This past Febuary 2 parallel art events occurred here in Miami.
The first, which garnered the most attention, was the busting of Ai Wei Wei’s dis-constructed Han Dynasty pot at the Perez Art Museum, the other , which happenned the next day, was the failed auction of amputated Banksey fragments that had been ripped from their site-specific locations by art-mongers, to be sold to Miami art collectors.
Maximo Caminero’s impromptu gesture will be considered more closely here because his was an action that has a transcendent artistic aspect that he enacted in spite of serious consequences.
The other was an all-too-familiar event where the values of art are subjected to attempts at financial gain to the supposed enhancement of art, but which all too often have an opposite distracting actual effect.
The fundamental position taken here is that the value of art lies not in it’s ability to translate into immediate or eventual financial return, but rather in it’s ability to catalyze and to transform people through an expansion of their understanding of the fundamental dynamics and values,of their own individual and collective lives.
What is important in Caminero’s ‘bust’, is that his action actually ‘realized’ Ai Wei Wei’s Piece and enhanced it’s value in Western terms.
To understand this, one is obliged to release themselves from the highly limiting but widely-held belief that art’s fundamental value can be accurately translated into a mere monetary sum: once again, art’s elusive and transcendent purpose is to awaken, to vitalize, to nourish the spirit.
True art is not a widget made for profit, even though it’s agonizingly tempting to treat it as another object with an appraisable value. Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’ isn t remarkable because it s made of a splendid chunk of marble. It s valuable because it’s creator succeeded in distilling into form an eternal gesture of life’s profound experience of maternal love, of suffering, and of the enduring power of these experiences in the lives of all people.
Or more recently, how Warhol’s simple photo-silkscreen portrait of movie idol Maralyn Monroe endures: it’s not hard to see how this artist sought and found, and further distilled in is own mechanical process, the eternality of the smiling omnipresent goddess of love. But in Warhol’s case we are also invited to recognize that this endlessly copied, repeated and advertised image, only gains more affirmative iconic power through familiarity.
Before Caminero busted the Wei Wei pot at PAMM,, we were being offered a series of defiled ancient Chinese pots that were meant to signify the Chinese artist’s impatience with traditionalism and convention in a society that is significantly different from our own, but which appears, interestingly, to be transforming into one more like ours; one where hard work, individual expression, innovation and personal gain are replacing systematic collective ownership and sharing, suppression of individual expression and personal gain as ‘selfish’, and so forth.
So the photo of the Chinese artist dropping a pot included in the exhibit is intended as a defiant and transforming action. This is particularly important in Chinese art tradition where deferential copying of older masterworks was the respected approach for centuries; as compared with the emphasis on innovation and defiance that have been hallmarks of Western artistic values.
Under these circumstances, isn’t Wei Wei’s busting of an ancient pot is more inflammatory than contemporary artists scribbling over authentic works by Goya that they own?
And in a culture like ours, where ownership and price are so important, isn’t Caminero’s ‘busting’ of a pot that doesn ’t belong to him, become inflammatory in a way more suitable to our artistic conventions and assumptions?
In fact the most-cited objection to Caminero’s action is that ‘it belonged to someone else’, indicating that the most important aspect of this art work wasn’t what it might mean, but who owned it. And because this is the most-cited objection to what took place, we can see how hard it is for Westerners to imagine an object that is beyond, or outside of ‘ownership’.
Could our obsession with ‘ownership’ be as crippling for us as the Chinese obsession with ‘tradition’.
We believe that land, air and water, even the Human Genome, can be ‘owned’. Turns out that the native North Americans had no concept of land ownership: they believed that it was to be shared with the other creatures that occupied the forests and plains, and only understood that their treaties allowed the Europeans to use it along with everyone else, not understanding that they could be pushed off land that didn’t ‘belong’ to them.
Of course, these are our conventions, social order must be maintained, property respected, etc…but in the realm of artistic values and relevance, doesn’t Caminero’s response to Wei Wei’s Piece vitally adapt it to our own search for balance, expansion, and truth?
I suggest that it’s a lot easier for us to sympathize with Wei Wei’s defiance against the rigidness of his social and philosophical context than it is for us to recognize the transformative social significance to our own rigidities, that Caminero’s action evoke.
Again, as an example, let’s consider Wei Wei’s well known public artistic stance against police brutality in China, which have been a source of our admiration of him as a courageous dissident artist in his own country..
But how would we react if an artist took a stance against the shooting deaths of so many unarmed citizens in the US; of the tazing, beating and harassing of too many others.
It’s easier to see someone else’s faults than to confront our own; but once again, the fundamental truth-seeking value of artistic expression can help us to open our own eyes to things that we can easily take for granted, but which nonetheless are important signifiers of personal and collective realities.
Art’s transformative power, particularly in it s more defiant ‘actions’, allows it to have a purpose and an effect, that might not be attainable elsewhere.
In Caminero’s action, I suggest that important issues around ‘ownership’ in our own social system and our collective perceptions about it’s importance are evoked; even more importantly, I suggest that his action awakens a consideration of our unfortunate reduction of art’s value to sums of money as a way of side-stepping the more important purpose behind the creation and true value of art.
And this tendency is clearly illustrated by the jackhammering of Banksey’s work from it’s site spacific artist-chosen locations, to convert it into a financial instrument.