This is the first part of the four-part Sculpture is Dead series by John Powers of Star Wars Modern. This week Hyperallergic will be publishing the first part in three posts, which will appear today, tomorrow, and Wednesday.

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Left, view of Anthony Gormley, “Event Horizon” (2010); right, Yves Klein, “Leap into the Void” (1960) (click to enlarge)

My most favorite bit of signage ever, was a note I saw taped to a pile of wood when I was in art school. It said, “Art, Not Trash.” I have kept flashing on that note this spring. Dario Gamboni’s book, The Destruction of Art has a whole chapter on mistaking art for refuse (helpfully titled “Mistaking Art for Refuse”), where Gamboni explains that:

The scarcity and poverty of reasons given for attacks against art (particularly modern art) is less due to an absence of motives than to their illegitimacy. This problem is generally solved by anonymity and silence. Another solution, however, proves to be even more economical in that it enforces the attack while exonerating the assailant: it is the explanation according to which a work was not damaged deliberately but by mistake, because it was taken to be something else.

Like art, suicide can be difficult to identify. But while for most suicide is a mark of shame and so will often be disguised as an accident, for art being mistaken for trash can be a mark of pride. In his essay “Defining Art,” the critic Harold Rosenberg, wrote:

Today, renunciation of art has become a ceremonial gesture. A kind of collusion is involved between artist and spectator — the pretence that ‘this time things have gone too far.’ Both knew, however, that the violation is a formality — that the spectator recognizes the art historical background of the ‘atrocity.’ and that artists, whatever else they dedicate themselves to, have an eye on the museum and on their place in art history.

For the past month I have found myself returning again and again to Madison Square Park to look at Antony Gormley’s “Event Horizon” (2010), and (while it was open) to MoMA to see Marina Abramović’s retrospective. I have seen each a half dozen times now. I am not a big repeat viewer of art, but I have gone back as much to watch other people struggle with why the work is art, as to enjoy the art for itself. Why else tag sculpture, shower pamphlets, & projectile vomit on MoMA’s great hall, or grope a young performer? The message is clear, a vocal (and rude) minority was saying: “This does not deserve the respect we afford art.” Vandals and gropers are villains, but art is not an altogether innocent victim, but these two artists are. While Gormley protests, “Event Horizon” is clearly intended to be mistaken for suicide — identical figures standing along Crosby Beach near Liverpool, they were mistaken for a mass-suicide by passers-by, how could Gormley believe New Yorkers would not be alarmed by the sight of figures perched on the edges of high-rise roof tops? Life=Death=Art is not a formula recognized by most art audiences recognize, but like “Event Horizon,” Abramović’s performances often take their force from self-destructive acts; like self-mutilation and self-immolation, promoting a recent biographer to title his book When Marina Abramović Dies.

Left, Anthony Gormley, “Event Horizon” (2010) (tagged); right, Marina Abramović (carved)

John Powers is a sculptor. He was born in Chicago and received his MFA from Hunter College. His work has been shown at PS1MoMA, Exit Art, Grand Arts, The Kohler Arts Center, Caren Golden, Art Omi, The...