Erased de Kooning Drawing, A Potential Piece of Yellowism, and Rindy Sam’s alteration of Twombly’s Phædrus all address issues of ownership in conjunction with destruction. After all, not many would react to or care about these incidents if they were purely private acts. In utilizing pieces of art in the public sphere, which people feel invested in and take ownership of, they illicit a different response than they would otherwise. By doing so, the artists challenge the nature of ownership.
In her article for Communication Arts, Wendy Richmond asks the reader when de Kooning’s drawing came under Rauschenberg’s ownership. Was it when the paper passed from de Kooning’s hand to Rauschenberg’s, when Rauschenberg had mostly erased it, or when the idea of the drawing was transformed by Rauschenberg’s idea? What is the difference in this case between physical property and intellectual property? Under which of these categories does a drawing fall? If the drawing became Rauschenberg’s after the destruction of the image, then what kind of ownership do Umanets and Sam have of their Rothko and Twombly?
Destruction is a means for transference of ownership. Generally this is understood in the sense that when an object is destroyed, nobody owns it any longer. In the context of functional objects (a shirt, a house, a coffee mug), once the physical object no longer performs a function, it, in a way, ceases to be that object and is no longer owned in the same sense. The way we experience art is different. Art has a physical presence, but also a conceptual or psychological presence. These two are related, but when the physical presence of an artwork is altered or destroyed, the conceptual presence of the work does not entirely disappear. Even though one may attach sentimental value to a functional object, once the physical presence is destroyed, the concepts attached to the object are diminished as well. In some cases, when an artwork is destroyed, the conceptual presence grows stronger. This is not to endorse the alteration of artworks, and certainly is not intended as a defense of either Umanets or Sam. Umanets’s assumption that just by altering the work he would somehow bestow on it more value has not proven to be true, nor has that been the case for Twombly’s canvas.
There is a sixty-year history of destructivity in and as art. However, time has only complicated the issue of ethics associated with destruction and the role of such acts in the creative process and the contemporary art world. Though the alteration and destruction of art changes the context of and dialogue about the work in a possibly constructive way, the reconciliation of separation of physical and conceptual ownership is certainly an issue that must be revisited by the art community, as it seems this is a trend that will not be going away anytime soon. Just as in the current conversations regarding graffiti, “tagging”, and street art, issues of property, appropriation, and reclamation of public and semi-public space need to be analyzed in the context of contemporary culture. These topics need to be reevaluated to see if the traditional notions of ownership apply in all cases, and in which cases acts of destruction and alteration are, in fact, art.
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