Basquiat Defaced in Paris, But Does it Matter?

Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Cadillac Moon 1981” (1981) (image from dailymail.co.uk)

An attacker “brandishing a felt-tipped pen” has vandalized a Basquiat painting on display at Paris’ Modern Art Museum, the Daily Mail reports. Yet the victim, a work called “Cadillac Moon 1981,” (seen at left) “is of such an abstract nature that it took at least a few days for experts to notice the graffiti.” Eventually, “The restorer of the exhibition noticed the work has been slightly marked with a pen,” said museum director Fabrice Hergott. So a minor mark was made on a painting whose creator was known for his own vandalism. Is this, or should this be, a big deal?

How sanctified is art when it hits a museum’s walls? When an artist who founded their career on a kind of vandalism, street art, as Basquiat did, should we be overprotective of the artist’s own works? This Paris case brings to mind questions of the ongoing dialogue of artistic practice and the state of the museum as Ivory Tower. We maintain the integrity of works of art because we see them as historically important, as time capsules of the art historical period they represent. But maybe, the conversation doesn’t have to stop at museum walls. Does vandalism constitute a legitimate gesture of criticism and dialogue, or is it just a publicity stunt?

Robert Rauschenberg, “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (1953) (image from sfmoma.org)

Robert Rauschenberg once erased a De Kooning drawing to create his own work of art. Prominent art dealer Tony Shafrazi got his first big press break when he was arrested for spray painting “KILL LIES ALL” onto Picasso’s famed “Guernica” in an attempt to bring the painting back to its revolutionary political roots and away from the sterilization of its museum context. The action caused an uproar in the art community and resulted in Shafrazi’s blacklisting. More recently, Poster Boy vandalized subway ads to bring attention to their stupidity and omnipresence. The Underbelly Project poked at issues of privacy and access when it installed a secretive exhibition in an abandoned subway station, vandalizing public property.

In these situations and in the art world at large, the museum represents a sort of safety zone where the more no-holds-barred art discussions are off limits. Shafrazi’s vandalism was unacceptable, but Rauschenberg’s created new art. This may be because museums are more mainstream spaces, and must exhibit already-canonized works that usually already held sacred in the annals of art history. Yet museums are often critiqued for being too set in their ways, too aloof to participate in the hurly-burly of contemporary dialogue. Might vandalizing an art work be considered a legitimate institutional critique, or is a piece of art so pure and so important that it should remain unchanging on a white wall?

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