On Sunday, October 7, I was traveling back to Columbus, Ohio from Salt Lake City, Utah. After an announcement that my flight from Dallas to Columbus had been delayed for a second time; I put my travel book away (which wasn’t that interesting anyway – I haven’t picked it up once since I’ve been back) and pulled out my iPhone. On Facebook, my friend Katie posted, “is it true about the Rothko at the Tate??? omg!” I was immediately curious and turned to my source for up-to-the-second breaking news, Twitter. When I typed “Rothko” into the Twitter search, several tweets popped up. As it turned out, a piece of art had been defaced at Tate Modern in London. Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon. Initially, I retweeted @MarDixon who had linked to a BBC article. A few minutes later I noticed this tweet:
Whoa. I was floored. A tweeter, live-tweeting an internationally relevant museum story? I had to get to the bottom of this.
Through the power of some Internet research (NOT Google stalking, because calling it that makes it creepy) I learned that @WrightTG is Tim Wright, a 23 year old from Bristol, UK. Naturally, I reached out to Tim via Twitter and he graciously agreed to answer a few questions for Museum Minute.
Why were you visiting the Tate that day?
My girlfriend and I were visiting the gallery on a day out to London. We had tickets to the theatre that evening but decided to go up early as we hadn’t visited the Tate for a while.
Were your there for a specific exhibition?
No, nothing specific. We just like having a look around galleries and museums.
Were you familiar with Rothko and his art before the incident?
Yes, I was aware of Rothko before visiting but I wouldn’t claim to be a knowledgeable art lover. Just an enthusiastic visitor!
You essentially live-tweeted as the defacing incident took place. Why?
I didn’t actually ‘live-tweet’ anything. I took the picture about 10mins after the incident and made the post whilst walking around the rest of the gallery. I then subsequently answered questions/elaborated on what I’d seen as people asked me about it. It only dawned on me some hours later that my picture was probably the only one that existed.
I think a few people thought that my first reaction was to tweet but that’s not the case. Everyone in the room was shocked and we all stayed behind to give a description to the gallery attendants. A couple of ladies that were closer to the exits than myself alerted the gallery staff. A few people asked why no one intervened but the truth is that it happened very quickly – the damage was done before anyone could’ve done anything. The two ladies nearest the door did try to follow him but I think wisely decided to alert the authorities rather than take it on themselves.
How do you feel about the reaction to your tweets and the attention you’re receiving?
It was a very strange few days. It only dawned on me the next morning that my tweet had carried such significance in breaking the story and showing people what had happened. I tried to answer people’s questions and just give an honest account about what I saw.
How would you rate the Tate’s handling of the situation?
I think they handled it as best as they could. There are a lot of gallery attendants around and it was just unfortunate that there wasn’t one in the Rothko room at the time. They responded quickly and did what they could.
So, who defaced the painting? Wlodzimierz Umaniec, who also goes by Vladimir Umanets, plead guilty on Wednesday, October 17, to causing criminal damage to property valued at over £5,000 (or about $8,000). The actual value of the painting is in the tens of millions of dollars (I’ve seen estimates of £50,000,000). Umaniec was released on bail and will be sentenced at a later date. His bail conditions forbid him from visiting Tate Modern.
That being said, Unmaniec does not regret tagging Rothko’s work. The Guardian quoted Umaniec stating that he believes that what he has done has added value to the piece and compares himself to artists Marcel Duchamp and Damien Hirst.
“I believe that if someone restores the [Rothko] piece and removes my signature the value of the piece would be lower but after a few years the value will go higher because of what I did.”
“I didn’t destroy the picture. I did not steal anything. There was a lot of stuff like this before. Marcel Duchamp signed things that were not made by him, or even Damien Hirst.”
Why? Umaniec said he tagged Rothko’s Black on Maroon in order to draw attention to what’s going on in contemporary art. If you look closely at the image posted by Tim the tag says, “Vladimir Umanets, a potential piece of yellowism.” What is yellowism? According to an online manifesto, written by Vladimir Umanets and Marcin Lodyga, yellowism is not art or anti-art. Confused? You can read the manifesto here.
This, of course, is not the first time a great piece of art has been defaced. And unfortunately, it will not be the last. However, it has sparked quite a debate in the arts and culture community.
Rothko, like Rembrandt, like Michelangelo, is an artist who suggests the power of god – or in his case, of god’s absence. Attacking him is like attacking fathers, attacking cultural authority.
Still, even without the intervention of graffiti terrorists, Rothko’s legacy will eventually fade. As Yellowists may be trying to point out, art does a pretty good job of dating — and destroying — itself without outside help.
But “Yellowism” poses fundamental questions about the nature of art itself. Is Umanets’s black scrawl an alternative mode of artistic expression or senseless graffiti? How can we separate art from non-art? If art is public property i.e. there to be enjoyed by everyone, do we have a right to modify it?
Wow. Have you noticed that the majority of the new stories linked to in this post include the image posted to Twitter by Tim? The power of Twitter. Tim’s simple tweet, just 76 characters, connected the world to an incident, to an art “movement,” and provided a visual of gallery graffiti in a way that simply wasn’t possible before.
It seems to me that the source of Twitter’s power, and the power of social media more broadly, is in its ability to harness and magnify the individual power of the ordinary human experience into something, if not more profound, at least more communal. Essays have been written on social media and the democratization of information, and, while I won’t wax poetic about that too much, I do think that this episode is a perfect demonstration of how one unassuming person, who is witness to the extraordinary, can use the power of social media to spread that information, worldwide, faster than the human race has ever been able to before. Kind of like Superman.