Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Attack on an Abstract Painting

Clyfford Still painting. The damage to the painting is
identified as "1957-J-No. 2." (Denver Post file photo)
On January 6, 2012 The Columbus Dispatch ran an Associated Press article about a shocking occurrence at the Clyfford Still Museum. "Motive a mystery in defacing art" tells how $10,000 of damage was done to a monumental Still painting. The attack took place on December 29 by a woman "punching and scratching it, then removing her pants and sliding down the art-work."

Local and national media conspired to make the perp's face more recognizable than any of Mr. Still's paintings will ever be. Denver's CBS4—investigated details that the AP didn't pick up: "According to the Denver Police report, [Carmen] Tisch, 36, then pulled down her pants while leaning against the painting and urinated as she sat on the floor. It is unknown whether any urine got on the painting."

Carmen Tisch,
Denver District Attorney's 
What hateful, repulsive actions. But I have yet to hear anybody wonder what moved Tisch to visit this particular museum and to vandalize this particular large (9-1/2' x 13') absrtact painting, 1957-J-No.2. The Still Museum is next door to the Denver Museum of Art, after all, with a much broader collection. If she'd really wanted to raise hell, she could have picked a Bierstadt landscape of the Rockies, or a Spanish colonial Virgin to unleash her bladder upon. I suspect that she would have created a flap of outrage based on desecration of imagery.

But Tisch is reported to have been drunk at the time, and the  single mug shot of her tremendously tattooed self seems to grant universal permission for the press to ask no searching questions—particularly since it's paired with the image of the victim, an enormous, zig-zaggy canvas that probably means nothing to most norms-defending journalists. "She's a drunk slut," is, I'm betting, as deep as this inquiry ever goes. Any questions of motive or meaning will remain rhetorical.

But we must pursue Ms. Tisch's motives as far as reasonable imagination can take us because it is so different from other are defacements. What leads a person to vandalism in a modern art museum? It appears not to involve none of the political or religious ideology that so infuriates most art slashers. Tisch wasn't an ideologue.

If the location of a crime tells us something about the mind of the criminal, it seems that Tisch had to have gone to some trouble to act out where she did. Wouldn't it have been a lot easier to have wrought havoc in a bank, a bodega, a branch library, or shoe store? To penetrate to the galleries of an art museum takes time and effort; one doesn't find the paintings just by walking off the street.

The entrance to the new Clyfford Still
Museum at dusk. Visitors enter the museum through
 a landscaped forecourt, which provides a transition
 from the surrounding urban context.
All photography by Raul J. Garcia.
 Image courtesy Clyfford Still Museum.

It appears that the Still Museum is set apart from regular urban foot traffic by its park-like setting. What's more, according to the Museum website, there's an admissions charge. Members are always free; adults pay ten dollars; students and seniors pay six, youth pay three, and tots are free. According to the posted scheme, then, for Ms. Tisch to have been in the Museum, she would have either shown her membership card (or one she had borrowed), or payed ten dollars. No one reported her having been in company. In fact, the Denver Post quotes the Denver District Attorney's Office spokeswoman as remarking, "You have to wonder where her friends were."

I can't know why the drunken, puffy-faced, inked Ms. Tisch defaced 1957-J-#2, an abstract painting. This wasn't a crime of grand political passions like the 1987 destruction of Andres Serrano's Piss Christ photograph in Melbourne, Australia. Serrano had photographed a statuette of Jesus on the cross submerged in a vessel of urine (so we were told). While his work was being hammered to pieces by two young men who found it sacrilegious, their friends who had run a decoy action were smashing someone else's work depicting a Ku Klux Klansman. The malefactors also took a position against racism. Indeed.

When the content of art is perceived to have offending political or religious content, those whose office is to defend art do not always always prove the stoutest of defenders. In the Serrano case, the National Gallery in Melbourne closed down the embattled show. In a related action, support for the arts in the US fell like boulders from a shrinking glacier:

Congressional Record
Senate - May 18, 1989:

#1. Mr. [Alfonse] D'AMATO [of New York]. . . . Mr. President, several weeks ago, I began to receive a number of letters, phone calls, and postcards from constituents throughout the Senate concerning art work by Andres Serrano. They express a feeling of shock, of outrage, and anger.

#2. They said, "How dare you spend our taxpayers' money on this trash." They all objected to taxpayers' money being used for a piece of so-called art work which, to be quite candid, I am somewhat reluctant to utter its title. This so-called piece of art is a deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity. The art work in question is a photograph of the crucifix submerged in the artist's urine.

#3. This artist received $15,000 for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts, through the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987
#4. Well, if this is what contemporary art has sunk to, this level, this outrage, this indignity - some may want to sanction that, and that is fine. But not with the use of taxpayers' money. This is not a question of free speech. This is a question of abuse of taxpayers' money. If we allow this group of so-called art experts to get away with this, to defame us and to use our money, well, then we do not deserve to be in office.

#5. This is why, Mr. President, I am proud of the members, who in literally a matter of minutes - over 20, about 25 - joined me in signing a strong letter of protest to the endowment. Here is a picture, and the title is "Piss Christ." Incredible.

Many consider Piss Christ a work of deep faith. This was a point to which the terrorist youths of Melbourne nor the New York's senator made themselves available. 

But then, neither thugs nor senators really reacted to art at all. They were moved by their fears that others might misappropriate the power they wield as self-proclaimed defenders of sacrosanct Values. Artists are, have been, and will be the enemy of these people because self-appointed guardians of sacred icons believe that any interpretation of their icons is misinterpretation. The Piss Christ controversy had very little to do with the nature of art. The issue for the vandals with hammers and for those with the podium alike, Serrano's work was misappropriation of personal property.

Nothing like this came up in the Tisch case, which seemed pretty squalid and low-stakes by comparison. It entirely lacked histrionics. There was no ideology involved. It wasn't even clear whether she urinated on the painting or just wet her pants from incontinence. 

The outrage at the Still Museum is really about the cost of restoration. I haven't read a single word of dismay about disrespect for works of art. Had Tisch banged up a display of Nikes, it might have been all the same: destruction of real property is the issue. It's ironic, since it's even likely that the perp's incursions will enhance interest in 1957-J-No.2, as they've already enhanced awareness of the Clyfford Still Museum. It has to have been a public relations benefit.

But back to the question: What of Ms. Carmen Tisch and why she did it? This is the big story that art-lovers should be focused on. Why did this woman—why did a woman like this—bring her anger and sorrow to this painting? Why did she beat on it, moon it, then sit down, defeated, in front of it? She could have made a run for it, but she didn't even try. She seemed to be where she wanted to be for whatever purpose brought her there.

Her actions were like the expressions children direct at people who are huge in their emotional lives, those great enough to give or withhold nurture, validation, and understanding. These  guardian figures don't disappear no matter how angry or ineffectual you are, whether you're a competent adult or sitting in a pool of piss. 

Tisch's mother said, in a later story, reported the Denver Post  but that never made it to AP, that her daughter's a talented tattoo artist. An artist. With even less information than that, I'd be willing to wager that the episode has everything to do with with her personal response to Still's paintings and with her ability to relate to the power of artists. Tisch didn't just land in the museum. She's a thwarted creative person who sought out a meaningful painting? Perhaps she relates to its power and freedom, and to its muteness.

Maybe she felt the complications of hope, the nuanced indirection of life possibilities the artist displays through the painting: Maybe Still's abstraction moved her, bafflingly, hopefully—tormentingly?

Even to people less distracted than Tisch, a famous artist can be a hero whose work lends inspiration and moral support, a mentor who can't talk back...except when an interior dialogue gets out of hand?

The idea of the great painter; the awe created by the painting's size, it's mixture of authority and freedom: Perhaps something that anyone can feel in this mix, evident to one and all, spoke with special urgency to Carmen Tisch.

Defacers of art are getting something wrong. In most cases they are are doing it out of ideology and they take extremely simplistic views that hope to strip art of any but literal value. The motives are explained by politics, power, and grandiosity. 

The case of Tisch in the Still Museum seems to be profoundly different, and in a way that should give art lovers heart. Tisch went to an altar of thought or feeling for soul-searching. I think she responded to the complexity and ambiguity of the art. It's humanity made it the generous, place lacking ideology and prescription where she could resign herself to a transition. It was her place to collapse and force the issue of getting up. 

However it fell out inside Carmen Tisch, even in its destruction, the art itself seemed to speak to her, to make an intimate, if highly confused, difference. 

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