October 20, 2012


Column by Eve Pearce

Taking Out the Trash
Last year, an over enthusiastic cleaner caused over $1 million of damage to a sculpture when she mistook ‘art’ for dirt. The sculpture, created by Martin Kippenberger, was entitled ‘When it Starts Dripping from the Ceiling’. It incorporated a wooden tower with a rubber trough placed below it. Paint inside the trough was intended to represent water, but the cleaner assumed it was dirt and cleaned most of it off with a scrubbing brush.

In 2001 an installation by British artist Damian Hirst was swept up and thrown away by a cleaner. As the art in question was a room full of dirty ashtrays, newspapers, empty beer bottles and half-drunk cups of coffee it’s easy to see how the cleaner could make such a mistake.

These incidents raise a lot of questions about what constitutes art and how we assign a value to the art we see. If you consider the fact that Hirst’s sculpture was created as an afterthought on the day of his exhibition opening, it begs the question whether the installation was or was not of artistic value. When you take into account the fact that this kind of incident is covered by art gallery insurance and that the items thrown away were not in themselves valuable, it’s possible to argue that no real damage was done.

In an interview for the Daily Mail, Emmanuel Assare, the cleaner who tidied the exhibit away said “"I didn't think for a second that it was a work of art - it didn't look much like art to me. So I cleared it all into bin-bags and dumped it."

Although few critics would argue that there’s no intrinsic value in art that incorporates found objects and rubbish, it does call into question whether the art world has gone too far. It does seem that whilst modern art enthusiasts are happy to be told ‘this is art’, those amongst us with less intellectual proclivities are willing to do no such thing.

The Case of Cecilia Gimenez
The recent case involving an eighty-year-old Spanish woman who took it upon herself to ‘restore’ an irreplaceable work of art in her local church has returned the subject of the destruction of art back to the headlines.

Cecilia Gimenez attempted to restore a 19th century fresco of Jesus, with disastrous results that shocked the art community. However, since the incident tourists have been flocking to Zargoza’s Mercy church where the painting resides, leading Gimenez to hire a team of lawyers in a bid to claim royalties from the extra revenue the church has made.

In addition, one website designed an online game allowing users to attempt restoring the painting themselves. To date the site has received thousands of hits.

There’s no denying that the incident has piqued the public interest and lead to an unexpected windfall for the church, so is the fact that Giminez’ attempt at repairing the painting effectively destroyed it really as damaging as it first appears?

Many professional restorers are positive about the incident as it’s raised awareness of their profession and given people a better understanding of the importance or art restoration and conservation.

The Little Mermaid
The erection of public art has long been a bone of contention and public artworks are often vandalised, especially when those artworks being erected are considered ‘modern’. However, Denmark’s ‘Little Mermaid’ statue, which is sculpted in a classical style, holds the accolade of being the most vandalised piece of art in the world.

Since she was first installed in 1913, The Little Mermaid has been decapitated several times, covered in paint, had an arm sawn off and even been blasted from her base with explosives. Each time she’s vandalised, The Little Mermaid is restored, but the fashion for destroying her continues.

Whilst some would see the occurrences of vandalism as mindless destruction, it could be argued that these attempts at destruction are in themselves an artistic statement that those in question have just as much right to make as the artist who originally sculpted the piece. If the artists are allowed to ‘make their statements’ publicly, even if the public don’t agree with their view, then why shouldn’t the public be able to make statements that the artist may not agree with?

It could also be said that the tradition of destroying the statue has over the years influenced its meaning and its value by cementing it in history as one of the world’s most well-known and well-loved sculptures.

The artwork, entitled When It Starts Dripping From The Ceiling, consists of a trough under a wooden tower of slats. Photograph- Bernd Thissen/EPA