Damage Inc.

China USA

This past February, a man walked into the Pérez Art Museum Miami and, in an alleged act of protest, grabbed a sculptural work from a pedestal and smashed it to the ground. The sculpture, a painted Han Dynasty-era jar from Ai Weiwei’s Colored Vases project (2006–12), was initially valued by the museum at USD 500,000. 

But something more perplexing informs this deliberate act of alleged heresy. The perpetrator, Maximo Caminero, based his action in part on Ai’s own dispassionate and iconoclastic artistic project, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), in which Ai deliberately dropped and broke an ancient vase as an irreverent gesture toward the valuation of art, commodity culture and the burden of cultural history. 

Caminero claimed that his act was done “for all the local artists in Miami that have never been shown in museums here.” Ai was not very keen on Caminero’s act, informing the New York Times that Caminero’s “argument doesn’t make much sense. If he really had a point, he should choose another way, because this will bring him trouble to destroy property that does not belong to him.” Ultimately, Ai took Caminero’s act with a grain of gun-powder: “I’m OK with it, if a work is destroyed,” Ai said. “A work is a work. It’s a physical thing. What can you do? It’s already over.” 

What, if anything, distinguishes Ai’s and Caminero’s acts? Both constitute communicative expressions embodying political and cultural dissent. Under societies with constitutions that protect freedom of expression, both clearly would be seen as speech. True enough. However, in countries with strong private-property doctrines, such as the United States, Caminero’s act—as highlighted by Ai himself—trespassed onto Ai’s and the museum’s property rights, and perhaps the rights of the collectors as well. Clearly, not all speech is protected speech. 

But our real question here is whether both forms of expression are artistic expression (insert reference to your favorite art theorist or historian here). Following the criteria laid out in artist Daniel Buren’s seminal 1970 essay, “The Function of the Museum,” we can correctly surmise that Ai is an artist and his gesture within a Miami museum is art. (Buren argues that the museum’s function, as a privileged entity, is tripartite: to provide aesthetic, economic and mystical value. These three values are accomplished when the museum preserves, collects and shelters works of art.) 

But maybe, just maybe, Caminero’s godlessness poses a more interesting question: why isn’t his act, carried out within museum walls, viewed as an artistic act rather than mere vandalism? If, as many art world intelligentsia like to profess, “everyone is an artist” (think Joseph Beuys), then why isn’t Caminero’s act understood and analyzed as art—which is very different from allocating artistic value to Caminero’s act (that is, one can act like an artist but not necessarily make art). 

Here’s my take. This past May I visited one of my favorite institutions, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, and pleasantly stumbled upon an exhibition that pondered ideas and questions very much related to Caminero’s vase-breaking protest.

Curated by Kerry Brougher and Russell Ferguson, the exhibition, “Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950,” brought together 49 artists—including Yoshitomo Nara, Ai Weiwei, John Baldessari, Yoko Ono, Vija Celmins, Gordon Matta-Clark and Jake and Dinos Chapman— in order to explore how the act and reception of destruction and violence was investigated and forged as artistic expression by postwar artists. The exhibition was quite auspicious given my own current preoccupations with the practical and theoretical relationships between art and law, language and power. This exhibition forced me to start honing in on how acts of violence and destruction are forms of communication for many contemporary artists, as well as for some individuals and groups “outside” the formal art world. 

The question as to why some “outsiders” find peace in violence is beyond the scope of this article. But as to why artists and “outsiders” are damaging and destroying works of art, there is one very possible and captivating reason. That reason focuses on my belief that many contemporary artists are reacting against the art world’s infatuation with preciousness: both with itself and with objects. Or perhaps I should be more blunt—an infatuation with the aura that grants certain objects an elevated status in the eyes of art world connoisseurs, lay folk and the law. 

Simply put, the answer to the question of why certain contemporary artists and “outsiders” are revisiting violence and destruction as a means of expression has to do with the values of the art world itself and its growing investment in blessing art, artistic practices and objects with an auratic and spiritual magic dust. Yes, historically artists have always attacked artistic, cultural and political targets. But there’s something different in today’s contemporary art and culture that is compelling artists to disregard potential consequences and once again destroy and damage objects with more potent force and more spectacular outcomes. The difference centers on the fact that this time around artists have a powerful digital Molotov cocktail, otherwise known as social media and the internet, to help them disseminate their ideas and ideologies. Every tree falling in a forest now makes noise.

We can rest assured that we are on solid ground when we suggest that certain artists are tired of recurring disappointments, such as the art world’s alleged promotion of progressive causes, while championing and validating a “one percent” lifestyle. Critically oriented artists are tired of other artists and their peers disengaging with the practice and discourse of art-making and instead spending their time tailoring their curricula vitae. They’re tired of art being valued and evaluated solely on financial factors. They’re tired of cynical artists commodifying every act under the pretense of sociopolitical awareness. 

In the end, we can only hope Frantz Fanon was right: that under his “boomerang theory,” the initial violent act generated by a colonizer toward the colonized will eventually be returned, by the colonized, toward the colonizer. “To change art, destroy ego,” quipped French artist Ben Vautier. So why not, to change ego, destroy art?