Art is under attack. Another week, another expensive poke in the eye. Last Sunday, Miami artist Maximo Caminero destroyed a $1 million vase by Ai Weiwei in protest at the museum ignoring the work of local artists. Before this, there was Wlodzimierz Umaniec’s defacement of a Tate Modern Mark Rothko in the cause of ‘Yellowism’, which saw the Pole jailed for two years. Then came the story of the kids caught clambering over a $10 million Donald Judd.
It’s hard not to smile. The irony of it all is too delicious. An art form that has for 100 years demanded that practitioners shaft society’s norms is, in turn, having its norms shafted. The art establishment is being out-transgressed. We can’t have that.
Caminero’s case is instructive. Here is a man who smashes a vase made by an artist who made his name smashing a vase. And yet only Caminero is arraigned. But hasn’t modern art taught us to play the ball not the man? Criticize Caminero for the quality of the vandalism, not the vandalism itself. I’d give them both A-plus.
The infant Judd-climbers no doubt didn’t realise that their act lay within a venerable praxis. Their infringement, however, is doubly endorsed by artistic convention: in that it was both transgressive and an act of public engagement – a rare double.
The art world doesn’t quite see things this way. The artist can transgress, but the public is forced to acquiesce. In 1972 writer Lawrence Alloway came up with a way of healing the divide between audience and artist. Part one stated the Hobbesian reality: ‘If a work can be reached, it will be defaced’. Part two offered the solution: if the defacements undermined the message of the work, ‘it was not a public art work to start with’.
‘A public sculpture should be invulnerable or inaccessible… Public works of art can be classified as successes only if they incorporate or resist unsolicited additions and subtractions.’
Fewer vases. More paintings behind glass. Alloway’s Law might usher in a less attractive world but at least we’d have a level playing field. Besides, the art world started it. If you dismantle the rules of the game, the game will turn around and start dismantling you.