The headline-grabbing ‘improvements’ to an Anna Leporskaya painting by a security guard are as valid a critique and reconstruction as anything from the mainstream art world.
We’ve previously written extensively about the curious joys of Spanish amateur art restoration, a gift that keeps on giving and one that, while destroying primarily Catholic iconography, is arguably creating a new form of outsider art that some might argue is more heartfelt and sincere than the original pieces – no matter how subjectively (or, let’s be fair, objectively) terrible that these cack-handed attempts at restoring neglected works of art are, they at least mostly come from a place of genuine devotion.
The one connecting theme of all this art is a desire to bring neglected art back to what the ‘restorer’ believes to be a former glory – a glory that the official custodians of the art have often allowed to be seriously tarnished, we should note. But what of someone who decides to ‘improve’ existing, undamaged works of art – more modern and secular art at that? What do we make of that?
Well, you can decide for yourself by checking out the efforts of an unnamed Russian 60-year-old security guard who was, in retrospect, perhaps not really suited to the job. Hired by a private security firm to watch over the exhibition The World as Non-Objectiveness. The Birth of a New Art at the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg, the man quickly became bored. Standing around for hours will do that to you, and it takes a special kind of person to do this sort of work – the type who can effectively zombie out and exist in their own thoughts while still being alert to everything going on around them.
Clearly, our man was not such a person. On his first day of employment, he looked around at the work on display and decided that one piece – Anna Leporskaya’s Three Figures – was missing a certain something. Specifically, it was missing eyes on the blanked faced figures. Perhaps our man is the sort who routinely draws glasses and moustaches on photographs in magazines and forgot himself; perhaps he simply forgot where he was or somehow or other had not been briefed on the value of the work on display (though why he then thought he was guarding it is anyone’s guess) or perhaps he was gripped by some sort of devilment. Whatever the reason, he took out his ballpoint pen – that had been supplied by the gallery – and added circular eyes to two of the figures.
According to reports, it was “two eagle-eyed visitors” who first saw the damage, a fact that brings up all sorts of questions in itself – hopefully, it was noticed almost immediately rather than being ignored by other visitors and staff alike, though it’s entirely possible that dozens of people stared at the work without even realising that something was amiss. Who are we to question an artist’s style, after all? But frankly, you don’t have to be ‘eagle-eyed’ to see this ‘improvement’ – it is, no pun intended, staring you right in the face. Perhaps his additions seemed to somehow fit in as part of the painting to many observers.
Obviously, the guard was fired. The remarkable 1932-34 painting, valued at US$1 million, will cost $3,360 to restore, which in the grand scheme of things doesn’t seem so bad – I mean, if you work out the cost of getting a pair of shoes repaired versus the original cost, then the repair bill is actually quite cheap. And – here’s where I lose art purists – it might be a small price to pay for the temporary creation of a new work of art (not to mention the global free publicity given to an exhibition that was seemingly so unpopular that a security guard could cheerfully vandalise a displayed work without anyone noticing him do it). Headlines calling it ‘ruined’ seem a bit hysterical.
Serious, acclaimed, important artists have reworked and deconstructed existing works for years – not necessarily using original works, though sometimes, of course, they do. And then we have the current trend for vandalising or destroying unpopular statues, something that many of the same art community people who will be horrified by this have celebrated. If we cling to the elitist idea of a hierarchy of artists and ideas, where only some people, some beliefs and some works are considered to be of value and the vast majority of existing art is dismissed as populist trash, offensive or amateurish and worthless (with, some might argue, a very fine line existing between the critically adored genius and the incompetent amateur), then yes, we can take a hypocritical attitude to the damaging of original works. Alternatively, we can say that the guard’s actions have effectively created a new work, changing the meaning of the original piece. Perhaps this new work is a statement of its very own, one that speaks to the ennui of modern existence or is a commentary on our modern world of surveillance and tracking where eyes are constantly on us. It’s as valid an idea as any pompous art gallery caption searching for meaning in works that are arguably less substantial or subtextual than they desperately want us to believe. Hey, if academics want to cling to the belief that they can see meaning in work that even the creator was unaware of (or denies is there), then we can surely find deeper subconscious concepts behind this reconstruction. Clearly, the guard was driven to do this by something – a “lapse of sanity” in the words of the gallery’s spokesperson – so who are we to say that his motives were any less valid or less creative than anyone else’s, even if he himself claims it was simply down to boredom? After all, just how bored and clueless must someone be to do this? Surely he was driven by a need that he can’t articulate or even understand. The artistic muse, the overwhelming need to create, you might say. A vandalised work often becomes a statement in itself, a socially or politically-motivated critique of the original piece.
Obviously, I don’t condone damage to or destruction of any form of art, great or ghastly. But this is small potatoes compared to Patricia Cornwell destroying Walter Sickert paintings in her lunatic search for non-existent evidence that he was Jack the Ripper, something that has been weirdly uncriticised (and in some cases even defended). Indeed, it seems less significant than all the art squirrelled away in private collections or museum vaults, unseen and ignored; all the art destroyed because it was politically or morally offensive to those in positions of authority; or all the art that no one outside the artist’s family ever saw in the first place because they didn’t have the right connections or ambition, and so has been dismissed as worthless and thrown away or left to rot in attics. The act of destruction, in this case, is reversible and temporary – something that itself makes it fascinating and worthwhile, an ephemeral piece closer to performance art than anything else.
The modern art world is often one of arbitrary critical judgement and snobbery that declares one piece inspired and worth a fortune, and others amateur hour trash. This sort of vandalism pricks at that empty pretension. The original work will be restored and so there is no lasting harm done – and that’s why I can’t help but chuckle at this sort of thing.
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