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A few weeks ago, a fellow named Vladimir Umanets took a trip to the Tate Modern gallery in London, waltzed up to a Rothko painting, and signed it in marker. After scribbling, “A potential piece of yellowism” on it, he fled the museum. Twitter broke the news, and soon enough, the media hullaballooed over this latest act of art vandalism. Why did he do it? Was he just another angsty, penniless artist? A hater of Rothko? Was it drugs?
Of course, art vandalism isn't new. Crazies and connoisseurs alike have added their personal touch to famous works, with mediums like spray paint, ice picks, and even urine—justifying their actions with reasons from artistic intent to a buzz from bath salts. (Really.) And that's just in the past couple of years. Often, these vandals intend to destroy; occasionally, they desire to improve (Cecilia Gimenez's Jesus fresco, anyone?).
As an art history devotee, I instinctively dislike art vandalizers; they're the reason you can only see the “Mona Lisa” from 10 feet away, behind a wooden barrier and through bulletproof glass. “Who the fuck took a hammer to the ‘Pieta?!’” a friend of mine cried as we tried to squint at the famously protected Michelangelo sculpture while in Rome last year. Vandalism means museums have to increase security, which means inhibiting visitors in some way—which just makes me wonder why someone couldn't keep their hands to themselves and had to ruin the artistic experience for everyone else.
But what makes the Rothko defacement interesting is that Vladimir Umanets is dead serious about what he did. He views his action as a legitimate and important act for the sake of art—or, rather, “yellowism”. That's the name of the movement he's starting, along with a fellow artist. They’ve even created a website with a traditional manifesto that explains it all, albeit with frustratingly tautological mystery.
To make matters more outrageous, under this righteous banner of yellowism, Umanets denies that he “vandalized” the work and seems to think he's actually increased the value of the painting— a tall order, considering that Rothko is presently the record-setter for most expensive work of contemporary art ever sold at auction ($87 million, FYI).
Despite his hubristic claims, I actually dig the ideas behind yellowism. It's an attempt at extreme recontextualization that negates criticism and claims only one, inarguable truth: yellow. That's it. No one has cared this much about a color since Coldplay wrote that song. Still, to destroy another artist's painting in order to dictate your own meaning to it—and even claim that it will be worth more that way (at least monetarily)—that's pretty dangerous, if not frankly fascist.
Art history is littered with moments in which artists and critics claim, with varying degrees of urgency, the end of art. And that can be kind of exciting, if it sparks something new—like, say, a whole new movement. But I don't think anyone adds to the world by scribbling over old works, except maybe to the world of job creation by creating a need for extra security guards. Unless yellowism takes a different direction, I think Umanets should get with the times. There's already a movement that excuses crazy, irresponsible acts: The kids call it YOLO(ism).
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