Artists Who Vandalized Art to Create a New Work of Art
Many questions arise regarding artists who vandalize works of art as art. How do these artists rationalize their actions? Why are artists getting away with vandalism? And, can vandalism as artistic expression be accepted as a valid form of art? While vandalism of art is thought to be the spontaneous action of a disturbed individual, according to artist Damien Hirst, the acts of vandalism committed by artists “turn out to be purposive, methodical, or systematic, and where the choice of subject is not at all accidental.”
This article is an excerpt of my undergraduate research for the McNair Scholars Program at the University of Montevallo. Below are a few examples of artists who claimed to make a new work of art by vandalizing, or "altering without permission" another artist's work.
Chinese performance artists Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi
Seeing themselves as outside mainstream art, the collaborative Chinese performance artists Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi, are intent on finding a new way to interact with art and claim that art is an invitation. After the two were arrested for stripping off their shirts and having a pillow fight on Tracy Emin’s My Bed (1998) at the Tate London Gallery in October 1999, Cai states, “We thought we’d make a new work, like theater.” The performance was clearly planned, as the two men handed out flyers before the event.
In 2000, the two artists urinated on Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) at the Tate Modern in London. In the early twentieth-century, Duchamp developed the concept of the “Ready-made,”—the idea that any object simply by changing its context could be art. What has within recent years been voted the most influential artwork of the twentieth-century, Duchamp turned art on its head by placing a urinal in the context of an art gallery and ultimately blurred the lines of what art is. When asked to explain their actions, Cai responded, “The urinal is there—it’s an invitation. As Duchamp said himself, it’s the artist’s choice. He chooses what is art. We just added to it.”
"Sometimes Art Student" Jake Platt
Jake Platt also believes that art is alluring and compels an active response, resulting in a vandalistic act at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center in 1997. Platt, then described as a 22 year old “sometimes art student,” chose to add to Yoko Ono’s Part Painting/A Circle (1994). The installation consisted of 24 large white panels that lined the walls of an entire room. A large black stripe crossed all 24 panels, suggesting an endless horizon. After reading a nearby quote on the gallery wall from Ono, “No one can tell you not to touch the art,” Platt used a red marker to add his own line under Ono’s continuous black line; he made it across five panels before getting caught.
Although Ono was referring to another piece in which she encouraged viewers to attach notes to rocks in two piles, one pile called “joy” and the other “sorrow,” Platt took the quote to heart and into action. Platt, who is interested in Fluxus, a movement that believed in challenging conventional ideals about art, feels that the purpose of art is not just to look but to participate.Ono, who ironically had been a member of the Fluxus movement, was unimpressed by the addition to her painting. Perhaps she should have clarified which work of art can be touched.
"Self-proclaimed Artist" Mark Bridger
In 1994, at an exhibit at the Serpentine Gallery in London, Mark Bridger, a 35 year old artist, poured black ink into Damien Hirst’s Away From the Flock (1994), a formaldehyde filled vitrine containing a preserved white lamb. Labeling the new work Black Sheep, Bridger believed that he was contributing to the piece and that Hirst would not object to his creative input. Bridger also stated “the sheep had already made its statement. Art is there for creation of awareness and I added to whatever it was meant to say.” It is possible that Hirst did not fully object to Bridger’s action as a few years later, Hirst published a book featuring the vandalized work. When the reader pulled a tab, a black film covered the image to look as if ink had been poured into the vitrine. Ironically, the vandal, Mark Bridger, sued Damien Hirst for copyright infringement.
"That Guy Who Vomits on Paintings," Jubal Brown
I personally interviewed Jubal Brown in 2008, so I have a bit more information on this case study.
In 1996, at the age of 22, Jubal Brown, an art student at the Ontario College of Art and Design, or OCAD, wanted to critique the “oppressively banal scenario of the museum structure,” and how works exhibited within that institution falsely portray the very culture we live in. In his artist statement, Responding to Art, Brown describes that the “comodification and canonization of art objects as a sacred cultural history” makes him sick. The artist consequently decided to express that illness by vomiting at three separate museums or galleries onto an exhibited work of art—modern art in particular—with each performance using a different primary color. Labeling art in galleries as “stale, lifeless crusts,” Brown sought to revitalize the “typically geometric canvas,” by adding color and "texture," for lack of a better word, in order to bring the viewer back to reality—the reality being culture outside the institution of museums and galleries.
In May 1996, Brown entered the Art Gallery of Ontario after ingesting an array of red foods, including pickled beets, and spewed red onto Raoul Dufy's Port du Havre (unknown date). The staff, believing it an accident, quickly cleaned the work and excused the visitor's illness. However, Brown's second performance, this time at the Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA, in New York, suggested it was no accident. On November 1996, he ate blue icing, blue gelatin and blueberry yogurt before vomiting on Piet Mondrian's Composition in White, Black and Red (1936).
In a later interview, the vandal admitted his disgust at the fetishization of the painting, stating, “I don't hate Mondrian. I picked him because he's such a pristine symbol of Modernism.” He claimed that the sheer force of the dullness and unoriginality of the acclaimed masterpiece enabled him to vomit as he stationed himself in front of the work. However, Sarah Hood, a peer of the vandal, who was present when Brown pitched his idea, knew that Ipecac, a vomit-inducing syrup, also factored into play. Although Brown intended on selecting a third work in Europe that would receive the yellow treatment, the art student abandoned the trilogy after the performance at MoMA. In response to the vandal’s action, Glenn D. Lowry, director of MoMA, stated, “It would seem that Mr. Brown's motive, among others, is to seek publicity for himself.” Congruently, as found in a study by Christopher Cordess and Maja Turcan, instead of avoiding detection, the art vandal will often “wait by the object defiled in order to be apprehended.” Brown, however, denies any intent of seeking publicity and explains that the uproar resulting from getting caught at MoMA ruined his trilogy as “the publicity made the third part unnecessary, or irrelevant.” Other than getting caught and being stigmatized since 1996 as “that guy who vomits on paintings,” Jubal Brown has no regrets and explains why he felt compelled to vandalize art:
"I believe that artists, and really, all individuals, have a right, and moreover a responsibility, to do what they want to do. If they feel moved to do something, to contribute some way to society, culture, a moment, they should do it. Consequences are for cowards and dead people. I felt strongly that [the performance] was a good idea; I wanted to do it, I did it."
Why is Vandalism as Artistic Practice on the Rise?
For one, the vandalism of fine art can be attributed partly to the degradation of aesthetic values existing in this century. Modern and contemporary art is often considered less masterful and when confronted by such works, viewers commonly express how easily they could have made the work in front of them. Unable to attain the respect as easily as old masters have, it has been noted that the majority of assaults on art are against modern and contemporary objects.
Another justifiable explanation is a profound change over the past few decades as to what materials are considered as viable for art. Arthur C. Danto, an art critic and philosopher, notes that “Through the 1970s and 1980s, everything became available for artists to use in their work, [so] why not a Mondrian?”
Perhaps it is the lack of intensity in punishment that is to blame for the rise in cases involving vandal artists, as the repercussions of art vandalism are merely a slap on the wrist, if not less. On one hand, museum officials often struggle to reprimand an artist who vandalizes because condemning them may result in negativity associated with censorship, while on the other hand, expressing approval could be mistaken as an invitation for destructive acts upon museum art. In a recent survey of sixty British museums and galleries, 37 percent reported some incidents of vandalism, however only 15 vandals were apprehended and even fewer were charged or prosecuted. The respondents reported that this was partly in order to avoid publicity and in some cases out of compassion for the perpetrator. As one respondent noted, “All art is vulnerable and all art should provoke some response.”
The Punishments - or lack thereof
Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi
Although Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi were arrested for jumping on Tracy Emin’s My Bed, they were released without charge.
Accused of damaging Yoko Ono’s Part Painting/A Circle, Jake Platt was arrested and charged with vandalism. Assuring the judge that he had no intentions of damaging the art, but was instead making an artistic statement in reaction to Ono’s quote, Platt’s case was dismissed and he was released.
Freeberg, in The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, suggests that “in unusual cases the artist who feels that his own work has received inadequate recognition assaults the work of the publicly acknowledged or rewarded artist.” However, Mark Bridger, who plead his case for two hours in a London court, denied that his act against Damien Hirst’s Away From the Flock was motivated by jealousy of the artist’s success. Although Bridger was found guilty of criminal damage, he was also excused from a fine on grounds of insufficient means to pay.
Another reason that artists are being let off the hook for vandalizing art is the sheer complexity of the matter. In the case of Jubal Brown, the director of the Museum of Modern Art pushed for the student to get expelled. However, believing the matter should be settled in a court of law, a college representative of the Ontario College of Art and Design, commented that, “Debating the merits of his artistic piece and freedom [is] a process that requires months, if not years, of interminable debate [and] at least two Ph.D. dissertations.” Artists who vandalize typically do not believe that they are vandalizing, and it is this argument that seems to hold up in court and proves successful in releasing artists without charge. Jubal Brown’s vomiting performances never faced any legal consequences. Notably, some believe that Brown is not to blame for his actions, rather his institution. In 2007, a video bomb hoax was later identified as an art project by two students at the same school. The project continues a tradition of controversial artwork by OCAD students, including Brown’s. Critics stated in response to the hoax that, “the incidents raise questions of whether the university is properly instructing its students on the ethical dimensions of art.” Perhaps ethical dimensions of art are not being taught as most institutions shy away from confining a student’s creative expression. Currently the boundaries of art seem infinite, and we constantly ask the question, “What is art?”
Is there Validity in the Vandalism of Art as Art?
The institutionalized theory of art, or the widely accepted idea that something—anything at all—is art if the artist says it is and the art world accepts the artist’s intentions, makes the concept of defining art nearly impossible.
Despite the problematic ethics of vandalism, we must conclude that vandalism as art practice has made an impact on the history of art. Vandalism, regardless of its negative connotations is undoubtedly an expression of some emotion, belief or talent, just as any work of art. Although it is ironic that vandalism as art practice—a destructive act towards art—is meant to result in the creation of art, a new image does invariably come to life. Artists such as Jubal Brown, who vomited on paintings as a critique, Jake Platt, who added to Yoko Ono's installation, or Mark Bridger, who claimed to complete Damien Hirst's work, all feel strongly that their actions define art, contrary to the belief that the acts are motivated by envy or a desire for publicity. As we consider the difficulty in punishing these vandals for their crimes due to the complexity of determining what art is, it is evident that vandalism as artistic practice, whether you like it or not, has a valid place in the world of art.