After an art attack on Ai Wei Wei works: Hirshhorn leader discusses the line between art and vandalism


Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s “Colored Vases” at the Perez Art Museum in Miami, Florida. (Zachary Fagenson/ Reuters)

On Sunday, a disgruntled artist in Miami entered the newly opened Perez Art Museum and broke a vase included in a 2007-2010 work called “Colored Vases” by Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei. Maximo Caminero, who was arrested, cited as inspiration another work by Ai currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum as part of the exhibition “Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950.” That work, a series of three photographs with the self-explanatory title “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” shows Ai in the before, during and after of destroying a ceramic piece that could be more than 2000 years old. Ai has justified his destruction of the Han urn as an effort to call attention to larger issues of cultural destruction and commodification in contemporary China.

I spoke with the Hirshhorn’s interim director Kerry Brougher, who organized the exhibition, about whether there is a difference between the destructive “art” defined by Caminero, and the destruction of a cultural object by Ai.

For me, I think there is a huge difference. Ai Wei Wei, I believe, has owned in one way or other the things that he has destroyed [in his art]. The Han dynasty vase was an acquisition of his, he owned the piece, and decided to destroy it. [Caminero] was destroying someone else’s property. That strikes me as a form of vandalism and not a form of art.

But how would you explain to, say, an art student who was inspired by your show to value the inherently creative aspects of destruction, who believes that maybe there isn’t a hard-and-fast line between vandalism and creative destruction?

The problem is one of authority. Does one have the authority to actually destroy something and thereby make a statement that is intelligent and can be communicated to the public? … An example would be Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased De Kooning,” [a work included in the exhibition, in which Rauschenberg meticulously erased a preexisting drawing by the then more famous and acclaimed artist Willem de Kooning]. He asked de Kooning for the work, and permission to destroy it. It is still a destructive gesture, but [Rauschenberg] had the authority.

That’s an example in which the artist explicitly asked for permission. But aren’t there examples of more purely destructive, or anarchic works in this exhibition?

I don’t think so. Never say never, but I think in the show I believe all the physical acts of destruction were done to objects or things that the artist owned [or made], or they were not objects of art to begin with, such as Rafael Ortiz’s piano [for the exhibition’s opening the artist Rafael Montanez Ortiz reenacted one of his “Piano Destruction Concerts” and the resulting heap of piano scraps are on display in the first gallery of the exhibition]. I can’t think of an example in the show when an artist destroyed an art work that they didn’t actually own.

Was that a guideline for inclusion in the exhibition?

We didn’t set guidelines when we were working on the show, but I think that it was pretty clear to us the difference between an act of vandalism and an act that could be an art work… Clearly the works that we picked for the show [met that standard]. I’m not even sure I can think of an artwork that is out-and-out vandalism that I would personally consider an actual art work.

I wonder about the perhaps related question of graffiti, when an artist assumes the authority to place their work into the public realm.

Graffiti art wasn’t something that we were particularly interested in [for this exhibition], primarily because… in doing graffiti art you aren’t actually destroying another work of art, in most cases anyway. You are painting over surfaces of the city or streets, or walls, or whatever, but that wasn’t something we were interested in terms of Damage Control. [Graffiti is a different thing] from the Chapman brother’s Goya, “Disasters of War” [a work in the exhibition by Jake and Dinos Chapman, entitled “Injury to Insult to Injury,” in which they added cartoon-like figures to an original set of etchings by Francisco de Goya].

But what of the larger philosophical question: Can an artist assume on his or her own behalf the authority to “improve” public space?

 It would be in the eye of the beholder, in terms of whether the painting being produced was art or not. I think there are probably examples of both. Really it is [a question of whether] all of us in the art world were certain graffiti art was art, or an act of vandalism.

Do you think Caminero succeeded in drawing attention to his cause [which was to demand more representation of local artists in Miami museums]?

I don’t understand how this act was going to help the cause. I don’t think he had the authority to destroy this piece, but even if he did, I don’t think that the act equated [with his message]. He is acting pretty much on his own.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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