Vandalism - As Art

As Art

For more details on this topic, see Graffiti.

Though vandalism in itself is illegal, it is often also an integral part of modern popular culture. French painter Gustave Courbet's attempt to disassemble the Vendôme column during the 1871 Paris Commune was probably one of the first artistic vandalist acts, celebrated at least since Dada performances during World War I. The Vendôme column was considered a symbol of the recently-deposed Second Empire of Napoleon III, and dismantled as such.

After the burning of the Tuileries Palace on May 23, 1871, Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche himself meditated about the "fight against culture", wondering what could justify culture if it were to be destroyed in such a "senseless" manner (the arguments are: culture is justified by works of art and scientific achievements; exploitation is necessary to those achievements, leading to the creation of exploited people who then fight against culture. In this case, culture cannot be legitimised by art achievements, and Nietzsche writes: "I {also} know what it means: fighting against culture". After quoting him, Klossowski writes: "The criminal fight against culture is only the reverse side of a criminal culture".

As destruction of monument, vandalism can only have sense in a culture respecting history, archeology - Nietzsche spoke of monumental history. As destruction of monumental history, vandalism was assured a long life (as Herostratus proved): Performance art could make such a claim, as well as Hakim Bey's poetic terrorism or Destroy 2000 Years of Culture from Atari Teenage Riot. Gustave Courbet's declaration stated:

"Attendu que la colonne Vendôme est un monument dénué de toute valeur artistique, tendant à perpétuer par son expression les idées de guerre et de conquête qui étaient dans la dynastie impériale, mais que réprouve le sentiment d’une nation républicaine, émet le vœu que le gouvernement de la Défense nationale veuille bien l’autoriser à déboulonner cette colonne."

("As the Vendôme column is a monument devoid of any artistic value, whose expression tends to perpetuate the ideas of war and conquest from the imperial dynasty, but that reject the sentiment of a republican nation, citizen Courbet declares that the government of National Defense should allow him to dismantle this column.")

Hence, painter Courbet justified the dismantlement of the Vendôme column on political grounds, downgrading its artistic value. Vandalism poses the problem of the value of art compared to life's hardships: Courbet thought that the political values transmitted by this work of art neutralized its artistic value. Anyway, his project wasn't followed, however, on April 12, 1871, the dismantlement of the imperial symbol was voted by the Commune, and the column taken down on May 8. After the assault on the Paris Commune by Adolphe Thiers, Gustave Courbet was condemned to pay part of the expenses.

In 1974, Norman Mailer glorified the art of vandalism in Faith of Graffiti, which likened tagging in New York City to the work of Giotto and Rauschenberg. New York Authorities responded by coating subway walls with Teflon paint, jailing taggers and requiring hardware stores to keep spray paint under lock and key.

Tags, designs, and styles of writing are commonplace on clothing and are an influence on many of the corporate logos with which we are familiar. Many skateparks and similar youth-oriented venues are decorated with commissioned graffiti-style artwork, and in many others patrons are welcome to leave their own. There is still, however, a very fine line between vandalism as an artform, as a political statement, and as a crime. An excellent example of one who walks this threefold line is Bristol born guerrilla-artist Banksy, who is revered as a cult artistic figure by most people. When councils have removed his works, they have been met by public outrage. Banksy's claim is that official vandalism is far worse than that perpetrated by individuals, and that he is decorating buildings of no architectural merit whatsoever.

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