How Vandalism Helps Art
A look at some of the most sensational attacks on works of art, and why they may cause damage but do nothing to harm its status or value.
On 17 July 1914, suffragette Anne Hunt walked into the National Portrait Gallery with a plan in mind and a butcher’s cleaver hidden in her clothes. She chose her moment and, out of the sight of the guards, shattered the glass and slashed the portrait of Thomas Carlyle, one of the gallery’s founders, by Sir John Everett Millais. A random if effective protest at the re-arrest of Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. At her trial, the woman who had become characterised as the ‘Hatchet Fiend’, said “This picture will be of added value and of great historical importance because it has been honoured by the attention of a Militant.” And she was right. The portrait is now on display in the Votes For Women! exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s part of the year-long season of events called Rebel Women, marking the centenary of women’s suffrage in Britain.
Photograph of damage to the portrait of Thomas Carlyle by Sir John Everett Millais
Image source: https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/firstworldwarcentenary/explore/gallery-stories/suffragette-action
In this instance of art vandalism, the act has raised the profile of an otherwise pretty unremarkable painting. But a few months before this attack, another Suffragette chose her target to tie in with her political intent. In March 2014, Mary Richardson slashed Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus seven times. Not only would the painting’s value (£45,000 in 1906) ensure the act stirred up the intended publicity, its depiction of female beauty allowed Richardson to neatly link the painting to her cause. “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history,” she said in a Press Statement.
Damage done to the Rokeby Venus
Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Richardson
The suffragettes knew that vandalising art in high-profile institutions could generate publicity to help their cause. But it’s not just the perpetrators of the vandalism who stand to benefit – the artist can too. Andy Warhol, the most commercially-savvy artist of his generation, is an excellent example. The Pop Art pioneer who famously said “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art”, saw the business opportunity when his works were vandalised in his studio. In 1962, Warhol began producing silkscreen prints of celebrities, which quickly gained publicity, none more than those of Marilyn Monroe, who had died of an overdose the same year. In 1964, Warhol’s friend, the performance artist Dorothy Podber, did something that allowed Warhol to build on the publicity, thereby increasing the value of those works. As the sensational story goes, Podber walked into Warhol’s New York studio, The Factory, dressed in black leather, white gloves and accompanied by her Great Dane, and asked Warhol if she could shoot some paintings. When he agreed, she stripped off her clothes, pulled out a gun and shot a stack of Marilyn Monroe silkscreens. The bullet drove a hole through the forehead of the portrait on the top of the pile, and the two behind it. Rather than discard the damaged works, Warhol had them restored, publicised the story, and prefixed the word “Shot” to their titles. It worked; the shot silkscreens sold at auctions for double the value of the unvandalized works, with Shot Red Marilyn selling for $4m in 1989, the highest price ever paid for a Warhol at the time.
Shot Light Blue Marilyn, Andy Warhol (1964)
Image source: http://warholessays.tumblr.com/post/86782932030/shot-light-blue-marilyn-1964-this-is-a-painting
(no image of Shot Red Marilyn available)
It’s not unusual for artists to vandalise art as a way of engaging with the piece, or retroactively ‘collaborating’ with the artist. Tony Shafrazi is a successful art dealer, who, in 1974 was an artist looking for a way to protest the Vietnam war. He chose to spray-paint “KILL LIES ALL” on Picasso’s Guernica, which was hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As the guards grabbed him he shouted “Call the curator. I am an artist.” He later insisted that he wasn’t defacing the work, in fact he was calling attention to Picasso’s “absolute masterpiece”. For him, the painting was “the greatest depiction of the horrors of war” which “was locked up in a museum and didn’t have any significance to the world of events outside”. His actions were intended to enhance the work and insist on its relevance; “by writing across the painting, I was giving it a voice-and by giving it a voice, I was waking it up to scream across the front page of the world.”
Musuem of Modern Art employees clean spray paint off Picasso’s Guernica
Image source: http://artenol.org/michael-ratner.html
Pierre Pinoncelli, a French performance artist, maintains that his acts of vandalism of Duchamp’s Fountain are a tribute to the Dada artist. When first exhibited in 1917, the upturned urinal was radical and ridiculous, but has become part of the institution of art. Through his attacks – urinating in it in 1993 and striking it with a hammer in 2006 – Pinoncelli claimed “I made it fresh and new, I created something new, of which Duchamp would have approved.”
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, replica 1964
Image source: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573
While Shafrazi and Pinoncelli may see their actions as art, the institutions and authorities certainly did not, promptly issuing arrests and fines. But the boundaries are blurred when the art that’s vandalised is itself technically a form of vandalism. That’s the case with Banksy, the Bristolian graffiti artist whose work has achieved phenomenal value, and who’s frequently in the news when his public installations are defaced or painted over. Street art is typically temporary, so there are those who argue that when a Banksy is painted over, it’s just part of the scene. The work is not property, in the way it would be if hanging in a gallery or museum, it’s in public space so it’s fair game; for other graffiti artists, vandals, council workers and building owners. Banksy’s installations have been subject to change and removal by all of these groups, the same as all other street artists. But it’s the value of his work that sets him apart and makes each incident newsworthy – most recently when his mural on a bridge in Hull was whitewashed. The city council have now erected a protective screen over it, an irony surely not lost on the anti-establishment artist.
A protective screen is installed by Hull City Council
Image source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber-42857424
Banksy’s piece “What we do in life echoes in Eternity” suggests he’s fully aware of the futility of attempts at permanence, so when that piece itself was vandalised, it only served to emphasize the point he had already made.
Image source: http://www.banksy.co.uk/out.asp
Image source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/11180613/Does-it-matter-if-Banksys-art-is-defaced.html
While Banksy’s street art may be constantly under threat, its very vulnerability drives the publicity that helps make him extraordinarily successful. The artist who said, “The art world is the biggest joke going”, and who has an estimated net worth of around $20 million, must be laughing all the way to the bank.