Mark Rothko has been in the national news again – as a victim of Yellowism. A victim of what? A new ‘ism’ invented by two conceptual artists who express their views like this:
“Manifesto of Yellowism
Yellowism is not art or anti-art. Examples of Yellowism can look like works of art but are not works of art. We believe that the context for works of art is already art. The context for Yellowism is nothing but yellowism. Pieces of Yellowism are not visually yellow, however sometimes can be. In Yellowism the visibility of yellow is reduced to a minimum; yellow is just the intellectual matter. Every piece of Yellowism is only about yellow and nothing more, therefore all pieces of Yellowism are identical in content – all manifestations ofYellowism have the same sense and meaning . . . . .“
(Marcin Lodyga and Vladimir Umanets)
You get the idea.
So why did Umanets ruin one of the Tate’s masterpieces? Chris Wright of the Boston Globe quotes the worldwide movement of two as explaining;
“We have resigned from art.”
“The only avenue left open to the art world is to strip art of meaning; to make it into junk.”
We might object and wonder why two artists should work so hard to rubbish an influential sector of our contemporary culture. Yet Chris Wright asks a legitimate question. The Turner Prize has been accused of doing precisely this, he argues, turning art into junk, and celebrating junk as art, so isn’t it more the case that the art world has brought this disaster upon itself? Rewarding artists whose work is built on the shock factor has simply provided the right environment for such vandalism to take place. It’s an interesting point. As he points out, it is true that the general public have a “sneaking suspicion that the Turner is some kind of elaborate practical joke, played by a smug elite on the tea-drinking masses.”
However, does he mean that otherwise, we would have no iconoclasm? No youthful impulses to take the art world by the scruff of the neck? No attempts to shake the lucrative art market out of its smug complacency? No desires to break free from all the establishment’s definitions of art which ravage the minds and hearts of students in art colleges up and down the land? That if the Turner Prize did not exist, art could be kept in its proper place, preferably mounted and framed and confined to a gallery wall? That, ultimately, it is the Turner Prize that should take responsibility for this damage?
Enjoy it or detest it, the Turner Prize allows the public to see that one of the functions of art is to do precisely the opposite, to turn the generally accepted norms on their heads, to introduce new ways of seeing. The Turner Prize only highlights the fact that such revolutionary work is going on, it does not initiate it. It allows art out of the cage constructed for it by those afraid of the freedom that artists enjoy, and demonstrates that artists should have no boundaries applied to their thinking or their work. In other words, it complements the art on gallery walls, it hints at other kinds of work currently being undertaken, it shows something of the roundedness of art as a discipline and the exciting pioneering spirit of those engaged in it.
My complaint about the Turner Prize is nothing to do with the shock factor for which it is renowned, but with a seemingly narrow concentration on work that continually manipulates the shock factor and little else. It is possible to be bored by being shocked all the time, a contradiction but a real experience nonetheless. Has contemporary art in Britain moved on from this yet? Is there a pressing ahead with new ways of working that move beyond what I would argue has become a puerile past-time? That’s the question I want to ask, and to see answered, at the Tate in particular.
Umanets believed that by signing Rothko’s Seagram Mural ‘Black on Maroon’ with the slogan ‘A potential piece of Yellowism’, he was in fact increasing its artistic value. His accomplice Lodyga comments that
“Unfortunately, Tate will not keep the inscription and therefore will ‘deface’ something very special.” He goes on : “Rothko said his paintings begin an unknown adventure into an unknown space. I think that especially ‘Black on
Maroon’ with the title ‘A potential piece of Yellowism’ begins an unknown adventure into unknown space.”
It’s not so much the idea of Yellowism that is outrageous, even if you can make sense of its contradictory statements. After all, if Umanets or Lodyga had made an easel painting themselves and then defaced it in the same way, we could have all shrugged our shoulders and ignored the whole event. Yet they would have had the right to do what they liked with their own work. As it is, the revulsion they have aroused as a result of their destructive bid for fame is so powerful that Yellowism fades completely into the background. By defacing that particular painting, they have shown themselves to be completely out of their depth. Not only have they deliberately ruined a piece which succeeded in reaching a very high target, one they purport to have sympathy with, but they have had the cheek to use a painting which is not theirs to play with to make their point.
A spokesperson for the Tate told the Daily Telegraph that the damage was worse than first feared, and that it would take a team of people up to eighteen months to restore the work. The Daily Mail projected a possible loss of value of £9 million. All this is serious. Yet what bothers me is the irreparable damage done to a painting that literally took its viewers to another place. Rothko intended his work to do just that, and he succeeded in his aim. By defacing it, the proponents of Yellowism have reduced the canvas to a flat space, to a nonsense, to a failure. Their ‘corrections’ did nothing to set if off on a new journey, on ‘an unknown adventure into unknown space’. They have taken a piece of someone else’s work, undone their efforts and violated their philosophical space. A piece of work that already pushed the boundaries of adventure etc has been reduced to nothing but the banal. Which only confirms the suspicion that Yellowism is self-defeating. I can’t see it catching on any time soon. And the only ‘unknown space’ that Umanets is likely to look forward to when he is finally sentenced, according to the press, will be firmly within four walls at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Is there a silver lining to this sorry tale? I believe there is. Only now will the general public see how carefully put together Rothko’s paintings are, and how much thought has gone into the construction of each layer. Rather than seeing his work as throwing paint at a canvas, understanding will dawn that the artist has undergone rigorous struggle to achieve a capturing of the invisible. I only hope that the Tate will keep offering free access to its wonderful collections and exhibitions, in spite of the breach of security that Yellowism represents.