Defiling a Rothko. Is it art?

On the afternoon of Sunday October 7th, Russian artist Vladimir Umanets sat calmly in front of Mark Rothko's 'Black on Maroon' in the Tate Modern art gallery on London's South Bank before standing up and writing on it in black paint. In an instant, the gallery was evacuated and the art world was enraged.

"Vladimir Umanets, a potential piece of yellowism"Obviously, what Umenets did was criminal. He graffitied and potentially permenantly damaged a piece of the Tate's property and an important artefact of art history...but was his action artistic?

Umanets is the co-creator of the artistic movement, Yellowism. Yellowism appears to be a deeply concept-driven campaign of radical anti-art. He has argued that his actions have added value to the piece. It is no longer just a Rothko, but a signature piece of the Yellowism movement. He has compared his actions to those of Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists.

The Dadaists drew attention to the bourgeois-driven nature of art. They were troubled by the idea that quality is decided by those in a position to buy the works rather than by the artists themselves. The movement was characterised by various absurd pieces which brought into question the very idea of art itself. Marcel Duchamp's famous urinal, signed "R. Mutt" and titled 'Fountain' is a signature piece of 'found art' and makes the point that nothing is art until it has a price tag and everything can be art so long as there is artistic intervention placed on it. 

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp as R.Mutt

“It is not uncommon for art to be confronted with the response, but is it art?”

It is not uncommon for art to be confronted with the response, but is it art?When, Russia born artist, Mark Rothko first exhibited his huge compostitions of bleak coloured rectangles in New York in the 1930's, it met a mixed reception. And before him, fellow countryman, Kasimir Malevich founded the school of Suprematism whose success owed more to his skillful ability to write a manifesto of minimalism than it did to his technique as an artist. The Suprematist manifesto justified groundbreaking pieces such as 'Black Square' and 'White on White'. 

And all this happened before we even get to Tracy Emin exhibiting her bed or Gilbert and George exhibiting themselves or Anthony Gormley exhibiting the great British public.

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether Yellowism qualifies as an artistic movement in the same way that dada, abstract expressionism and suprematism did previously. Right now there is understandably a lot of anger around the subject. Rothko is a much loved figure in the art world whose work, despite its apparent simplicity, continues to profoundly move people and sell for some of the highest figures ever seen on the open market.

Vladimir Malevich's 'Black Square', Supremetism

“Suprematism...owed [its success] more to his [Malevich's] skillful ability to write a manifesto of minimalism than it did to his technique as an artist”

It may seem like a clear-cut case of vandalism which requires justice, but the art world is a strange and unpredictable place. In certain circles, the idea of a 'moral' judgement is regarded as an archaic fallacy. However, embracing this act into the artistic cannon runs the risk of opening the floodgates to more 'art attacks'. What would the response be if Michelangelo's 'David' were next? Or the 'Mona Lisa'? 

Studying art historyStudying a degree in art history will involve questions like this and many more. It is a subject which delves into philosophy and history, beauty and abjection, the past and the future. To study art history is to develop an understanding of what it means to be human and whether it means anything at all to write your name on a fairly major piece of art in an internationally revered art gallery.