A.M. Gittlitz is a freelance writer, essayist, and delivery boy living in Bushwick Brooklyn. He is a frequent contributor to The New Inquiry and has contributed to Vice, Gothamist, Salon, and Truthout. His essays and journalism focus on counterculture, radical politics, and punk, and he recently released the 6th issue of his personal zine ⒶFOLK, a collection of travel essays about squatting and leftist nostalgia in Berlin, Rome, and ex-Yugoslavia.
The horrific erasure of Five Pointz’ walls last winter is a wordless sign written in Wite-Out that despite the alchemic success of street art and the reverance for graffiti and hip-hop culture held by the New York culture industry, the war on vandalism is still in full effect.
It was Ed Koch who first started treating graffiti writers like semiotic terrorists, pulling subway cars at the first sign of a tag. Then with the clearing of homeless from Tompkins Square Park under Dinkins, the implementation of Broken Windows Theory policing under Guiliani and Bratton, and the monstrous culmination of all this during the Bloomberg regime, the graffiti writer is today at their height of both danger and celebration.
The contradiction is resolved by civil society’s drawing of borders between art and graffiti, street art and vandalism, etc. As long as we remember that one is always “good” and the other “bad” then there’s nothing to worry about—that lengthy pun spraypainted in lowercase letters? Street art—good. That illegible tag written in magic marker? Graffiti—bad. Writers play into the same game, arguing that their tag is good and valuable no matter what anyone thinks.
Pushing the lines even farther are the recent spate of art vandals—possibly the most talked-about movement in contemporary art. A Rothko was tagged at the Tate, a Poussoin repainted in London, a Gauguin gouged in Washington D.C., a Clifford Still soaked with urine in Denver, the Piss Christice-picked in France, and a Picasso re-painted in Houston. Last month a vase of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei was smashed by a local artist in Miami in protest of the international art market’s colonization of Miami as a hub. He was charged with criminal mischief, and the police vase was valued at $1 Million. Photographs of Weiwei’s own smashing of a Han-dynasty vase were exhibited in the museum, but as Malcolm Harris pointed out in his essay “U.S.Ai,” “It’s only freedom of expression if you break something you own, otherwise it’s vandalism.”
But historically speaking, vandalism refers to the opposite. Christopher Stone’s writes in his essay “Vandalism: Property, Gentility, and the Rhetoric of Crime in New York City 1890-1920” (from Radical History Review Issue 26), “The landed aristocracy of nineteenth-century England found ‘vandalism’ a handy term with which to revile bourgeois assaults upon aristocratic culture.. which seemed to them intent to accomplish a tasteless modernization of the nation.”
The term would find a new rebirth in New York in the 1890s, when a media uproar similar to the recent “punchout” and “flash-mob” scares warned of mobs of youth picking flowers, trampling grass, stealing shrubbery, and damaging benches in Central and Prospect Parks. The outrage formed a convenient outlet for xenophobic attitudes, and soon the vandals were equated with unemployed and mostly Jewish recent Eastern European immigrants who spent most of their days in parks as a reprieve from suffocating tenement life. The formation of Park Police and round-ups of hundreds of immigrants in Brooklyn followed. Stone concludes, “The rhetoric of crime is politically potent stuff, and it is regularly seized by ambitious folk anxious to explain disorder in their own terms and control it in their own ways… The upper class established rules for the park, both to protect their property and to instruct the lower classes in the proper use of public space.”
Graffiti and street art were initially considered a clever challenge to the logic that art belongs in galleries and public space should be left neutral and clean. But increasingly, as the anti-street-artist collective “The Splasher” pointed out in their manifesto that street art essentially turns public spaces into galleries, indicating neighborhoods “ripe for the picking” to gentrification-minded real estate speculators. An ironic reversal, considering graffiti was once a terrifying “KEEP OUT” sign against yuppie expansion.
We reach this dead end with the common behavior of giving visual art a once-over, speculating on its monetary value before moving onto the next. Vandalizing a piece is far more discriminate because it always demands justification. Overtly political groups like the Art Worker’s Coalition barricaded and ultimately shut down several museums in New York to protest the War in Vietnam, the situ-esque anarchist group Black Mask, later Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, shut down museums as a form of life rather than a form of protest. Among such “pranks” as bringing Lower East Side trash unremoved by striking sanitation workers to Lincoln Center, storming the Pentagon while hippies hummed and drummed, and smashing windows on St. Mark’s Place, Black Mask announced plans to march on the MoMA, leading it to be preemptively shut down.
As with much of the radical Left in the 60s, the Art Worker’s Coalition, Black Mask, and Up Against the Wall Motherfucker all fizzled. One member of AWC, Tony Shafrazi, kept up the fight with his vandalism of Picasso’sGuernica, a painting whose depoliticized curation he had protested with AWC four years prior. Shortly afterwards, Shafrazi would become a world-renowned art collector, working with the Shah of Iran and later opening a prominent gallery in New York.
Then there was the shadowy Pavel Novak, a Czech artist who in 1978 curated a one-night show called “Stolen Art.” Still a complete mystery, the show seemed to have been a mix of incredible forgeries and actual stolen art. The FBI was promptly involved, and everyone involved refuses to speak about it to this day.
The hosing-down of civil right protesters was abstract expressionism. The hole in the Ozone layer an installation piece. Likewise, the Taliban’s destruction of ancient Buddhas in Afghanistan and Rockefeller’s removal of Diego Rivera’s murals in Manhattan were acts of vandalism far more severe and cruel and than anything achieved by art vandals. Even Damien Hirst echoed Stockhausen’s assertion that 9/11 was a masterpiece. Lettrist Ivan Chtcheglov could only joke about destroying the Eiffel Tower for keeping him up at night.
And then there is capitalism’s creeping vandalism of everything mental and visible. “The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonalds,” Warhol wrote. “The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonalds. The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonalds. Moscow and Peking don’t have anything beautiful yet.” No vandal could dream of being a better iconoclast than Warhol, but even he could do no better than the artistic bourgeoisie who, seeing art the way Nestlé sees water, adapted his mode of production. People can visit the MoMA for free, as long as Target pays for it. A dripping faucet is a slow robbery.
Like all owners of redundant businesses, the art bourgeois attempt to cling to exchange value and aura of objects by the limiting of their reproduction, access, and comprehension. In an age where films, music, books, and even museum visits and gallery space could all easily be distributed freely, the art market should rightly collapse. Alas, it prevails.
Artists are trying to create public performances so brutal that they will topple regimes—think of the Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi’s public immolation, the Casserole marches in Quebec, the Black Blocs in Greece, the Standing Man of Taksim Square. Even the Tea Party employed some costume design. Art is no longer a large enough sanitarium of human expression. Prisons are being built to contain the overflow.
After their New Years Eve 2011 burning of a police vehicle used to transport prisoners, Russian art terrorists Voina issued a statement: “Who the fuck needs art when there are trash vampires, trash trucks and werewolves in uniform about? This fire engulfing the trash must be an Eternal Fire… Let’s destroy all prisons!” An offshoot group, Pussy Riot, went on to perform a song with that title on a roof facing Moscow’s largest penitentiary. In the coming months they would become the symbol of the anti-parliamentary anti-Putin movement sweeping Russia.
Yet Voina members are still internationally renowned, curating shows in Berlin and even winning a prize from the Russian Minister of Culture. The Dadaist route from riotous to revered seems inescapable.
Take the example of Man Ray’s 1923 readymade Object to Destroy and its destruction by a radical Parisian poetry collective called the Jarivistes. A 1957 Time Magazine article recounts the event:
…The show was less than a week old when something like the excitement of the ‘20s erupted. Storming the gallery, a band of young, self-styled “reactionary nihilist intellectuals” who call themselves the Jarivistes flung handbills riotously into the gallery.“We Jarivistes advise the Dadaists, surrealists and consorts that the reign of minus is over… Long live poetry!”
Then, grabbing Object to Destroy, they were gone—but with Dadaist Man Ray puffing after them, crying: “They’re stealing my painting!” Not far from the gallery, the Jarivistes stopped and set down the one-eyed metronome. One of them hauled out a pistol, took aim and fired, destroying Object to Destroy.
At that point the police appeared, late but ardent.
The Jarivistes readily announced that they “are not surrealists but sure realists,” not a movement but “motion itself, perpetual motion.” To their objections to Dada, Man Ray wearily noted: “These things were done 40 years ago. You are demonstrating against history.” A police official mused: “Why shoot it?” But last week, as visitors flocked to the show, Tristan Tzara, the grand old man of Dada, was delighted. “Isn’t it wonderful?” he murmured nostalgically.
The gallery’s insurance payout for the piece allowed Ray to make one hundred replicas of Object to be Destroyed, each retitled Indestructible Object.
How can one cut off the head of the Culture Industry without allowing 100 more to grow back? The only plausible answer is burning the wound; making art disappear without a trace. The lack of meaning would be immanent in the piece, and museumgoers will walk past the absence as they walk past one hundred paintings on their way to the Mona Lisa. Precious objects, like rules, are meant to be destroyed along with the castles that protect them. The prosecution of art vandals is evidence enough that they need no defense.