doesn’t make them criminals. Plus, they say any publicity is good publicity.
In 1995, Brian Eno gave a talk on high and low art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and as part of the event, baptized Duchamp’s Fountain by urinating in it as a protest against how the work has been commoditized over the years (in ways against Duchamp’s original intentions). Irony struck twice when MoMA later insured the newly christened porcelain.
There are times when a modern work will feel “incomplete” and an artist will come along with a wild solution to this assumed problem. As a case in point, take Jake Platt, who painted a red line across the black line of Yoko Ono’s Part Painting/A Circle, in 1997. Platt was inspired to add his own flair to the work after interacting with another work by Ono, a participatory installation where viewers could move around rocks and leave behind notes for future visitors. He noticed an Ono quote reading, “No one can tell you not to touch the art.” Interestingly enough, Platt’s felony for vandalism charge was dismissed in court because the painting’s worth was found to be inflated. I guess no one told the dealers not to hike up the price.
With noted anti-Kantian fashion, some of these vandals used the art as a means to their ends. Many of the art crimes and events I have discussed show variations on a theme: art as an almost tangible, living, breathing substance—a substance which has the power to both offend and defend, and one which can be eliminated or improved upon. Attacking these revered cultural objects, which are valued at millions of dollars, is a way of attacking the establishment. For people who feel they have no voice, entering a museum—a hyper-sterile establishment which simultaneously invites intellectual enrichment but highly limits interaction with the items it houses—can mean multiple things. Some downtrodden non-vandals who enter may be inspired to become artists themselves, or pursue other art-related careers. Some may enter with innocuous intent but due to an unexpected trigger, mental illness, or maybe even a violent bout of Stendhal Syndrome, are driven to destroy works on a completely circumstantial basis. And many, of course, may have prior intent as they look for any means to get into the papers (most people don’t carry meat cleavers and scissors around with them). How does the incident at the Still museum stack up? For now, Tisch faces an upcoming court date, but if she were a blue chip artist, maybe the tile she urinated on would have been insured.
Katherine Concepcion is a freelance writer living and working in Miami.