From Rembrandt to da Vinci, art has always had problems with vandals. Whether it be in political outrage, for artistic effect or as an act of pure naivety (in 2006, a 12 year old boy on a school trip stuck chewing gum on to a painting by Helen Frankenthaler worth $1.5 million – he was merely suspended), the art world has seen copious displays of destruction. But in this contemporary age, when institutions respect the works of radical artists such as guerrilla graffitist Banksy, the question is raised: is defacing a work adding to its artistic significance or is it simply ruining viewing pleasure?
Inherently evocative and intrinsically contentious, art is something that has always – and will always – have people taking. But isn’t critical debate enough? It seems not for some. A more vicious reaction is a whole different ball game, and for certain radicals it is still seen as a political act or artistic comment. Here artistic debate reaches unprecedented heights and we are left asking if we should be condoning sheepish criminals such as Vladimir Umanets, the Rothko vandal who recently tagged the Tate’s Black on Maroon with the words “Vladimir Umanets ’12, A Potential Piece of Yellowism” or if there a place in the art establishment for these bold extremists? After all, Damien Hirst has signed things that aren’t by him, right?
Let’s start with the etymology. The term vandal stems from 455 AD, when a Germanic tribe called the Vandals, sacked and looted Rome, taking the Roman Empress Lucina Eudoxia and her daughters hostage and destroying or marring places of cultural significance. If this is where the term vandal comes from, can we really compare scribbling on a canvas to pillaging of an entire city? Vladimir Umanets doesn’t think so. In fact, he doesn’t even see himself as a vandal at all. He states his innocence when asked about his comment literally on Rothko’s painting, arguing, “I didn’t destroy the picture. I didn’t steal anything”. He even turned himself in, believing he was completely blameless.
…to change the context of a piece in an act of transmutation…
Umanets argues that what he has created is a work of Yellowism. This quasi-movement attempts to change the context of a piece in an act of transmutation. In the same way that a cow becomes beef, Yellowists turn art into something else – a new form of existence. Admittedly, the group’s manifesto echoes with Duchamp-like characteristics, but unfortunately rather than turning ready-made objects into art forms in a display of progressive audacity, the Yellowists are taking art and turning it into, well, a victim of defacement.
Realistically, there is positive vandalism and malicious vandalism. The notorious Suffragette Mary “Slasher” Richardson who attacked Valázquez’s Rokeby Venus in 1914 with an axe, was an act of decisive bravery and courage that went towards changing the lives of women forever. What Umanets did with a pen in aid of artistic expression can be more attributed to idiocy. Its seems that he has taken the simple way out, and rather than making a name for himself by perfecting a credible manifesto, filled with political sentiments and social observations (he does have one but its painfully simple), he has reacted violently to the art establishment and become an overnight name through crime.
…there is not enough substance in Umanets politics…
Yellowism is an interesting concept, but as much as you can admire the daring boldness of one man and his pen, there is not enough substance in Umanets politics. Perhaps there is a place for vandalism in history, but the simple truth is thus: Black on Maroon was worth $80 million and born out of a life-time of study. Yellowism is a cheap publicity stunt.