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.
Corinna Nicole (author) from Huntsville, AL on December 20, 2014:
Thank you for your insight.
I should add quotation marks around "self-proclaimed artist" as it is not my wording...that title came from the research I had used to write this. But I fully agree with you that he is most certainly an artist in every right.
Mark Driberg on June 02, 2014:
I would like to correct this article on a couple of points.
Firstly 'self proclaimed artist' is a derogatory description for an artist who studied art at a well known art college after being an assistant to a well known sculptor, made some sculptures for a well known park has exhibited and curated exhibitions for other artists and sold works. Secondly in my recollection the judge dismissed Hirst's requests for damages with very little hesitation. The defence was that Hirst could benefit from the publicity. One well known art critic declared the incident proved Hirsts work was art and he was nominated for the Turner prize at the next opportunity. Post interaction the financial value of the work increased a hundred fold.
epsonok0 on August 22, 2013:
Art vandalizing is prevalent in another form in cities. The use of graffiti. Is without a doubt breathtaking in some cases. This art brings its audience in because the individual had the audacity to ruin a wall of a building. The art itself is breathtaking and if done on canvas would be a work of airbrushing or just a common image. This is the roots of the double edged sword present in expression. Art in any form is always a two sided argument. Some people like it, some hate it.
I myself cannot stand some forms of expressionism. While others pay tens of thousands of dollars for it.
Corinna Nicole (author) from Huntsville, AL on August 22, 2013:
Thanks for reading, Markjb.
Corinna Nicole (author) from Huntsville, AL on August 22, 2013:
Thank you for your response kulewriter.
I certainly don't think anything about an artist vandalizing another artist's work is "reasonable." Yes, the artists have their reasons, but the acts are meant to shock and draw attention to commentary.
Trust me, I'd be very disappointed if anyone vandalized my art for whatever reason the vandal might have.
Corinna Nicole (author) from Huntsville, AL on August 22, 2013:
Thank you for your thoughtful response Vincent.
I myself couldn't touch another's work, either...and personally, I'd much rather write about my displeasure with a work of art. But in all honesty, it wouldn't get the same kind of attention. Perhaps it is so important to the vandalizing artist that attention is brought to their commentary, that an elaborate performance is the only way they feel they can get it...even at the stake of facing consequences.
But art is indeed tricky, especially when it comes to the question of what can considered a valid art medium.
Markjb on August 15, 2013:
Vincent Beers on August 06, 2013:
For me there are two very clear factors to consider:
1. You can (in theory) make anything into art. Whether or not someone else wants to pay you for doing so is something else entirely (and not relevant to this conversation). To make a long story short, yes vandalism is in itself an art form if the artist states it as such.
2. Damaging someone's property is against the law. If you don't own it, you shouldn't be altering it.
If (for the sake of argument) both of these statements are true, where does that leave us?
Simple really: Artists are free to make artwork out of anything, assuming they own it. If you want to buy someone's painting and vandalize it, that is your business. You can feel free to paint over or vomit on the Mona Lisa, assuming you actually own it.
Imagine for a moment you are in an art store in the aisle full of blank canvas, can you simply sit there and splash paint on the blank canvas? Sure you are technically creating art but you don't own the canvas (or even the paint if you are stealing it from the store), you have no right to vandalize blank canvas that you don't own.
As a work of art I see no difference here, your canvas can be blank or it can be a 1000 year old masterwork of art that you feel like painting over (or vomiting on); but you simply can't do that unless you actually own all of the components you are working with (or contracted to do the work for someone else)
We've seen the same thing with graffiti over the years. (stupid tagging and deliberate damage aside) There are some beautiful works of graffiti in the world with very elaborate full scale images on buildings and canal walls all over the world. Is it art? yes. Was it legal? that depends.
In the early days of the graffiti movement most of the time it was property damage; today sometimes graffiti artists are asked to do the work to beautify a structure.
That's my stance on vandalism; is it art? sure, technically yes. But unless you actually own (or get contracted to work on) the piece you want to vandalize, it's also a crime and should be punished as one (typically destruction of property or whatever is relevant to the local laws and the type of damage done)
As an artist myself there are some paintings that I want to "paint over" or add things to. It's an urge, a desire to expand on the art or comment on the art. Is that vandalism? probably. But I will never "touch" someone's piece without permission.
With the modern works it's not even hard to reproduce; some idiot paints rectangles and you want to vandalize it... go paint your own rectangles and than vandalize it. Put that out into the art world and say "you are commenting with your own artistic expression as a response to xxx". But if you actually walk into a gallery and vandalize something you don't have permission to touch, it's no different to me than walking into an art store and claiming all the blank canvases there are yours to paint on as an expression of art... nope, its an expression of theft or destruction of property, the end result might be art, but you still broke the law to get there. Buy the blank canvas (or whatever artwork) you want to "paint (vomit) over" with your vandal urges, or make y our own
I'm pretty sure at some point I will repaint the Mona lisa just so I can spill paint on it. But I won't be trying to ruin the original (mainly because I don't own it)
Ronald Joseph Kule from Florida on June 03, 2013:
The act of defiling another's work of art, or work from an artist if you believe it's not "art," is disgusting. Behind it, I believe, is the same lack of self-respect common to any criminal. One quoted in the Hub even stated an aversion for "consequences." Such lack of regard for consequence is one side of a coin the other side of which is labeled, "lack of responsibility."
To find these acts and this trend "reasonable" signifies the overall drop in the survival values of our society today. Let the would-be vandal, instead, attempt his own work of art from scratch, and the new will judge that.
Corinna Nicole (author) from Huntsville, AL on May 10, 2013:
Ha! That's interesting. You'd think I would have been notified? lol, well I appreciate your vote!
Helen Lush from Cardiff, Wales, UK on May 09, 2013:
That is very strange! I found this hub yesterday from the Rising Star nominees page in the Art & Design section. Looking for it today, I can no longer find it...mysterious. Great hub anyway:-)
Corinna Nicole (author) from Huntsville, AL on May 08, 2013:
Thank you DaffodilSky! I'm glad you enjoyed my article. I agree, there are other ways to comment about someone's artwork - why not become an art critic and write about it, lol!
I get that artists like to make statements and there's certainly creativity behind their thought processes and actions, but lines have definitely been crossed. As an artist myself, I have too much respect for other artists' works of art, knowing what it may mean to them personally and how much of their heart they may have put into it.
I haven't heard of the Rising Star you mentioned, but thank you for your vote!
Helen Lush from Cardiff, Wales, UK on May 08, 2013:
Very interesting and well written article. I knew about some of these cases, ie. the Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin - they were news items at the time- which only seemed to serve as PR for the (already famous) artists involved! Like others posting above, I think these vandals should have more respect and make their "comment" by creating their own art. Voted up, interesting, and you have my vote for Rising Star.
Corinna Nicole (author) from Huntsville, AL on May 06, 2013:
Ytsenoh, thanks for your comment! I also don't condone vandalism of art, for whatever reason - I'd hate it if someone did such a thing to my art! But like you mentioned, it's certainly an interesting topic for discussion :)
Cathy from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri on May 06, 2013:
I must say this is an interesting concept which I've never heard of before, so I can also say I learned something new. Thank you. I don't agree, however, with anyone vandalizing art in any fashion because I think it would be disrespectful to the true or real or established artist that put so much time, energy and thought into their piece of work. It would be like someone throwing egg yolk across the Mona Lisa. Why not just write your comments down somewhere. I find vomiting on a piece of work repulsive. Okay, all that in one hand because there's always the emotional hand. Personally, if I didn't like a piece of art, I would have an opinion, but I would never vandalize it. Needless to say, you've certainly brought up a topic for conversation, so I have to give you thumbs up.
Corinna Nicole (author) from Huntsville, AL on May 05, 2013:
Thanks for your insightful comment epsonok0! I that vandalizing your own work is an acceptable form of critique, and I can understand how a viewer would be intrigued by your thought processes and the rawness of your emotion on the canvas
epsonok0 on May 05, 2013:
This hub brings to mind my own beliefs. I am an artist and I like some of the vandals mentioned believe there is such a drought of true master full work anymore. This problem may stem from several things. One being the ease in obtaining the materials. The materials themselves being easier to use. And finally the ease in obtaining artistic instruction. In the time of davinci one could not simply paint. The materials were expensive and hard to use, people did not have what we call spare time, and on top of all that. True instruction was hard to come by.
All that being said. I will never, ever defile someone elses works. However I will my own. In 2003 I sold a painting on paper. This painting was a crab that I had thrown a very saturated blue brush at. And had ruined. The painting was also done on a Bristol board that I had cut out of a sketch I was disgusted with.
This Criticism of my own work moved the lady strongly and pushed her to pay whatever she had to, to convince the gallery and me to let it go.
I applaud the audacity of the vandals portrayed.
True expersion in whatever form. Is a breath of fresh air.
Corinna Nicole (author) from Huntsville, AL on May 04, 2013:
Alex Munkachy from Honolulu, Hawaii on May 03, 2013:
Great artistic thinking.
Corinna Nicole (author) from Huntsville, AL on April 26, 2013:
Thanks do much Nell! This is indeed a very complex topic.
To comment on the bed piece, the reason behind Tracy Emin "making" the piece is more interesting. That display was how her bed and surrounding area looked after several months of depression, where she hardly got out of bed.
I agree that the vandals should pay for their crime...I would be so mad if someone vandalized my art for any reason!
Glad you took in every word and enjoyed the read! :)
Corinna Nicole (author) from Huntsville, AL on April 26, 2013:
It's valid in the world of art in that they happened and deserve discussion. How they define themselves as artists or art students is of their own accord. I'm not stating an opinion of whether what they did is a valid form of art or not. These are case studies presented before you to provoke thought. As far as their other work - not something I was able to find for most, which may or may not speak to the type of artist they are.
SilentReed from Philippines on April 25, 2013:
This is an interesting topic but one finds in hard to understand the motivation of these "artists"
I would be interested to know what work of art have these artist/vandals produce of their own other than those they deface? This would allow the reader a better perspective in forming their opinion on the "artistic" action. What qualifies them to call themselves "artist" and not just some street punk destroying private property. I can appreciate graffiti as an art form, but vomiting on a painting and say it has a valid place in the world of art? The paper in the shit tray of a bird cage can produce a more valid statement.:)
Nell Rose from England on April 23, 2013:
Wow! this was pretty deep to read, but saying that, I took in every word! that was absolutely fascinating! I have never heard of this so called 'anti art' if you like, especially the part when the artists can't prosecute the vandal for doing nasty things to their artwork! Mind you I did smile when I read about Hirst, by allowing the the vandals 'ruination' to add to his artwork was a great way to get his own back! hope when the boy sued he didn't get anywhere!
Lets be honest though, some of these so called artworks are absolute trash, we can all make a bed, cut up a toilet and add bits, and so on, but is it fair to vandalise them for the vandals own gains? I do believe that its out of pure jealousy of the artists work, lets face it, we would all like to make a bed and earn millions of pounds or dollars, that's what I believe is behind it, but of course hiding behind the so called 'I added to the artwork' saying, it's a great way to get away with it. do I agree with the vandals? no, because whether you like it or not, that work is copyright to the owner, and to be vandalised should be an act of ruin culminating in a court case and damages paid, what a great hub! fascinating reading, and something I never knew! voted up and shared! nell