How Not to Vandalize Art

The highly acclaimed Jeff Koons Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art ended with quite a bang on its final weekend; a vandal was apprehended shortly after he spray painted his personal tag on the walls of the exhibit hall. This had the potential to be a serious crime and a media sensation, but the perpetrator proved himself to be too much of a witless dullard for that to be the case.

Not a single piece of art was damaged in the vagrant’s act of spray painting a blank wall, and his tag in question was a series of letters that spell “PPRRYEVECOCET.” Aside from demonstrating his knowledge of key letters of the alphabet, this man proved absolutely nothing, made no statement of any kind, and only succeeded in the formation of a criminal record that includes charges of criminal mischief, making graffiti, and possession of a graffiti instrument. This of course begs the question, why vandalize exhibition spaces or art in the first place?

Curiously this is far from the first instance of destruction in recent art shows. The very same Koons exhibition saw a self-styled ‘blood artist’ named Istvan Kantor leave his mark on a wall of the exhibit that was immediately painted over again. Kantor was detained and held for psychiatric evaluation before he was released. An Ai Weiwei exhibit in Miami this past February had a vandal named Maximo Caminero smash a vase to pieces for the sole reason that Miami art shows should be showing more Floridian artists and less artists from literally anywhere else. None of these cases seemed to have any kind of message behind these acts (we’re disqualifying the Ai Weiwei vandal on grounds of hopeless stupidity) let alone accomplish anything.

And then we have cases like Ivan Argote, a Colombian-born artist based in Paris. Unlike these Koons goons, Argote managed to cover a priceless piece of art by spray painting over a series of paintings by iconic artist Piet Mondrian. Mondrian’s originals were covered in glass so it was not a literal destruction, but Argote called his vandalism his own standalone work that he titled ‘Retouch,’ a compositional addition that melded graffiti tactics with the ravaging of an emblematic piece of art. The response to ‘Retouch’ was shockingly on the positive side.

Where do we draw the line between vandalism and art? The aforementioned Ai Weiwei exhibit was centered on a series of antique vases of the Chinese Han dynasty that Weiwei had repainted and even destroyed himself, which is precisely what the gallery’s vandal did. His vandal even had a purported purpose to his actions, despite the fact that they would be deemed ‘just plain dumb’ by about anyone.

This suggests that we, as the public of art consumers, accept vandalism as an artistic statement if it has intellectual merit. A person can write the alphabet on the blank wall of a gallery and be condemned, while another person can actually ruin an existing art work in the name of self-serving creativity and be praised. Argote writes on Mondrian and Ai Weiwei smashes antiquity and neither are considered vandals because their work holds meaning, a man destroys an Ai Weiwei vase and is brutalized because his actions do not have meaning. They say to destroy is also a creative act, but must we add the addendum ‘to destroy intelligently?’

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