Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Kill Your Art

Some time on Saturday morning a massive knitted art work spanning 150 metres of an iconic Footscray bridge was destroyed by a person or persons unknown. The Big Knit was created as part of the very exciting Big West festival; but what can we say about its destruction? 

It was a shock to read about the act of ‘vandalism’ – shock in Walter Benjamin’s sense, as the psychic equivalent of a physical blow, the result of a violent collision. Shock is apt, as it was a very real kind of violence carried out on the art work. In the article linked to above, Festival director Karen Hadfield guesses that it would have taken at least two hours to do the kind of damage the piece incurred. That’s a pretty sustained and committed thing to do.

It’s also one of the most effective, if mystifying acts of art criticism we’ve seen locally in a long time.

Violence against art is surprisingly common. In 1987 a man fired a sawed-off shotgun at a Leonardo drawing in London. In 1974 a guy sprayed “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s Guernica. Here in Melbourne we had the dude who went at Serrano’s “Piss Christ” with a hammer. There’s even a German guy who has made it his life work to throw acid on masterpieces, admitting that his life work is to “destroy what other men cherish”.

All of these acts are forms of art criticism – not couched in the usual language, sure, but strong comments about particular art works or the wider field of art itself. Sometimes they’re motivated by ideology, sometimes by politics, sometimes by crazy space bugs in your head that tell you what to do, I guess. They’re unacceptable because art has value, and their destructive nature reduces that value.

(This is where graffiti enters the arena, with proponents arguing that is a creative act, detractors that it is destructive. I don’t want to head off on that tangent, though).

Violence such as that to which the Big Knit was subjected doesn’t seem attributable to any ideology or whatever – it’s destruction for destruction’s sake. In this way, funnily enough, it’s quite close to the art proposed by Wilde, whose meaning is in its very uselessness. Some argue that violence against art is itself art, but I won’t go that far yet.

I’ve long had an intuition that the way we treat inanimate objects has some correlation to the way we treat other subjects. When I see a bike that has had the shit kicked out of it still lying forlornly chained to a pole; or see a drunk get off the tram and fling his empty beer bottle at a wall; or sit in a cinema seat with deep gouge marks scored into its surface… I can’t help but feel that whoever did this probably wouldn’t be the best babysitter around. Violence against objects is still violence, even if nobody is hurt, and in the same way that there’s a generally accepted connection between those who hurt animals and those who graduate to hurting people, I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to extend the chain of being a little here.

This isn’t to anthropomorphise objects or claim that they have feelings or anything. There’s recent research which suggests our decision as to whether something is alive or not comes quite late in the cognitive process of perception – that life and non-life aren’t qualities we immediately ascribe to something; that distinction is arrived at after we register a range of other responses. In fact, it’s not so wrong to suggest that we initially encounter everything as alive until we quickly determine otherwise, though this sort of radically simplifies the idea of ‘alive’.

Anyway, we certainly act as if a lot of inanimate objects have life. The Mona Lisa is accorded the kind of protection and care denied to most of humanity, as are many heritage buildings, and even a few big rocks. A lot of us feel great emotional attachment to objects which have no value or purpose. There can even be a tinge of sadness when we see the snarled up face of a car whose fender has been knocked in, or baby’s sock huddling in a muddy gutter. Sometimes we’re ascribing a human backstory or attributing feelings to things that don’t feel, sure, but I think it goes deeper than that.

The violence directed at The Big Knit seems most offensive because it is, by analogy, directed not just at art but at artists. If you build a house of cards and somebody comes and sweeps it away, it’s hard not to take the act personally.

So how can treating this violence as an admittedly extreme form of art criticism be productive? Well, it can offer a way of thinking about criticism itself. There are established traditions within criticism which aren’t so far from violence – they simply pretend that tearing down an art work in print is somehow disconnected from assaulting the artist through association. But when that house of cards is knocked over, its builder suffers no real harm. Same with art. Nobody was physically hurt when the Big Knit was destroyed, but I imagine plenty of people were affected.

It’s the lack of explanation that makes the vandalism so potent an act. I can’t attribute any motive beyond very speculative ones, and the assumptions I make about the perpetrators (young males, basically) say more about me than any verifiable truth. But when critics are just as impenetrable – when they play whack-a-mole with art without explaining why they’re doing this – the same kind of unsettled angst must surely settle on some artists. This kind of violence happens every day.

Here’s a different spin on things: as saddening as the Big Knit’s destruction might be, that act of vandalism is now part of the art work’s story. What was an interesting piece has had a new dimension added to its myth, and this makes it an even more interesting item in our art history. The destruction does create – it creates questions about the role of public art, ephemerality, the relation of the work to different publics, the way we imagine or project anti-artists and, for me, the problems and complicities of art criticism itself.


Jake said...

"The destructive character is young and cheerful. For destroying rejuvenates, because it clears away the traces of his own age; it cheers, because everything cleared away means to the destroyer a reduction, indeed a rooting out, of his own condition." (Walter Benjamin)

I'm sad for the Big Knit, but part of me applauds the vandals. Bart Simpson would understand.

richardwatts said...

I just want to know why there wasn't a 24-hour security presence to protect the Big Knit once it was installed...

Jake said...

Because the vulnerability of the Big Knit was part of its charm. Although the idea of guards in scarves and leg-warmers has an appeal.