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The secret history of crime as art


In ARTnews, Andrew Russeth assembles a fascinating history of artists committing crimes and calling it art. From Joe Gibbons robbing banks, to Chris Burden taking a talkshow host hostage, to Rob Pruitt’s Cocaine Buffet (1998), these works at their best show how state power operates, even as they remind us of the class privilege many artists enjoy. Here’s an excerpt:

André Breton appears in Pay for Your Pleasure as well, alongside this infamous bit from his “Second Manifesto of Surrealism” of 1930: “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.”

This is a milestone moment: criminality explicitly proposed as a work of art.

No Surrealist ever acted on Breton’s suggestion. Nevertheless, his statement cracks open a secret history, hiding in plain sight, of artists who have not only broken laws to make their art, but have used lawbreaking itself as their medium. They have stolen artworks, robbed banks, and purchased and distributed drugs, experimenting with crime in much the same way that their contemporaries have experimented with silk screens or video. They have explored crime’s psychological effects (on both perpetrator and victim), its very definition, and its place in culture.

In 1976 the artist Ulay, then 33 and based in Berlin, drove to the Neue Nationalgalerie, stole Carl Spitzweg’s Der arme Poet (1839)—a painting much loved by Hitler—and installed it in a local Turkish family’s living room. Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein documented the action on film. The artist was arrested and faced a 36-day prison term or a 3,600 Deutsche mark fine. He fled the country. (Oddly enough, the painting was stolen again, in 1989, while on loan in Copenhagen. It has never been found.) The resulting artwork, There Is a Criminal Touch to Art (1976), provides a solid script for how the criminal art piece is usually created: the artist commits a crime, publicizes it (often with the aid of juicy documentation), and then, when the authorities swoop in, slips away.

This template (and this article) excludes acts of civil disobedience, like Pyotr Pavlensky’s setting fire to the entrance of the FSB’s headquarters in Moscow last year, or the “People’s Flag Show,” organized at the Judson Memorial Church in New York in 1970 to protest anti-desecration laws. The criminal artwork, by contrast, takes stranger forms, toward more diverse ends. The artist adopts the role of the trickster, complicating notions of both criminality and art. If politics are involved, they are approached obliquely, as in Ulay’s work, which layered critiques about German immigration policy, latent Nazism, and cultural patrimony.

Image: Hand-colored film stills from Ulay’s First Act – There Is a Criminal Touch to Art (Berlin Action Series), 1976. Via ARTnews.