Today I begin a two-part series considering some aspects of the relationship between civilization and contemporary art, as a result of two rather interesting but on the surface very different news stories from the art world.
As a caveat, in using the term “contemporary art” I am of course aware that this is an unwieldy, overly-broad designation, which includes a wide variety of artists – some of whom actually know how to paint, sculpt, etc. That being said it is true that we are witnessing in certain quarters of the art world a number of disturbing parallels to what we see in society, with respect to the erosion of principles that have until now kept us comparatively civilized. So let us begin our consideration of these matters with the story of the arrest of a fugitive art vandal, since by its very nature that sounds like an exciting place to start.
Yesterday a 22-year-old man whose name I will not repeat (he has had far too much press already), who was wanted in connection with charges of felony graffiti and criminal mischief, turned himself into authorities on the U.S./Mexican border crossing in McAllen, Texas. The accused, an artist who described himself as being aligned with the “Occupy” movement, had vandalized a painting by Picasso at the Menil Collection in Houston this past June. His actions were allegedly captured on camera by a bystander in the gallery, who then posted the video to YouTube. This “artist” subsequently fled to Mexico, until he was able to negotiate his surrender to police.
The Menil Collection is home to art accumulated in the 20th century by the de Menil family, one of those blendings of European aristocracy and American fortune which have often benefited both sides of the Atlantic (e.g., Churchill.) Arguably the de Menils’ most important legacy in the history of modern art was their commissioning of the interfaith space now known as the “Rothko Chapel”, as a result of a series of large, black paintings by Mark Rothko which decorate it. While I personally do not care for Rothko, you may recall I positively reviewed the exhibition of these paintings at the National Gallery, when they were here in Washington a few years ago.
It seems to me rather curious that this museum was chosen by the alleged vandal. For while not everything in the Menil Collection is modern or contemporary art, that area of collecting certainly predominates there, and much of that art was originally created to challenge what was perceived by the artists themselves as being a too-conservative political, social, or cultural establishment. Alongside the Picasso at issue are works by Magritte, Matisse, Warhol, and many other important 20th century artists. One would have thought that this would make the Menil rather more like a temple for adherents of “Occupy”, instead of a site to be targeted for some sort of half-baked plot against capitalism or taking baths.
Why this Picasso in particular, his “Woman in a Red Armchair” from 1929, happened to be targeted we do not know. The perpetrator, whomever the courts determine him to be, stenciled a bull and the word “conquista”, Spanish for “conquest”, onto the painting before fleeing the building. Curators at the gallery were able to quickly remove the work and take it to their conservation department, though reports are that restoration of the painting is still ongoing.
Art vandalism has taken place throughout history, and for various reasons – theological, political, social, or simply as a result of mental illness. It is a subject which I have treated extensively before, and no doubt will regrettably have occasion to do so again. Yet in this particular case, what is deeply disturbing is not only the act itself, but also a disturbing detail of this story, which involves the aforementioned bystander.
The “artist” who allegedly damaged this painting is someone who, like much of contemporary society, is an untalented individual clearly out to make a name for himself, rather than to demonstrate any actual artistic competence. It is hardly the work of the ages to paint with a stencil. In fact, I can recall the nuns using a stencil to paint pictures of flowers, trees, and geometric patterns to brighten up the hallways of my primary school, with a comparatively more pleasing effect.
However our real derision must fall on the person who stood by and did nothing, other than film this vandalism. For not only did he watch the perpetrator while he was vandalizing the painting without attempting to intervene, but he actually met with the person a few days later, and discussed the event with him. Darker minds than mine will ask whether this was pure happenstance, but be that as it may.
And the eyewitness’ response to what took place? “I thought it was pretty cool how he walked up to the painting without fear, sprayed [sic] painted it and walked off.” What a wonderful expression of civic responsibility, public-spiritedness, and respect for the property of others. I suppose should I ever have the misfortune to meet this individual, he will not complain too loudly when I knock him over and take his iPhone from him – perhaps I should do so while wearing my Superman costume, because that would be “pretty cool” also.
The understanding that what is mine is not yours to do with as you see fit is enshrined in our Constitution and the other foundational documents of our nation. They were, naturally enough, largely adopted through precedent from English common law. That, in turn, as indeed is the case with all ancient systems of law, grew out of an appreciation that civilization and anarchy cannot peacefully co-exist. The fact that at some point in the past we realized that I cannot come into your cave and drag off your mastodon carcass for my dinner, simply because I am twice your size, is due to the hard work of centuries of our ancestors to fight against the human tendency toward anarchy, which ion the end is really nothing more than selfishness writ large.
By not doing anything at all, the eyewitness to this event has demonstrated quite clearly what we can see throughout our society: a rising tide of indifference or even of outright hostility toward fundamental principles of civilization. We can see the celebration of destructive acts by no-name artists, such as the alleged criminal here, or by household-name artists, such as the Chapman Brothers or the individual known as “Banksy”, making anti-social behavior paradoxically more and more socially acceptable. It is a perhaps a chicken-and-egg question as to whether contemporary art is influencing the culture, or vice versa, but this almost sociopathic inability to think about the impact of our selfishness on civilization is something which contemporary art seems to be in the vanguard of encapsulating for our consideration.
Tomorrow we will look at the rather interesting case of one of the most prominent of contemporary artists, and how his desire to destroy of the concept of property rights in works of art is fracturing the contemporary art community itself.
“Woman in a Red Armchair” by Picasso (1929) [before vandalization]
Menil Collection, Houston