Monday, February 24, 2014

Why Does PAMM Support the Destruction of Art? or “I am the Wei, the Truth and the Life”

By John Dorschner

      A Miami artist walks into the taxpayer-funded Perez Art Museum, sees an exhibit of a Chinese artist destroying an art work and – guess what? – the Miami guy … destroys … an art work.
      Technical score: 7.6. Originality: 0.
      Locally, the art world and the media have blasted the criminal act, in which Maximo Caminero was arrested after smashing an ancient vase that had been splattered with modern paint by Ai Weiwei. The vase was in a group of vases in front of three photos of Ai dropping a Chinese vase thousands of years old.
      Internationally, some thoughtful commentators are asking more probing questions.'s Badge Jonathan Jones put it this way: “Caminero's proclaimed motive – that the Perez Museum in Miami should be showing local, not global, art – is pretty daft ... but he has accidentally punched a massive hole in the logic of contemporary art.”
      The hole is this: How can the art world celebrate a Chinese guy destroying a work of art while condemning a Miami guy for destroying a work of art?
Ai Wei Wei vases
Courtesy AW Asia collection, New York.
       The quick answer could come from Fox News: Private property. Ai Weiwei owned the vase he dropped and the other vases that he slobbered with bright paint. Caminero did not own the vase he broke.
        So does that mean if a wealthy collector buys a Van Gogh and sets it afire, that's OK? I'll bet most people would say no. What happens if he says he's doing it to protest the Chinese dictatorship, as Ai did when destroying his vase? How many people would approve destroying a Van Gogh for that?
       What's more, did the Perez people check the bills of sale to show that Ai had paid for the vases before messing them up? Probably not.
        This takes me back to a conversation I had several years ago with local art collector Norman Braman. I had just seen at Art Basel a large, bare tree that had been assembled by Ai from Chinese wood. It sold for $460,000.
         Did that make sense? “It makes sense because who the artist is,” Braman responded. “This is Weiwei. He's a world renowned artist, and his works are in demand. Now if this was by Joe Blow, it wouldn't mean anything.”
         So when Ai WW breaks a vase, that's art. When Caminero does, it's a crime.
       A second issue for American viewers: We'd care a lot about someone destroying a Van Gogh, but how many of us give a damn about an ancient Chinese vase being destroyed? How many visitors to the PAMM were offended when they saw photos of Ai shattering an ancient vase? I sure didn't hear an outcry.
        In 2010, critic Garth Clark, in an analysis I found at, noted that Ai had himself photographed dropping “a superb, 'museum quality' urn that had survived for 5,000 years in pristine condition.” (Clark then went on to repeat an oft-told observation: “The mystery surrounding the frequent claim that the artist dropped one of the thousands of excellent fakes in current circulation will never, for lack of a better word, be cracked.”) Would that make Ai a fraud? Or might it show, as Clark suggests, “the depth of his desire to clown his audience”?
       So how much are these vases worth? The art world seems a bit confused on their origins. Several museums that have hosted the vase exhibit say they come from the “neolithic Han Dynasty.” A simple web search shows that means two different eras. says the Han Dynasty ceramics are from 206 BC to 220 AD. Neolithic ceramics are from 6000 to 1000 BC.
         When the vases were shown at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland sin 2010, the museum's website described them as neolithic -- “dating to 5000 BCE.” Others, like the critic Clark, say the dropped vase was from the Han era.
Caminero, who later apologized
          After Caminero's arrest, the police said he had broken a million-dollar vase. How much might Ai have paid for it? I checked eBay and found that you can buy vases claiming to be Han or neolithic (sometimes with a question mark after the description), for $50 to $2500.
           Those all could be fakes, of course, but Clark, the critic, writes the vase Caminero smashed “has also been wrongly described as one of the rarest vases in the world. It is actually, as far as antiquities go, a fairly common and relatively intensive pot produced in huge quantities in its day. Ai has many of these pots in his possession and replacing it will not be difficult."
          Clark went on: The New York Times report rightly notes that a similar work, called Group of 9 Coloured Vases, consisting of Neolithic vases painted by Ai in 2007, sold at Sotheby’s in London in 2012 for $156,325, a price that included buyer’s premium. That makes the value closer to $17,399."
The celebrated Ai Wei Wei work -- a Warhol-type ancient vase
Courtesy Tsai Collection, New York.

          So Caminero committed no million-dollar act. In fact, he wasn't even the first person to destroy an Ai vase. Back in 2012, notes Robert Everett-Green at, "Swiss artist Manuel Salvisberg photographed collector Uli Sigg dropping Ai’s Coca-Cola Urn. The resulting triptych, entitled Fragments of History, exactly mimics Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. Nobody was charged that time, because Sigg owned the thing he smashed for the sake of creating a new photographic work.”
          You can see Sigg's destruction here.
           Ai's celebrated Coca-Cola vase was created by altering an ancient work of art, a kind of pop-art graffiti to add the Coke logo. When asked about destroying antiques, according to Marjorie Howard in Tufts Journal, Ai supposedly said, “Well, it's worth more now.”
           Poor Caminero is such an unserious artist that he didn't even bring along a video team to record his destructive act. But he's certainly made artists think. James O'Brien wrote at, a website dedicated to contemporary art: “Ai Weiwei has no right to destroy or deface the work of others. The Taliban destroyed ancient sculptures and that was rightly denounced as a tragic crime against world art and culture. There is no reason for the world to applaud Weiwei's destruction of ancient pottery. His acts are a crass publicity stunt and an insult to the original artist and the people who love these priceless artifacts. There is no high-minded art-babble that can disguise this stunt or fool people into thinking it is anything other than a contemptable crime.”
          Now, amidst all this discussion, no one is arguing that anyone should be allowed to destroy pieces in museums. Just the opposite. Destroying any museum piece not only deprives the public from seeing the object, but it also drives up museum insurance costs, which translates into higher admission charges.
           Still, the fundamental question remains: Should museums be celebrating the destruction of art work, by Ai or anyone else? Shouldn't museums be opposed to the destruction of all art?
          As Amelia Caruso, a commenter at, put it: “What goes around, comes around.”