Destroying Art in the Name of Art

I’ve been thinking about Alexander Brener lately. You may have heard of him: he’s the Russian performance artist who in 1997 painted a green dollar sign over Malevich’s Suprematism (White Cross) (see left). Brener claimed that his gesture was protesting the role of money in the art world. The media coverage focused on the monetary damage done to the painting (which was valued at €6 million), which Brener said exactly proved his point.1

Other artists have also decided to destroy or manipulate another work of art in order to make an artistic statement or protest. If you’re interested in seeing some examples, I would recommend that you read this fascinating post. The author mentions several examples of art destruction (including the story of Mark Bridger, who spilled black ink into one of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde tanks). I learned from this post that a couple of artists have urinated on/in Duchamp’s Fountain at different times in the past two decades. Ha! I think that idea might have been clever the first time, but the repeated attempts seems a little silly.

Obviously, such destructive artistic statements go against the ethics and standards for societal conduct. But this has got me thinking: should art be ethical? I can’t bring myself to completely say yes or no. But I don’t think it’s right to encourage unethical or criminal behavior among artists. (Or do such artists think that they are exempt from the societal rules and constraints? If so, then someone should break the news that postmodernism doesn’t embrace the “artist as genius” mentality.)

But, all that being said, I do have to admit one thing: such destruction can make me think about a work of art from a new perspective. And that’s one of the things that I like most about art.

What do you think? Should art be ethical?

1 Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 184.

  • The Ancient says:

    This is all about how you think about certain objects.

    1) What if Wylie Dufresne secured a a very expensive print — the original, say — of Andres Serrano's Piss Christ and emulsified it for the sauce on the Easter Lamb served at WD-50. What would you think about that?

    (He wouldn't, ever, but this is a thought experiment.)

    2) What about that Japanese collector who bought a van Gogh and promptly announced that it would be destroyed upon his death?

    (Is he still alive? I don't know.)

    3) What about Constantine's Arch in the Forum in Rome, the decoration of which is largely cannibalized from now missing works? What do we value more?

  • M says:

    You bring up some really interesting issues with those questions, The Ancient. I don't think that Dufresne or the Japanese collector gestures would fall under the category of making artistic statement (like Brener's dollar sign), and I don't even think that they would be unethical. The collector did own the Van Gogh (but I don't think the "Dr. Gachet" painting was destroyed) and one can assume that Dufresne owned the Serrano. If they own the pieces, they wouldn't be breaking any law by destroying them, right? Destroying those important works of art might make people sad or upset (but I don't think that saddening someone is unethical). (I do think it would be unethical, though, if Dufresne served the food without informing customers what was in the sauce!)

    As for Constantine's Arch, this is another interesting topic. I suppose that the ancients could be classified as making an "artistic statement," since they created a statement about Constantine's greatness by taking from extant works of art. As for ethical behavior, it's hard for me to say. Perhaps it was unethical to take work from older monuments – but if no one cared at the time, then was it ethical?

  • M says:

    If anyone wants to read a little bit more about Ryoei Saito, the Japanese collector who discussed burning his Van Gogh, you can read this article from 1999 (three years after Saito died). As I mentioned in the earlier comment, it looks like the Van Gogh was spared from the flames.

  • GermyB says:

    I don't think there are any rules, no governing body deciding what art should and shouldn't be. Art is whatever anybody says it is. Therefore, I don't think art should be ethical. I think people should be ethical. And I would venture a guess that the artists who are destroying art to make another artistic statement would argue that they are being ethical – highlighting the bizarreness of the outrageous monetary value of art, for example.

    But on that note, I think Mr. Brener's gesture is terribly—I don't know—valid. Paintings like Malevich's are worth $6 billion because someone will pay $6 billion for it. It's like asking why pro football players are paid as much as they are—it's because we pay them that much.

  • GermyB says:

    Er, 6 million, rather.

  • heidenkind says:

    I don't think it's a question of ethics, but of respect. Brener clearly doesn't respect Malevich's painting as a work of art, so he feels free to express that by painting a dollar sign on it. At the same time, I wouldn't call that art. Expression or a statement, sure, but destroying another person's work and calling it art is pretty lame–Brener certainly didn't create anything with that gesture.

  • M says:

    I can see what you're saying about respect, heidenkind. (Although I still think that ethics ties into the whole issue, but that's just my perspective.) You're right: Brener obviously had no respect for Malevich's work. That's a good point. As an artist, you'd think that he would be more sensitive and respectful to the work of other artists, huh?

    But I would (respectfully) disagree with you one point. I think that Brener did create one thing with his gesture: discourse. Although he didn't physically create something, besides a bit of spray paint on the Malevich canvas, I think that he has caused people to discuss 1) the role of money in art and 2) how art should be created/treated (exactly what we are discussing now).

  • Rebekah says:

    Don't you think that we (collectively) are already globally impacting the static nature of physical art by exposing it to air, gas, moisture and the general effects of time and environment? Are we also collectively, culturally culpable for exposing art to the risk of periodic assaults from "statement" counter-artists along with environmental/temporal assaults?

    Isn't there already much discussion about how art is changed by where it is placed, by whom it is observed, and in what environment? Is this another facet of that same scholarship?

    Also, I like GermyB's point about football, although there is a significant time-factor involved in that temporary value. An aging footballer is unlikely to receive $6m, compared to, say, the sustainable value of an aged Klee.

  • M says:

    Yeah, Rebekah, I think that this could be an extension on the postmodernist discussion of art and context (i.e. how environment, viewer, place, etc. affect the reception/creation of a work of art). How a work of art is perceived/affected/assaulted definitely can tie into a contextual discussion, especially in how context affects the perception/reception of a work of art (or assault). That's a great point.

    I think that it can be argued that society is collectively culpable for such conceptual/statement assaults on art. Especially society as an ideological structure. If society didn't predetermine ethical behavior and conduct, then perhaps artists wouldn't feel like they needed to break outside that norm to gain attention or make an impact. Along with what you said, too, I think that the actions of people within society (albeit perhaps unintentional actions, like mindless environmental assaults) also expose art to risk.

    You also bring up a good point about how temporal value. Isn't it interesting that many things devalue over time, whereas art usually increases in value?

    And thanks for posting, GermyB. It's interesting to think about how art, as a human construct, has been determined to be without limitations or constraint. However, humans live within a societal (human) construct that superimposes ethical behavior. So, basically, art doesn't have to be ethical, but the artists should be. That's an interesting thought.

  • e says:

    I agree with GermyB's comment. It's not about the art being ethical, but the people.

    I can definitely see the point (and even agree with it!) in Alexander Brener spray painting the dollar symbol. The fact that something that had so little creation put into it (that's a whole other argument) was worth so much is interesting. But, if you think about someone doing that kind of thing to the Sistine chapel or something, it'd be unforgivable.

    So, even though I'm not bothered by what Alexander Brener did, I would be bothered if certain other pieces of art were destroyed. The safest thing is to then just be ethical all around (even if the pieces don't deserve it).

  • M says:

    Your comment makes me wonder why Brener picked this Malevich piece, e. I wonder if he was passing his own aesthetic judgment on the work of art, or if the Malevich was readily available, or if there was less security in the Stedelijk Museum, or if it's because Malevich and Brener are both Russian…hmm.

    If Brener had really wanted to cause widespread controversy among the general public, he should have spray painted something in the Louvre. (Not that I would endorse such an action, though!)

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.