Can an act of vandalism be justified in the name of artistic expression?
Contents Intro - Pg 5 -8 Chapter 1 - Pg 9 Chapter 2 - Pg 10 Chapter 3 - Pg 11 Conclusion - Pg 12
Breaking through Can an act of vandalism be justified in the name of artistic expression? 1
he purpose of this study is to explore vandalism in an artistic context, looking at whether or not in certain circumstances an act of destruction or ‘vandalism’ can be considered artistic. I will present the argument that the research would suggest it can and is in many ways necessary for the progression and evolution of contemporary art, referencing sources where necessary to provide weight and balance to my argument. I do believe that an act of vandalism can transcend that and become art, to describe so many different acts purely as vandalism is ignorant. There is obviously no system to ‘means test’ an act of vandalism so I will investigate and present the information, looking at what, if anything sets vandalism apart from creativity. I hope over the course of this investigation to at least present my argument in a thought-provoking and interesting way to you, the reader. To do this and to even begin to answer this question I believe it is first important to look at the origins of vandalism and the effect it has on our society. This will involve not only defining the term itself by comparing and contrasting different definitions and exploring the historical context of the word but also study into the cause and effect of what we now know as vandalism and how it
is perceived. Looking at two key texts, chosen specifically for the merit they have as relevant/ credible research material and with as little speculation as possible I intend to achieve this in chapter one ‘Vandalism: Defining the term and exploring its historical context’ The key texts I have chosen to reference and my reasons for doing so are as follows: “The Vandals” Merrill & Miles (2010) “The Vandals” is dedicated to exploring the complex North African Kingdom that the modern term ‘vandal’ can be attributed to. The book studies the rise and fall of the Vandal society, looking at its political and economic framework, the nature of Vandal identity and gives valuable insight into the origins of the term vandalism and its original use. “The Psychology of Vandalism” Arnold P. Goldstein (1996) In “The Psychology of Vandalism” the author explores the possible causes and prevention of vandalistic behaviour and references reports that evaluate diverse intervention and remediation techniques. The text is valuable when examining the motivations behind vandalism and comparing
them to the motivations behind artistic expression. It is also a useful tool when exploring the perception of vandalism from a psychological or criminological perspective. Together with the dictionary definition of the word ‘vandalism’ and other research, these sources should provide a comprehensive look at the origins of the word and the reasons behind it’s contemporary use. Next, if I have any intention of presenting a balanced argument it is equally important to explore and define ‘art’ and art practice, exploring the link, if any, between destruction and creativity. To do this it is important to first work out if vandalism and destruction are one and the same before trying to make a comparison to or judgement regarding, creativity. To do this it is paramount to look at destruction in art, comparing and contrasting historical examples of artists who have successfully used destruction (what might be considered by some to be vandalism) as part of their creative process. I also think it is equally important to study those art movements that were born of a destructive ideal and are considered, without controversy, to be credible artistic movements. It makes sense at this point to also include an exploration into the vandalism of art, looking at examples and the possible motivations behind attacking an artist’s
work. I intend to present this in chapter two ‘Art: Defining art and exploring the link between destruction and creativity’ The key texts I will reference are as follows: “Second Manifesto of Auto-destructive Art” Gustav Metzger (1960) In Metzger’s second manifesto he discusses his concerns and explains the motivations behind the movement, whilst conveying an irrelevant but interesting anti-capitalist message. This is a valuable source of research because the work of Metzger and his auto-destructive movement in the 1960’s is now viewed as invaluable to the progression of art and the movement itself is based on the idea that the art is in destruction. “Vhils - Destruction Art Book” M. Moore & M. Schiller [Wooster Collective] Vhils (2011) This is the first book about the art of Vhils, showcasing and discussing his work between 2007 - 2011. The book also contains an interview with Vhils in which he discusses the urban art scene, exploding walls, drilling, scratching and disintegrating his way to success. I think this text is useful because Vhils has quickly earned acclaim within the urban art world through his destructive approach and when discussing the possibility of a link between vandalism and creativity he is a perfect case study.
Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don't come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they're having a piss.
Graffiti is one of the Graffiti is one of the few tools few tools youalmost have you have if you have nothing. And even if you don't ifcome youup have almost with a picture to cure world poverty you even can make nothing. And someone smile while they're ifhaving youa piss. don't come - Banksy up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they're having a piss. ‘Art: Defining art and exploring the link between destruction and creativity’
The key texts I will reference are as follows:
“Second Manifesto of Auto-destructive Art” Gustav Metzger (1960) In Metzger’s second manifesto he discusses his concerns and explains the motivations behind the movement, whilst conveying an irrelevant but interesting anti-capitalist message. This is a valuable source of research because the work of Metzger and his autodestructive movement in the 1960’s is now viewed as invaluable to the progression of art and the movement itself is based on the idea that the art is in destruction.
between vandalism and creativity he is a perfect case study. Work around the world and throughout history, looking at the vandalism, iconoclasm and censorship that surrounds these acts. Gamboni also investigates particular instances of attacks against works, from communist Russia to recent instances in the name or artistic expression or protest from another artist.
I believe that this text is very useful because it discusses the relationship between the progression of modern art, contemporary destruction of art and a long history of iconoclasm. It is a useful tool in highlighting the consensus within a growing number of artists and art lovers that destruction and vandalism are necessary to ensure the future progression of creativity and modern art. Finally I intend to explore the ever growing world of graffiti and street art. As the single largest vandalistic art movement in the world it makes a perfect case study when discussing the motivations, perception, opposing arguments and contemporary success stories behind vandalism as art. There is now a very visible relationship between the graffiti and graphic design worlds. Street artists are showcasing their work in famous galleries.
- Banksy “Vhils - Destruction Art Book” M. Moore & M. Schiller [Wooster Collective] Vhils (2011) This is the first book about the art of Vhils, showcasing and discussing his work between 2007 - 2011. The book also contains an interview with Vhils in which he discusses the urban art scene, exploding walls, drilling, scratching and disintegrating his way to success. I think this text is useful because Vhils has quickly earned acclaim within the urban art world through his destructive approach and when discussing the possibility of a link
I believe graffiti and street art are the crossover point between vandalism and art, accessible to everyone and steeped in controversy. I intend to investigate whether or not graffiti can be considered credible art and at what point vandalism becomes art. To do this I will explore the controversy, comparing opinions on the subject from artists, agents and critics. I will also look at the growing commercialisation of graffiti through the eyes of the movement, how it is perceived and examples of success stories that have roots in street art. This will be the third and final chapter ‘Case Study: Graffiti and street art, exploring the controversy’
For this I will reference a final key text: “Wall and Piece” Banksy (2006) “Wall and Piece” is a book about prolific and controversial street artist - come artist Banksy. Fully illustrated and containing interviews with the artist himself it is a valuable insight into the motivations behind one of the worlds most famous vandals. It seems impossible to avoid using Banksy as an example when presenting my argument and I think this source is a perfect tool to add weight to it.
Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.
The first step of my investigation is to define and explore the origins of the term ‘vandalism’. ‘Vandalism - The behaviour attributed originally to the Vandals, by the Romans, in respect of culture: ruthless destruction or spoiling of anything beautiful or vulnerable.’ (“Oxford English Dictionary”. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 31/03/2012) The Vandals were an East Germanic tribe who in 429 AD entered Africa and within 10 years had established a kingdom, encompassing even the Roman occupied province and islands in Europe including Sicily and the Balearic Islands . The Vandal kingdom collapsed between 533 - 4 AD after the Vandalic war with the Eastern Roman Empire, but not before the famous ‘sacking and looting’ of Rome which led to the term ‘vandalism’ being used to describe seemingly senseless destruction. Early modern writers described the Vandals as barbarians and mindless destroyers of artworks, now modern historians, for the most part would credit the Vandals with perpetuating Roman culture, not destroying it. Although the Vandals are now mainly known as a metaphor for violence or “uncultured destruction” (Merrill & Myles 2010) they established one of the richest and most civilised kingdoms of the early world. Given that I am arguing that an act of vandalism can be considered artistic or in some way positive then surely what the vandals achieved through their actions expresses an ironic similarity to my subject matter, all be it on a historic scale. It will also surely help to detach the modern and frivolously used term ‘vandalism’ from the real origins of the word when exploring just what constitutes vandalism and sets it apart from experimental or destructive art. ‘The term ‘vandalisme’ was coined in 1794 by Henri Gregoire, bishop of Blois, to describe the destruction of artwork following the French revolution. The term originated from the invasion of Rome in 455 by the East Germanic tribe of Vandals, which resulted in destruction of numerous artworks, and was quickly adopted across Europe.’ (“The Vandals”. Wiley-Blackwell. Merrill & Miles 2010)
The next memorable stage in the evolution of the contemporary term ‘vandalism’ is the progression from Germanic tribe to metaphor, the detachment from it’s historical context in 1794. This was the first time the term was used purely to describe a destructive act, specifically the destruction of artworks. The word was now attributed to but not associated with, the Vandals of 429 AD. It had taken on new meaning to people who may not even be aware of its history, a defining moment in the terms progression to it’s contemporary use. From this point forward vandalism has been justified, argued and criminalised, even becoming a controversial grey area between criminal damage and freedom of artistic expression. Finally, to properly understand and define vandalism, or to discuss it’s possible merit as art I think it’s now important to understand the ‘status, causation, prevention and remediation of vandalistic behaviour’ (Goldstein 1996). The book “The Psychology of Vandalism” by prolific writer and psychologist Arnold P. Goldstein, with contents such as ‘causation’, ‘intervention strategies’ and ‘improving discipline’, itself typifies the modern view of vandalism and more importantly at this stage of my argument, the term ‘vandalism’. Another publication that highlights the popular consensus on the subject of vandalism is “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighbourhood Safety” - more commonly known
as the ‘broken window theory’ by James Q. Wilson & George L. Kelling, was introduced in 1982 and discusses the effects of vandalism and urban disorder on additional anti-social behaviour and crime. ‘Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside’ (“Broken Windows: The Police and Neighbourhood Safety”. Atlantic Monthly. James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling 1982) The authors explore the idea that if an area becomes run down by vandalism and social deterioration it attracts more of the same behaviour and almost breeds the appetite for destruction. They suggest that vandalism is a sign of the deterioration of social values and borderline poverty. I believe that this is the final key to defining vandalism, it’s use in modern society to describe unnecessary and pointless destruction. ‘Vandalism’ is now commonly used as an umbrella term for the above, despite artistic merit. I think it is interesting to look at the history of the term and see it’s long standing relationship with art, see the continuing relationship between vandalism and art but yet the above two texts define vandalism as senseless destruction and a plague on society.
Chapter 1 8
Chapter 2 9
After exploring the definition and history of ‘vandalism’ it is now important to look at the definition of ‘art’ and to compare/contrast some of the different opinions surrounding just what can be considered art. For this I have chosen to discuss in detail, two artists that I admire and believe to bring weight to my argument. This should also help to establish the link between destruction and creativity that is the basis of, and fundamental ideal behind my argument. I will also explore vandalism of art and other acts of vandalism in the name of artistic expression. ‘Art - The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’ (“Oxford English Dictionary”. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 31/03/2012) Most people understand the definition of art. We all may or may not be able to put it into words as simply and efficiently as the Oxford English dictionary can but most of us know, in theory, what art is. The beautiful thing is that ‘art’ has a very broad definition, left mostly up to personal interpretation. It follows trends in fashion, music, television, politics and obviously technology but more importantly art is progressing to reflect a broadening in its repertoire, so to speak. As people become more open to new, sometimes obscure forms of contemporary art such as ‘Performance Art’ or ‘Auto-destructive Art’, artists are pushing the boundaries further in order to ensure the future of artistic expression and the progression of art as an ideal. Art is becoming more and more accessible to everyone, and has become unavoidable on the streets or infinite pages of the internet. As a product of this, varying forms of destruction have been employed for years in the creation of art and movements have been spawned out of an appetite for it. Gustav Metzger’s Auto-destructive movement is a good example of creativity directed at destruction, and an argument for its beauty and artistic merit. ‘Auto-destructive art re-enacts the obsession with destruction, the pummeling to which individuals and masses are subjected. Auto-destructive art mirrors the compulsive perfectionism of arms manufacture - polishing to destruction point.’ (“Second Manifesto of Auto-destructive Art”. Gustav Metzger. 10 March 1960) Metzger published the “Second Manifesto of Auto-destructive Art” with a view to educating
the reader about auto-destructive art and what it can be composed of, achieving this in an almost poetic way. I believe it is relevant because it focuses on the act of destruction and gives better insight into the possible artistic motivations for vandalism. It also opens up to the idea that the breaking of a window, considered by most to be just mindless vandalism, could and would be considered art. One notable similarity between auto-destructive art and other vandalistic art movements such as street art, is that nothing is permanent. ‘Auto-destructive art is art which contains within itself an agent which automatically leads to its destruction within a period of time not to exceed twenty years. Other forms of auto-destructive art involve manual manipulation. There are forms of auto-destructive art where the artist has a tight control over the nature and timing of the disintegrative process, and there are other forms where the artist’s control is slight.’ (“Second Manifesto of Auto-destructive Art”. Gustav Metzger. 10 March 1960) In 1966, Gustav Metzger lead a diverse committee of artists in hosting the Destruction in Art Symposium or ‘DIAS’ in London. The event was a meeting of artists, musicians, poets and scientists from around the world, there to discuss the theme of destruction in art. It attracted the international art community and a great deal of media coverage. ‘The main objective of DIAS was to focus attention on the element of destruction in Happenings and other art forms, and to relate this destruction in society.’ - DIAS (“Art & The 60s: This was Tomorrow”. Tate Britain. Retrieved 17/04/2012) The symposium was one of the ‘Happenings’ or events that were to be considered as art, that took place in London throughout September of 1966. British artist John Latham, with some other artists such as Gustav Metzger and Yoko Ono famously constructed three large ‘skoob’ towers made from books (skoob is ‘books’ backwards) and set them alight outside the British museum in an act of artistic expression and celebration of destruction. The Happening was entitled “The laws of England” and was done without any consent from the relevant authorities. I think the Happenings, the DIAS, the auto-destructive movement and more importantly Gustav Metzger have done a lot for the progression of art and the awareness of destruction in art. The DIAS was about taking art in a new direction and the events of the 1960’s have pathed the way for
new and interesting art involving destruction to emerge, more importantly to be accepted. I would like now to discuss an artist who has recently emerged with his own style of destructive art, creating beauty through vandalism. Portuguese street artist ‘Vhils’, born Alexandre Farto has became widely known for ‘His technically masterful, contemporary portraits and his sensational art of destruction, including exploding walls.’ (“Vhils - Destruction Art Book”. Die Gestalten Verlag Publishing. Marc and Sara Schiller. 2011) Vhils is well known in the urban art community. He carves, chisels, drills and blasts his portraits into walls and other concrete structures, often in public places. He does this during the day and sometimes without any consent. Vhils claims to take inspiration from left-over American and European propaganda from the 1970’s ‘layered and rough from the years, covering his playground as a youngster.’ (M&S. Schiller 2011). His unique style attracted the attention of famous London gallery and art agency Lizarides, who represent and feature the work of artists such as Banksy and through this he has travelled the world putting his unique stamp in every continent and featuring in many publications about his work. He became internationally famous when his work appeared at the Cans Festival beside a picture by existing Lizarides artist Banksy. Vhils is a good example of the crossover between vandalism and art, the pieces are undeniably brilliant but require a long destructive process to achieve. This particular book is the first about the life and work of Vhils and contains pictures of his work. I think the source is relevant when trying to understand the possible motivations behind the use of such destruction as part of the creative process. It also adds weight to my argument that vandalism can and is in some cases justifiable as art. ‘Alexandre Farto aka Vhils became one of the most skilled and talented young artists in today’s urban art scene’ (“Vhils - Destruction Art Book”. Die Gestalten Verlag Publishing. Marc and Sara Schiller. 2011) If the vandalism of property or the destruction of a building can be considered art, I feel it is necessary to explore the concept of vandalism of art as an act of creativity, in order to get a full and well rounded understanding of vandalism in the name of art. Throughout history the
vandalism of artworks has been justified in the name of many things, including artistic expression and as discussed in chapter one the term ‘vandalism’ itself was coined to describe the destruction of artwork. ‘Intellectuals must confront the unsettling dynamic between destruction and art’ (“The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution”. London: Reaktion Books. Dario Gamboni 1997) “The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution” explores deliberate attacks against pieces of art in the 19th and 20th centuries and also iconoclasm, attacks against religious monuments. Through an objective and open approach the author discusses incidents where artists have defaced another artist’s work in the name of artistic expression, such as a bizarre testament to Dadaism or act of performance art. I think the author would argue that vandalism of art has played a notable role in the progression of art, making this text relevant to my argument. The author acknowledges a link between vandalism and art, more importantly the vandalism of art and the way it progresses. ‘A complex relationship exists among the evolution of modern art, destruction of artworks and the long history of iconoclasm’ (“The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution”. London: Reaktion Books. Dario Gamboni 1997) Today the act of vandalism against a work of art is being considered by some to be the new criticism or itself, art. Neo-Dadaist Pierre Pinoncelli, a French performance artist urinated on and took a hammer to Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” at a show in Nimes in 1993. As a bizarre tribute to Dadaism he claimed that he wanted to “Rescue the work from it’s inflated status and restore it to it’s original use as a urinal”. In 2000 a pair of artists from London also urinated on the same piece claiming that “The aim of the exercise was to make people re-evaluate what constitutes art itself and how an act can be art” (Cai 2000) The two men, Yuan Cai and Jian Ji Xi are considered to be performance artists, although some people do not take them seriously. They were noticed in 1999 for jumping on Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” for 15 minutes in the Tate Gallery, in the name of artistic expression.
Speak softly, but carry a big can of paint. - Banksy
If asked about vandalism as art, the first example that would come to most people’s minds is probably graffiti. Graffiti art is the largest and fastest growing vandalistic art movement in the world. It is, in most cities around the world completely illegal but usually visible everywhere. The street art movement is also largely popular but I think it is important to view the two separately, graffiti art is based on typography and is almost always done in paint or ink. Street art can come in many different ways, shapes and forms and many varying mediums. Both are steeped in controversy with both sides, for and against fighting fiercely and tirelessly for control of the worlds streets. In recent years graffiti has been commercialized with companies such as Nike, Adidas, DC, Sony and IBM giving huge design commissions to graffiti artists. This reflects the success, popularity and spread of graffiti art, no doubt aided by a number of documentaries such as the popular “Style Wars” (PBS 1983). For this reason I believe graffiti art makes the perfect case study and will help to support my argument. Graffiti art is considered to be one of the four elements of hip hop, and is synonymous with hip hop culture. It is no surprise then that New York city is known as the home of graffiti. More notably the subways and subway trains of New York are famous for the hard fought battle between graffiti artists and the network authorities that took place there. Those days are all but gone now with the popularity of CCTV and developments in policing making it too difficult and dangerous. It appears the authorities have won, however there are still graffiti artists bold enough to continue the fight. Towards the end of graffiti’s golden age in New York a territorial gang culture took over, good ‘spots’ became harder to find and had to be defended. Since then graffiti has come a long way in both style, popularity and acceptance. Some governments now employ schemes such as legal walls or offering up temporary structures to artists as a compromise, to avoid damage to other property. I think these schemes are clever and reasonable considering the widespread popularity of the movement. I consider the UK government’s stance on graffiti to be ignorant and harsh with no alternative or compromise being offered. To demonstrate the potential in graffiti art and to highlight more the narrowmindedness of any government that refuses to accept it’s artistic merit or revenue potential, who better an example than Bristol born artist Banksy. ‘Known for his contempt for the government in labeling graffiti as vandalism, Banksy displays his art on public surfaces such as walls and even going as far as to build physical prop pieces’ (“The Banksy Paradox: 7 Sides to the Worlds Most Infamous Street Artist”. Web Urbanist. 2007) Banksy is one of the worlds most famous and successful vandals. Now living in London, his satirical street art has earned him international fame, acclaim and there is widespread controversy surrounding his work. Due to the illegality of a lot of his work, Banksy has to maintain his anonymity however it hasn’t stopped him from putting on sell-out gallery shows, touring the world and even directing the 2010 film “Exit Through the Gift Shop”. The film documents the artistic exploits of Thierry Guetta aka Mr. Brainwash, a French graffiti lover in Los Angeles. Banksy briefly touches on the subject of vandalism in his 2006 book “Wall and Piece” ‘Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become “vandals” because they want to make the world a better looking place.’ (“Wall and Piece”. Century Publishing. Banksy 2006)
“Wall and Piece” is written by Banksy and includes images hand chosen for the task. I think he is a vital artist to reference when discussing vandalism as art and this text comes from the otherwise secretive artist himself making it a relevant and interesting source. Banksy is not the only artist to achieve commercial success from a graffiti background. Artists such as Shepard Fairey aka ‘Obey’, the anonymous ‘D*Face’ and ‘Insa’ to name a few, have all began successful careers in design due to popularity and fame as graffiti or street artists. To deny the widespread popularity and growth of graffiti would be ridiculous. So would be to deny it’s artistic merit. Some artists have dedicated their lives to the movement, to perfecting skill, style and showcasing their work for free on the street purely out of passion. I believe graffiti is the final and most important example in support of my argument. It is the crossover point, the grey area that one way or another prevents vandalism from being ruled out as art. Breaking through: Can an act of vandalism be justified in the name of artistic expression?
Throughout this discussion I have tried to present the argument that vandalism can, in certain circumstances be justified as art and I believe that my research would support my argument. The world of art is expanding and progressing all the time and some would believe, myself included that destruction and experimentation with vandalism is necessary for the evolution of modern art and artistic expression. It is undeniable that art is becoming so much more accessible and appealing to more and more people due to advancements in technology and information. As a result I think, and hope that we will see the continued broadening of what constitutes art and how we perceive it. Vandalism is being commercialized in the form of graffiti art and there is an increasingly visible link between the worlds of graffiti art and graphic design. I think it is only a matter of time before the next step in the acceptance of vandalism as art.
Can an act of vandalism be justified in the name of artistic expression?