Vandalism in Art

By Staff Writer Izzy Turner

On the 7th October 2012, Vladimir Umanets, a 26 year old Polish man walks into the Tate Modern. He approaches ‘Black on Maroon’, a work by Mark Rothko with an estimated worth of £5million. He takes out a brush with some black paint and paints his signature directly onto the canvas along with the statement ‘A Potential Piece of Yellowism.’ His actions earned him a two year jail sentence and cost £200,000 in restoration costs.

So what leads people to vandalise highly valuable and irreplaceable works of art? For Umanets it was an artistic statement of ‘Yellowism,’ an artistic philosophy whose online manifesto makes quite dubious claims such as ‘yellowism is not art or anti-art.’ He said he was following the work of Duchamp who with his infamous 1917 ‘Fountain’ urinal, advocated the idea that you can take any object and assign a new meaning to it. Whilst Duchamp’s appropriation is one of the most significant moments in twentieth century art, Umanets is one of many high profile cases of art vandalism for the purposes of a creative statement.

What could be called art vandalism has often been artists using someone else’s art for their own creative purposes. But some have managed to achieve international acclaim rather than a jail sentence. One of Ai Weiwei’s most provocative works was ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ (1995) where the artist is photographed smashing what would be considered to many as a precious cultural antique. He also painted over a Han dynasty urn with a coca-cola logo in 1994 and in doing so visualised the clash in Chinese society between consumer-driven progress and historic preservation. Although in2014 one of Ai Weiwei’s vases was smashed by someone in protest against the gallery. This was deemed vandalism which raises the question of why is smashing a vase acceptable only if you are an acclaimed artist?


Art has also been appropriated, and some would argue vandalised, in performance art. In 1999, the two artists Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi stripped to their trousers in the Tate Britain, jumped on the Turner Prize exhibit Tracy Emin’s ‘My Bed’ and subsequently had a pillow fight. Although the audience thought this was part of the show, this was not an official event and both were arrested yet not charged. In performing this intervention in Emin’s work they said that they wanted to push the idea further, even saying that it needed an actual sexual act on the bed to fully respond to the work. In 2000, the pair returned to the Tate Modern and attempted to urinate in Duchamps’s Fountain. It is fortunately encased in a glass box.


Many cases of art vandalism are also intended as a political statement. Art is often created as a strong political statement in itself; therefore its desecration can similarly be a high profile declaration for a political issue. An infamous case occurred at the height of the suffragette movement in 1914 when Mary Richardson attacked the Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver saying “Yes, I am a suffragette. You can get another picture, but you cannot get a life, as they are killing Mrs Pankhurst.” Emmeline Pankhurst was a hunger strike at the time. In 1974 Picasso’s Guernica had the words ‘LIES ALL LIES’ and ‘KILL’ spray painted on by Tony Shafrazi in protest against the Vietnam war and President Nixon’s pardon of William Calley after his involvement in the My Lai massacre. Although many would argue that anti-war protests do not need to involve criminal vandalism, it shows that one of the greatest artistic anti-war statements of the twentieth century still had the potential to protest the destruction of war nearly forty years after it was painted.

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Thankfully the skill of restorers means that almost all damages can be rectified. Nevertheless art vandalism for creative purposes raises questions of whether using and potentially destroying someone else art can ever be claimed as your own artistic endeavour. Is it a postmodern appropriation - conceptually remaking a work for a new audience? Or is it reckless destruction – a vanity project for those with no new ideas of their own? Picasso himself stated “every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” Yet I think many would agree – let’s not take this too literally.



Other slightly more amusing stories include:

-        A group of drunk intruders broke into the Musee d’Orsay in 2007 and made a 10cm hole In Monet’s ‘Argenteuil Bridge’

-        There have been cases of people kissing works of art, leaving lipstick stains, including a woman who was ‘overcome with passion’ upon seeing CY Twombly’s Untitled Triptych

-        A Banksy work of a gorilla in a pink face mask was whitewashed by the building’s owner in 2011 as he said he had never heard of the artist.


This apparently is ‘Yellowism’ -

Who's the vandal: Ai Weiwei or the man who smashed his Han urn? -