As a case study, let’s look at Ai’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.
On the surface level, the photo set appears to mock artistic fetishism: Ai looks like he could not possibly give a fuck as he lets the valuable artifact shatter on the ground. There’s a sublime disregard in the pictures; it’s art against art like Kruger’s sentences are ads against ads. But as an artist, Ai can’t destroy art, he can only make more. From one urn, he gets three pictures. If I went into the Hirshhorn, grabbed one of the photos off the wall, and let it fall to ground like I didn’t give a fuck, I would be arrested and taken to jail. It’s only freedom of expression if you break something you own, otherwise it’s vandalism.
One true vandal learned this lesson (or taught it) very publicly when Vladimir Umanets was sentenced to two years in prison for writing “a potential work of yellowism” on a Mark Rothko painting in London’s Tate Modern. Yellowism is the idea that if anything can become art regardless of its use value, then we could imagine a third category of stuff past art, in light of which the art/non-art distinction dissolves. Both are equally potential works of yellowism, just like a soup can and a urinal are equally art objects. Umanets writing “a potential work of yellowism” on a Rothko is the same as Duchamp Sharpie-ing “a potential work of art” on a toilet while he takes a piss. Except Umanets isn’t an artist. We know he’s not an artist because he’s in jail in England, and England, Ai would remind us, has freedom of expression.
Umanets wasn’t looking for freedom of expression, but freedom from expression, out from under the artistic injunction to replace what you destroy. He wanted to break without buying, but that’s not in liberalism’s deal. And no one cries for a vandal.
Because Umanets is a vandal and not an artist, there won’t be any complaints from the U.S. State Department. Because this is England and not Russia, there won’t be a Human Rights Watch report, as there was for the band Pussy Riot when they were arrested for trespassing. Even anti-capitalist arts writers called for his head on a platter.
U.S.Ai. – The New Inquiry