Art defacement: Co-creation or destruction?

Taking off from the ongoing uprisings against police brutality, colonialism, slave trade and other historic social issues, STIR takes a look at art 'defacement' as a form of protest.

by Georgina Maddox Published on : Jul 09, 2020

Sitting on the cusp of vandalism and remonstration, art defacement by the groups of public protestors is centuries old, as old as art itself. Entwined with the history of colonisation, enslavement, and concurring battles, public art on street corners, within museums and other public buildings have often been in the eye of the storm. One is often left wondering whether this form of dissent on public monuments and those in public museums by angry protestors leads to a new understanding of the artwork, or whether it is part of the process of getting rid of the irrelevant, making place for that which is politically relevant. In some instances, it may be just a bothersome act that a miscreant has undertaken, but often it is a critique of context in which the artwork was commissioned and created.

Defacing public art is often seen as a true demonstration of individual or group expression and protest. It is a form of protest when statues are brought down, paintings are vandalised or public art is sprayed by protest graffiti.

STIR looks at six important moments of protestors and their confrontations with public art. 

The empty pedestal covered in graffiti after the Edward Colston statue was removed in Bristol, UK | STIRworld
The empty pedestal covered in graffiti after the Edward Colston statue was removed in Bristol, UK Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The recent protest movement ‘Black Lives Matter’, that followed the brutalisation and subsequent death of African-American George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis Police Department officer, saw protestors across the world taking to the streets with banners, placards and performance pieces as a stand against police brutality.

In Bristol, on June 7, 2020, the protest went beyond the alternative methods that most activists are employing these days, and an angry group of protestors dethroned the statue of the British slave trader Edward Colston. The statue was torn down and heaved into the Bristol harbour. It was later retrieved since it was blocking the harbour. The activists continued to protest with placards at the empty plinth and left behind a slew of graffiti as a reminder. More recently, the fury and rage of the Black Lives Matter movement took on yet another form in the Wisconsin State Capitol on the night of June 24. Protestors smashed the windows at the statehouse and tore down two iconic statues – Forward, a statute of a Liberty-like figure, and ironically, the statue of Hans Christian Heg, who was an abolitionist and died trying to end slavery during the Civil War - and dragged them through the streets. The anger erupted after a coloured protestor carrying a megaphone and baseball bat was arrested upon entering a restaurant with his equipment.

Anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on Indian-Jewish artist Anish Kapoor’s work The Dirty Corner/ ’Queen’s Vagina’ at the Palace of Versailles | STIRworld
Anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on Indian-Jewish artist Anish Kapoor’s work The Dirty Corner/ ’Queen’s Vagina’ at the Palace of Versailles Image Credit: Courtesy of Getty Images

In some instances, the protests have been anonymous. The Anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to Indian-Jewish artist Anish Kapoor’s huge conceptual sculpture, The Dirty Corner, representing the ’Queen’s Vagina’ at the Palace of Versailles in France is one such instance. The installation was covered with comments like, “The second rape of the nation by deviant Jewish activism,” and “Christ is king in Versailles”. Surprisingly, Kapoor wanted the graffiti retained, “to bear witness to hatred”. However, he was then ordered by the French Court to have it removed. It has, however, been well documented in public memory through photographs and videos.

Auguste Rodin’s Thinker was damaged at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, US | STIRworld
Auguste Rodin’s Thinker was damaged at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, US Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Going back further in history, it was on March 24, 1970, at 1:00 am, when three sticks of dynamite were placed under a cast of Rodin’s Thinker, installed at the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, US, as part of a protest by radical Weather Underground that was operating there, as a comment on the Vietnam War. After much consideration, the museum decided to mount and display the damaged sculpture since it would bear vivid witness to a period of political unrest.

Rembrandt's Night Watch was slashed at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam|  STIRworld
Rembrandt's Night Watch was slashed at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, artist Rembrandt's Night Watch was slashed by an unemployed and mentally unstable school teacher, William de Rijk, in September 1975. It was a cry of protest against being unemployed, and hence, depressed and unstable. The painting was restored and Rijk was subsequently sent to a psychiatric hospital where he tragically committed suicide a year later. The same painting was once again vandalised in 1990, when a man threw acid on it. The guards managed to quickly dilute it with water so that it penetrated only the varnish layer, and the painting was restored again.

Mona Lisa is one of the most vandalised and protected works of art at the Louvre in Paris | STIRworld
Mona Lisa is one of the most vandalised and protected works of art at the Louvre in Paris Image Credit: Georgina Maddox

Another painting that has seen a fair amount of vandalism, to the point of being stolen, is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. On December 30, 1956, a young Bolivian man named Ugo Ungaza Villegas threw a rock at the painting; consequently, a speck of the original pigment near the left elbow fell off and it was later painted over. Then again in 1974, a disabled woman was upset by the paintings ‘inaccessibility’ while it was being displayed at the Tokyo National Museum and she proceeded to attempt spraying it with red paint. Luckily it was behind protective glass. Quite naturally, Mona Lisa became one of the best protected paintings at the Louvre with bullet proof-glass and security guards overseeing it. Despite which, in 2009, a Russian woman, distraught over being denied French citizenship, threw a terracotta teacup, purchased at the museum, on the painting in the Louvre; the vessel shattered against the glass enclosure.

Mona Lisa with a moustache (LHOOQ) by Marcel Duchamp | STIRworld
Mona Lisa with a moustache (LHOOQ) by Marcel Duchamp Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Graffiti artist FADE, a part of the AA, WF and TFO crews in Europe with legendary members such as MUTZ, JUST, 9 VOLT, TRES and TYKE paid homage to Jean-Michel Basquiat by spraying the graffiti “You Will FADE, Look to You,” across walls, shop shutters and even public art squares — a forceful and powerful call for self-empowerment. The statement screamed from the wall to support yourself because everything, including you, will one day disappear.

As recorded by history, protest can often cut into art, sometimes birthing its own forms of art as well. It usually leads to defacement and sometimes destruction, leaving one with questions about intention and cause, because protest can often be symbolic rather than literal. 

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About Author

Georgina Maddox

Georgina Maddox

Maddox is an independent critic-curator with 18 years of experience in the field of Indian art and culture. She blurs the lines of documentation, theory and praxis by involving herself in visual art projects. Besides writing on immersive art for STIRworld, she is a regular contributor for The Hindu, MASH Mag and Architectural Digest.

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