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Vandalism vs commercialism


On January 4th 1997, Alexander Brener, a Russian performance artist, sprayed a green dollar sign over fellow Russian Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematisme 1920-1927.

The painting itself before the act of vandalism/art performance showed a white cross on a light grey background and Brener said he intended the dollar sign to appear nailed to the cross.

Afterwards Brener surrendered himself to museum security and in a statement made later to the police demanded that his work should be seen as performance art and a protest against “corruption and commercialism in the art world“.

Maybe the police believed him (though I doubt it), but the Dutch court definitely didn’t view his action as art and sentenced Brener to ten months in prison.

Not only did he say it was a performance he also stated that his action ‘was NOT against the painting, I view my act as a dialogue with Malewitz

Friends and colleagues from Russia wrote a letter in defense of Brener to the Dutch court (to read the whole letter click here)

We all know that one of the main purposes of law is the protection of property. As we are informed, the market value of the painting before Brener’s intervention was claimed to be 20 million Dutch guilders, and after the action, according to the Stedelijk Museum’s evaluation, the painting lost one quarter of its market value.

We state that this is an arbitrary evaluation, which should be discussed in the context of the mechanisms that create the value of artifact in the 20th century. First of all, there is no evident proof that the value of the painting is really lower then before. It may be even higher if the legitimacy of Brener’s act can be explained, proved and accepted now, or in the future. The economic value of an artifact depends on its symbolic value, and symbolic evaluation is made under certain value systems accepted in an economic-spiritual-social exchange. Therefore there is the possibility that Brener’s act didn’t cause any financial loss but rather a profit to the legal owner of the painting.

Of course this defense would’ve worked better if Brener was an extremely famous artist whose work was worth a lot of money.

What would’ve happened if for instance Banksy had spraypainted that Malevitch?

But there is another historical example of an important piece of art being spray-painted in a museum.

On Feb. 28, 1974, Tony Shafrazi took a can of red spray paint into New York’s Museum of Modern Art and scrawled the message KILL LIES ALL in foot-high letters across Pablo Picasso’s 25-by-11 foot antiwar Guernica painting.

When a guard finally grabbed him, Shafrazi shouted, “Call the curator. I am an artist.

Shafrazi now owns the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, which amongst others, sells and shows Picasso’s…………….

PS this image is not from the original action, but a reproduction of a section of Guernica following its defacement. Painting by Felix Gmelin ‘Kill Lies All After Pablo Picasso (1937) & Tony Shafrazi (1974)’ 1996, Oil on canvas, 195 x 295 cm

7 thoughts on “Vandalism vs commercialism

  1. What i liked the most about this intervention of Brener is that he did not think of his act as destructive but as a completion, or more accurately: a status update. It was not a denial of the past – he admired Malewich – in the tradition of the avant garde that with every step forward has to deny the relevance of what came before. It is a tribute. Brener claims to have acted as an assistant that executed the artistic testament of Malewich. He migt even argue that the current art market where Malewich is sold for millions is in fact a destruction of the communist ideas of Malewich. That justifies the dollar sign. Malewich might have done the same thing. That arouses a weird question: what if Malewich would have been the one who painted the dollar sign on his own work after he sold the work. Would he have been put on trial? Where does ownership end?

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