Hans-Joachim Bohlmann may not be a familiar name to you. In fact, until recently, it was not a familiar name to me either. But this man led a rather interesting life. Interesting to say the least – he was responsible for damaging over 50 works of art, (together worth over £98 million) over the span of 29 years. In fact, his serial sabotage has made him become synonymous with the term ‘art vandalism.’
Art vandalism, or the deliberate damage of works of art, has seen a surge of incidences in recent years. Edward Eriksen’s The Little Mermaid sculpture in Copenhagen has been the subject of repeated damage, including a decapitation attempt). Before the Mona Lisa was encased in bulletproof glass, it sustained heavy damage from a sulphuric acid attack. And very recently, Anish Kapoor’s piece, Dirty Corners (which he describes as ‘The Queen’s Vagina’), was spoiled in a similar fashion – with the vandals marking the inside of the giant sculpture with yellow and white paint.
Kapoor responded to this attack in an article by claiming it was ‘politically motivated.’ He was cited as saying that the motive of this attack was because his sculpture had ‘given offence to certain people of the extreme political right wing in France.’ He later makes an interesting point of drawing a distinction between political violence and artistic violence, with the former being destructive and the latter, creative. And that’s what really struck me.
This concept of political violence (which, when acted upon in this context, becomes art vandalism) is detrimental to culture. One aspect that is definitive of contemporary art is freedom of speech. Not a garish, brazen kind of freedom – not one that acts by the will of ‘freedom for freedom’s sake’ but a more refined, deeply poignant breed. And that is why acts of mindless (and mindful) art vandalism are so harmful. They represent censorship, prejudice, philistinism and all the obtuse masses of people that seek to devalue the work of an artist.
A similar incident occurred last year in France with artist Paul McCarthy’s giant inflatable sculpture, Tree. Conservative Parisians and politicians thought the 79-foot piece was in bad taste, claiming that it resembled a “giant sex toy.” But that was McCarthy’s exact inspiration. He stated that it was meant as a ‘joke’ but the assault and heckling that he received after the installation highlighted the sense of humour (or lack thereof) that his critics have. But the irony lies in the reaction. I believe that McCarthy’s intention was to cause somewhat of a stir – expecting individuals to see the piece and think ‘did he intend on making it look like a giant butt blug?’
Is there anything that can be done about vandalism in art? McCarthy responded to the vandals in perhaps the best possible way. He requested that the piece remain deflated and not be re-erected or replaced. Although his decision was driven by a desire to avoid any violence, I think that he may have paid tribute to this idea of artistic violence that Kapoor so vehemently condones. One that defies cultural annihilation, stands firm, resolute and in the words of Kapoor: ‘may scream at the tradition of previous generations.’ Fight fire with fire. Turn a bad thing into a good thing. This idea of artistic violence doesn’t seem so farfetched after all.