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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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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

13 replies on “Basquiat Defaced in Paris, But Does it Matter?”

    1. Of course, but I’d like to consider this problem less from a collector’s point of view and more from an artist’s point of view. Should a work be considered dead once it hits the wall? Can things change? Works by artists like Rudolf Stingel are actually meant to be destroyed.

      Should all art be like street art, mutable and temporal? Probably not, but it’s interesting to think about.

      1. I think art already is mutable and temporal, and it’s beyond our control. Paintings seen as revolutionary 100-200 years ago become conservative to contemporary eyes. Something shocking (at the time) like a Manet is pretty tame compared to something like Piss Christ nowadays.

      2. Well, how much of a dialogue or discussion can we really consider vandalism of art to be? It seems to me that its less dialogue or discussion than it is self important monologue. Vandalism of this type brooks no disagreement or dissenting opinions to itself, as it is an act of possibly permanent alteration or actual destruction of the subject of this supposed discussion.

        1. Permanent vandalism like this is more of a monologue. The more traditional way of arguing with a work or critiquing it is making new art that reacts to it, entirely separate pieces distinct from the original offender. I would just ask if there’s possibly a different way to do it- are there any other contexts, such as in rudolf stingel’s work, that vandalism and destruction are negotiated within the piece?

  1. Rauschenberg’s action was legitimate because he asked de Kooning to provide him with a drawing that he could erase. As such, it was a collaboration. Shafrazi’s gesture was a self-aggrandizing act of vandalism that he justified by co-opting Picasso’s political intent for “Guernica”. Despite the “blacklisting”, Shafrazi parlayed his act of destruction into a successful career as (wait for it) an art dealer.

    1. As I understand it, Shafrazi was mostly blacklisted by museums, and many still don’t lend works to his gallery. It’s a good distinction between the erased de Kooning and this case, but I think the erased de Kooning does constitute an act of destruction as art. The point that de Kooning agreed to it is largely irrelevant to me; it would’ve been the same if Rauschenberg bought or stole it.

      I guess the question is whether willful, un-“commissioned” vandalism of art can constitute art in itself. I mean I’d think that guy smashing off Michelangelo’s Jesus’ toe was carrying out an artistic act. A destructive one, but artistic and interesting nonetheless.

      This pen mark is like a minor, twee version of that.

      1. It was known that Shafrazi artists were not acquired by the MoMA for ages. Also, many critics refused to review his shows. For instance, I think Saltz only started reviewing Shafrazi shows recently.

  2. “Should a work be considered dead once it hits the wall? Can things change?”

    You should talk to a professional art restorer about this. (They’ll probably say that a work is most certainly not dead and that things can change.)

    “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?”

    Street art is not a “kind of vandalism”. Some street artistic acts are also acts of vandalism, but not all. In any case, why should his street art beginning have any bearing on how we preserve his non-street art? I don’t really see why your question is interesting because I don’t see how a remotely plausible argument for a negative answer would go.

    1. The argument isn’t over restoration of a piece: sure it can deteriorate, and yes, any art restorer will tell you that. So will Anselm Kiefer. This is about conscious acts of change upon a work, not passive degradation.

      Defining vandalism as an act that is performed on a target that was not made or built for it to be performed on, all street art is certainly vandalism. I’m not using it in a pejorative sense, just in a strict factual definition. Is Basquiat’s later art really entirely “non-street art”? I’d be more inclined to see his work in more of a continuum. In any case, the artist’s visual language is based on vernacular markings often found on the street, which I think makes him more susceptible to this kind of vandalism, as would a Cy Twombly.

      In regards to say, an early Keith Haring subway poster, we appropriate that from its original street context, frame it, and put it in a museum. Is this best for the work, or should the work get marked up and die? I’d be inclined to say the latter.

      1. I think you might have missed my point about the art restorer. They would acknowledge not merely that art deteriorates, but that, when it does, it needs to be restored. Often the restoration process involves taking great liberties with the work, changing it in ways that the original artist might not have foreseen or even cared for. (These are “conscious acts of change upon a work, not passive degradation”.)

        I didn’t take you to be using “vandalism” in a pejorative sense; I thought you were using in its normal legal sense, though looking at your definition I have some doubts. Your definition of “vandalism” would seem to count many things as vandalism that clearly aren’t. Is a person dancing on a table vandalism? (They’re dancing on something that wasn’t make to be danced on.) Is kissing in a movie theater vandalism? (Movie theaters weren’t made for people to kiss in them.)

        An essential thing your definition misses is the fact that vandalism requires (is?) the deliberate destruction of property. Some street art does not deliberately destroy property, so some street art is not vandalism.

        I don’t know what you mean when you say that you see Basquiat’s work “in more of a continuum”. Can’t you see it that way and still admit that his later work is not street art?

        Your question “Is this best for the [Haring piece], or should the work get marked up and die?” misses the best option. In my view, removing it is destroying it. So is marking it up. The best thing would be to just leave it alone.

  3. Maybe you could update your news report : the Basquiat had been vandalized before it arrived in Paris; this was confirmed by photos of the painting taken at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, where the Basquiat show was previously.
    Two examples you could add to your list : the Cambodgian artist who kissed with a red lipstick a Cy Twombly painting at the Lambert Foundation in Avignon, and Pierre Pinoncelli who peed in a Duchamp’s urinal in Nîmes and broke another one at Pompidou.
    Also see Dario Gamboni, “Un iconoclasme moderne, Théorie et pratiques contemporaines du Vandalisme artistique”, published by the Swiss Art History Institute in Zurich in 1983, with a rich list of vandalized works and an interesting theoretical approach.

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