Defacement or Art?

CBC reported a recent case at the Tate Modern where Vladimir Umanets signed his own name, and a comment about yellowism (a movement he cofounded) at the bottom of a valuable 1958 Mark Rothko mural. He claims that not only has he enhanced the value of the painting but that he has done nothing wrong; “I didn’t destroy the picture. I did not steal anything.”  I cannot help but wonder if Rothko would agree – from his perspective I think this probably qualifies as “destructive”. I’m also fairly certain that defacement of property is classified as a legal offence. Sorry, Vladimir, I’m not buying into the “I didn’t do anything wrong” argument…

This reminds me of another, even more bizarre, case that I was reading about a few months back where an amateur restorer managed to do this to a ninteenth century church fresco:

The restoration was quickly branded “Monkey Jesus”. The best part of the story is that, rather than apologising for the damage, the woman claimed that she had enhanced the work since it was now a bigger tourist attraction and that the church actually owed her money for this service.

In both this case and the Rothko case we are faced with individuals who seem to honestly believe that altering works is art rather than defacement. This is all very well and on a totally theoretical level I agree that the nature of an object can change throughout its existence. However that really is theoretical. I don’t believe that anyone has the right to intentionally alter the work of another; certainly not when the change is not approved of by the majority of interested parties. Above all both individuals treat the monetary or tourist value of the object as the primary indicator of “value”. Art, along with other forms of cultural heritage, cannot be defined in such limited terms.



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