Vandalism: political to personal vendetta

Exploring the reasons for the recent surge in vandalism of  priceless artwork. 

In the past month there has been a surge in reported cases of art vandalism. Some cases have caused permanent damage to the artwork; some were, luckily, repairable. What are the motives behind such acts? Vandalism is a crime that is not new to the art world in any way: the term itself was coined in the wake of political art destruction in the French Revolution of 1789. However, it seems to have evolved in its purpose.

On 18 October, Paul McCarthy’s controversial Tree in Paris had to be removed after the cables supporting the green inflatable structure were cut. It had been standing for less than two days yet had already caused uproar in more conservative Parisian citizens for its resemblance to a sex toy. The Paris mayor condemned the vandals for “attacking artistic freedom” and the artist himself plans to respond forcefully with yet more art. Whilst it is hardly debatable that McCarthy had planned for controversy, this does not justify the assault.

The following day Jeff Koons’s Hanging Heart was the centre of a somewhat less destructive act at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York. An indecipherable series of letters were spray-painted on the white wall behind the hanging artwork. The graffiti was covered quickly by painting the wall white again without even closing the show. This has not been the only case of vandalism during the run of the show so staff clearly weren’t surprised. The eventual aim of this harmless act of vandalism is ambiguous: perhaps it was merely for infamy or a protest against the ludicrous amount of money this piece is worth. Another version sold for $23.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2007. Either way it was an act driven by personal bias, and described by Jonathan Jones of The Guardian as “the lamest art vandalism ever”.

The list goes on. On 21 October Bansky’s Girl with a Pierced Eardrum in Bristol was splattered with black paint. Banksy is no stranger to vandalism and so he often uses anti-graffiti paint so that any unwanted extras can be removed. It is likely that Bansky is so vulnerable to vandalism because he is, technically speaking, a vandal himself. Can vandalism be vandalised? It surely can when the street art is so widely appreciated and highly valued. If this counts as vandalism, however, what then is the painting-over of his mural at Clacton-on-Sea by the local council after one complaint?

These instances over the past month seem to be based generally on personal opinion: unjustified hate crimes. This has not always been the motive behind art vandalism. In 2012 one of Mark Rothko’s works in the Tate was written on to associate it with the “neither-art-nor-anti-art” movement yellowism. Vandalism for artistic purposes seems hypocritical. In 1914 Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus was slashed in the name of feminism after Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrest, and in 1974 a graffiti artist took a spray can to Picasso’s Guernica to protest aspects of the Vietnam War. Vandalism for political protestation is surely more justified (albeit only slightly) than a personal lack of appreciation.

What do these numerous accounts of damaging personal vendettas say for the future? After the Mona Lisa had acid thrown at it and a rock in the same year of 1954, it was placed behind bulletproof glass, which remains there today. How could we feel the emotion of a Rothko from behind a barrier two metres away? Art is so much about the viewer’s connection that any ‘precautions’ like this are detrimental to the experience. It does not matter if you don’t personally appreciate the art: all art is subjective and reaction is what it is about.

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