Many people have been raising questions about how the media should treat attention whores like the Yellowists, who are obviously committing crimes to fan the fires of fame. This is a question that confronts any journalist when covering something that is both criminal and possibly a ploy to attract attention for specific purposes, like art sales. It’s a difficult quagmire to navigate.

Houston-based artist Brian Piana had this suggestion via Twitter:

But this criminal ploy is nothing new to the culture industry and artists of all stripes (or their press agents) often have the skills to play the media like a fiddle. Rap artists in the 1980s and ’90s were often in crime-related headlines that helped propel their music careers, while street artists have grabbed headlines for over a decade for stunts that often get them arrested (for instance, Poster Boy) and drive their fame. Every d-list Hollywood celebrity knowns that a well-timed and coordinated sex tape, tweet, affair, or appearance can do wonders for the publicity of their new projects. Even in the art field, Tony Shafrazi used his vandalism of Picasso’s “Guernica” at MoMA to help propel him into the art world.

Should we not publish the names of these criminals? My opinion is we should publish the names but as a community we should take a stand that this isn’t going to be their vehicle to stardom. Take the case of the Houston Picasso vandal, who in June stenciled a bullfighter killing a bull with the word “conquista” underneath. It was an orchestrated ploy that he justified by some mumbo jumbo that includes this lame claim, “I dedicate this to all the people out there who have suffered for any injustice of every kind.” This month, this same Picasso vandal is opening a show in Houston by an opportunistic gallerist, who is standing by his right to show the punk.

The show is titled “Houston We Have A Problem,” but what is interesting is the backlash to the exhibition that has been generated online. The Great God Pan Is Dead art blog has been tracking the story and has posted many interesting comments about the incident, including the fact that the show has caused a riff between the two gallery partners, with one withdrawing from the gallery altogether as a result of the show.

The Houston art community is rightly appalled by this show devoted to what appears to be a lousy artist (though one wonders if the disgust would be the same if he wasn’t so bad). This statement was the most touching (the Houston Picasso vandal’s name is Uriel):

This appears to be a better solution to dealing with the culprits, rather than refusing to publish the names. The actions of these people are often from a distorted sense of self of worth and/or entitlement. The curious thing about the Tate Rothko incident is that the person responsible for defacing the Rothko gave this as one of the explanations for his actions:

I believe that if someone restores the [Rothko] piece and removes my signature the value of the piece would be lower but after a few years the value will go higher because of what I did.

Other than being deluded, the Tate Rothko defacer also doesn’t understand how these things work. The value (cultural or otherwise) didn’t go up when Shafrazi graffitied “KILL LIES ALL” on “Guernica” and in fact it has only made it in the history books as a curious footnote that has little if any meaning. The Tate Rothko incident will be the same. The best that the Tate Rothko offender can hope for is that he will be able to parlay his 15 minutes of fame into something else — Shafrazi turned his into a career selling graffiti and contemporary art, though he is still reputedly being blacklisted by MoMA and others.

In other words, the news of the Tate Rothko incident is already waning and the clock is ticking. Namaste, dude.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

33 replies on “Should We Ignore Art Vandals?”

  1. Not sure why you also didn’t ask yourself if you should ignore graffiti
    artists also? Many of whom are also “attention whores”, “obviously
    committing crimes to fan the fires of fame”.

    Can you explain what
    makes this different from a graffiti artist getting their piece in a
    place for everyone to see? Is it that we need to discourage the
    defacement of critically acclaimed art?

    1. Good observation. I was thinking the same thing. Didn’t Banksy place unauthorized work in a museum? He didn’t damage property… but he still broke the law — and art world media praised him for it. Hate to say it… but the art press, in general, has long sent the message that it is ‘cool’ to break the law in order to receive recognition. I mean, if you are OK with property being destroyed for one direction in art… it kind of makes you a hypocrite if you lash out at another artist for destroying something that you value.

      1. Is it actually against the law to sneak work into a museum exhibition assuming no breaking and entering is involved? And do you seriously believe that Banksy’s interventions, like them or not, are analogous to tagging Guernica?

        1. It could very well be against the law depending on the rules of the institution as well as city ordinances regarding such actions. As for Banksy… I think he is a Blek le Rat wannabe. Period.

    2. Dash Snow comes to mind as well… as I recall, he destroyed a hotel room for one of his projects — and was praised for it. True, there is a difference between a hotel room and a work of art in a museum — but property is property. Should an artist be lashed out at for taking art that involves vandalism a step further? Interesting debate.

      1. Property is property? Seriously? So there is no difference between a work of art and a hotel room? I naively like to think that art has some value in this world that goes beyond mere dollars and ownership (despite the breathless reporting of art auctions and art fairs that goes on in the art/society press).

        1. Robert… note that I said “True, there is a difference between a hotel room and a work of art in a museum — but property is property.”. Note also that an illegal act is an illegal act no matter how it is justified. If I killed a serial killer I’m sure people would show me support — but the act of murder, no matter who is murdered, is still illegal.

    3. I’m not sure why this didn’t post when I sent it yesterday but here it is again:

      I did ask myself but I don’t see these issues as the same thing, though some people might. Public space is a different factor with different dynamics, and I think public speech is a factor.

      Some graffiti artists are very talented and communicate interesting things, some graffiti artists are just assholes that want to fuck shit up and should be ignored IMHO — they’re not the same, in other words not all graffiti artists are the same.
      I see these issues as grey but in the case of the Tate Rothko vandal, I think it’s pretty clear that he was doing, just like with the Houston Picasso vandal.

      1. Certainly grey. Of course, there are also some graffiti artists out there who are talented with interesting ideas who are also assholes who want to fuck shit up.

        It’s troubling that Uriel’s communication skills and verbal explanation weigh so heavily in judging his action. I’m not sure this was intended as a conceptual work of art. Why are we so quick to disregard an action based on an explanation? Guess that’s the art world.

        Also makes me wonder what living artist would be permitted to go over a Rothko or Picasso and who decides this? Under what conditions would this be acceptable?

        1. I think it would be a negotiation, but in this case I think there is a type of objects/art that slip into the cultural heritage category that probably will never be touched. I’m thinking of the horror we had when the Taliban dynamited the giant ancient Buddha in Afghanistan. I don’t think that’s ok.

          1. I think who decides it is “who is willing to exercise their agency or power in this manner”. Who decides who gets to paint? The person pricing the paints.

            Who decides who gets to make a giant piece of public art? The person funding the art.

            Who decides who gets to blow up a giant statue. The government holding the weapons.

            I like how much we act like these discussions are actually about taste or art theory when on a much more basic level it’s just commerce and power dynamics as always.

            Erased de kooning is great and all, but stolen and erased de kooning? IT’s a different piece.

          2. As a graffiti artist I would have to disagree with some of the things being said cause “true graffiti artists” dislike the ones that want to jas you said, fuck shit up almost as much as the every day person. Most graffiti artists create something visually stunning to the public, and alot of times to enable our creations to go off without any issues we do consider P-walls more often than not. I cannot speak for the entire community but I personally know may artist that would much rather have permission and take our time creating somthjng awesome, rather than have to hope we have enough time. As well as we are trying to create art, not deface something else. Think of a tattoo. The customer wants art on their body, we provide that for them. It’s the same with alot of graffiti artists, we would rather do something exravegant and be praised for it rather than run down the street and scratch our names into whatever possible. Mind you the whole just writing names on shit was actually a means of marking territory more commonly used with gang affiliation. A “burner” is art, its not for territorial dominance it’s just to say man this wall is bland, look at this awesome picture I painted to lighten the mood.

        2. they don’t need to be permitted. Something doesn’t need to be legal to be art. Much in the way of art is illegal. Much in the way of illegal expression is boring.

    4. I did ask myself but I don’t see these issues as the same thing, though some people might. Public space is a different factor with different dynamics, and I think public speech is a factor. Some graffiti artists are very talented and communicate interesting things, some graffiti artists are just assholes that want to fuck shit up and should be ignored IMHO — they’re not the same.

      I see these issues as grey but in the case of the Tate Rothko vandal, I think it’s pretty clear that he was doing, just like with the Houston Picasso vandal.

  2. you haven’t made the connection with the most famous of art vandals though you write about her a post or two down on the blog– the beast jesus vandal/restorer/artist. different circumstances of course and her work comes in between vandals like the picasso ones and now rothko, but she’s certainly upped the game nonetheless. she shows you can be crazy famous by ‘intervening’ with art.

  3. about the yellowism guy, from someone who has had them, this sounds like mental issues. Possibly mania? Grandeur, drive to create, unable to keep his mouth shut or understand here he ends and other people begin? Seems familiar.

  4. If the media continues to create minor celebrities out of useless bigots like pastor Terry Jones, I can’t see them holding back on attention whores whose actions don’t lead to the death of innocents.

    1. I don’t know, Rob. I feel like there’s a consensus on streakers at sports matches, and their names don’t get reported. Maybe something similar? I actually think if the crime was more egregious it would mean it was more likely to be reported with their name, etc.

      1. I believe a major difference is that there’s little debate about whether streaking is to be taken seriously or not, beyond it being a prank and/or publicity stunt. It’s really not newsworthy, other than for injecting some colour into drab sports coverage. Meanwhile, I think there will always be journalists and bloggers who will be covering pranks like this in the art world, and debate, even if it’s one-sided, will ensue.

        I’m with you, Hrag. In incidents such as the Rothko vandalism, I think we’re better off collectively working to ensure such acts don’t lead to fame, beyond the perverse 15 minutes they’re more or less guaranteed. It’s a difficult goal — especially given the economics at play behind major blogs and news websites, who will capitalize on something like this to drive pageviews without providing any critical perspective — but it’s one worth striving for.

  5. This has been a subject for my freshmen during work time in class. The lack of consent is something that came up. Perhaps if the piece was bought before being defaced, but then again it probably wouldn’t have had the impact that it did. Or would it? If it was purchased then it smacks of the iPhone 5 destruction videos on YouTube. You can’t claim that your not an art movement (Yellowism) and then deface a piece of art and claim that your for culture and not art. Aren’t those two sides of the same coin? Isn’t one a yardstick for the other?

    Mostly, they find the whole thing confusing. Admittedly, it is a heavy topic for new art students to talk about, but this is their history (Rothko) and the sooner they get started thinking about these types of things, especially the fine art majors, the better. Also, none of them have really seen anything like this and most didn’t even know that it had happened.

    1. I think that’s different but there is something like historic artifacts and when they belong to the public and part of our communal cultural heritage, I think they should be off limits. Advertising is meant to be ephemeral and is part of the negotiation of public space, but art hanging in a museum isn’t the same.

      1. So ephemeral art/action isn’t part of the conversation?

        …but I’m not really talking about advertising anyway. I’m referring to the media stunts in which you address; blogs, interviews, social media, etc.

        Besides, I think advertising is much more intrinsic to our culture than any Rothko painting.

        1. Not sure what you’re are getting at. Destruction of historic cultural heritage is not part of the conversation and shouldn’t be. And I think you’re conflating a broad thing (like advertising) with an object (a Rothko painting). No one ad is valuable. Advertising’s power is in its ubiquity. I’m a little surprised you’re talking about the two categories as in some way parallel.

          1. I started out trying to talk about one thing, but i guess i’m trying to make a few points now…Ok advertising is a broad term, lets say advertising and museum/gallery art (assuming that’s what you mean by historical cultural heritage). Yes, advertising’s power is in its ubiquity, but it’s also true with art.

            Look at the marketing, funding, and merchandising behind any museum show. Even the curating and art-making itself have been compromised by our consumer culture. You can argue that the work is pure as it hangs pristinely on those white walls, but I beg to differ.

            And whether you think ads are valuable or not is pretty much irrelevant. Advertising and marketing have been dictating the aesthetic of our “historical cultural heritage” for some time now. So I would have to say that advertising/marketing is definitely the heritage we’re leaving behind.

            And more importantly, whose cultural heritage are you really talking about? You think these cultural institutions and the artifacts they show are somehow devoid of the racism, sexism, and classism employed by other institutions??? Personally, I wouldn’t deface someone’s art only because there are better targets. This doesn’t mean that art vandalism has no merit…everything would be a lot simpler if art, advertising, and vandalism weren’t so damn friendly with each other.

          2. What do you think of the Taliban’s vandalism of the ancient Buddha in Afghanistan. I’m bringing that up because it demonstrates that even if your ideology is against something like their version of fundamentalist Islam is against the representation of images, it doesn’t mean it’s ok to detonate all objects that are representations of figures. And the objects may still be associated with some form of bigotry, but that’s not to say you have to right to destroy them, rather than frame them into their proper context.
            Also, this case of vandalism we started discussing (and now I’m not quite sure what we’re discussing and how it’s related) isn’t about bringing a proper context to the object but about appropriating it for personal gain.

          3. I just don’t think art vandals should be ignored just because they’re art vandals. Vandalism, which I don’t consider art, is a political act. So there must be a reason for the risk they take. Museums and their artifacts can be just as chauvinist as any other institution, so I’m not surprised to see these sort of attacks.
            …and as for the graf artists labeled as “attention whores”, some people forget or don’t understand that this movement was most likely a result of the financial and psychological displacement created by our consumer culture, specifically advertising and marketing.

            and you even ludicrously cite the Taliban. Those crazy fucks were created and funded by this country. So you wanna talk values, maybe we should rethink western values altogether. Western thought is the true face of terrorism and vandalism.

          4. I think your idealization of non-Western values or cultures is just a silly as idealizing Western ones.

            And you can pretend to speak for all graffiti artists but you don’t. It is a movement as diverse as any and you’re not the spokesperson.

            I think the fact that you don’t see the continuum of vandalism and how political and religious vandalism is part of that (you may also want to look up iconoclasm of the Byzantine era, for instance) tells me that you’re disregarding whole swathes of history to suit your own political means. That’s fine, but don’t sell it to me as reality, because it’s not.

          5. You know, I’ve been thinking about the tone of your responses and I’m wondering if it is coming from a mischaracterization of what the intention in my post. I cited Poster Boy in one aspect but you may have misunderstood what I was trying to say. My mention was more about the way the media treated the phenomenon of Poster Boy rather than drawing a parallel with the Rothko vandal. I don’t think it’s the same thing. I think the parallel was only useful in discussing the way the media can transmit the story rather than both being “attention whores.” I don’t think PB is an attention whore phenomenon. I just want to clarify that in case it wasn’t clear.

  6. All I can say to this. Is you better not do this while I am around. Cause I don’t care who or how big you are. I will find a way to beat the living hell out of you for your actions.

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