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9 October 2012

Only in the lunatic asylum of the art market would a Rothko be worth millions of pounds

The Rothko vandalised by a "Yellowist" vandal
The Rothko vandalised by a "Yellowist" vandal

One of the questions on which I ponder on a visit to Tate Modern, or, indeed, any establishment housing conceptual art, is how the security people feel about spending much of their working lives protecting rubbish?

When the work of a proper artist – like Edvard Munch – arrives, do they fight for the privilege of looking after it, or are they content to stay mounting guard over Jannis Kounellis’s bags of lentils, Jeff Koon’s vacuum cleaners or a small tin of what is alleged to be the excrement of Alessandro Manzoni?

We will probably never know how the custodian felt about the work of Mark Rothko, one of whose paintings he failed to save from defacement on Sunday by Vladimir Umanets. I’ve spent too much time brooding about contemporary art, yet while I accept that Rothko can paint, I don’t know if he’s much good, and I’m sure that only in a lunatic asylum like the contemporary art market would he sell for £50 million.

The despoiler’s contribution was to write “Vladimir Umanets ’12, A Potential Piece of Yellowism” on the painting. The manifesto he wrote with a fellow-Yellowist explains: “Yellowism is not art, and Yellowism isn’t anti-art. Examples of Yellowism can look like works of art but are not works of art. We believe that the context for works of art is already art. The context for Yellowism is nothing but Yellowism.”

Umanets is merely putting a spin on the same pretentious gibberish used by so many curators to justify the existence of whatever they are wasting taxpayer’s money on. Every unfortunate young person who emerges from art school unable to draw, paint or use their common sense, will explain that whatever an artist thinks is art, is art. Thanks, Marcel Duchamp, for calling a urinal art and thus contributing to the scrambling of the brains of later generations of wanna-be artists or pillars of the art establishment.

Umanets will get the attention he craves for his silly act of vandalism. I can’t summon up much sympathy for anyone who damages someone else’s property, even if he claims he enhanced it. He lacked the wit of the two Chinese artists who in 1999 leaped half-naked on to Tracey Emin’s My Bed – the pile of dirty laundry and other detritus that had her short-listed for the Turner Prize – had a pillow fight and tried to drink from one of her empty vodka bottles. The police were booed by some members of the public as they led the miscreants away. The Tate said portentously afterward that “the work has now been restored”, which meant the used condoms and filthy knickers were back in place.

Damien Hirst once obliged a friend by painting a red nose on his indifferent portrait of Stalin and signing it. The result went for £140,000. That apparently was art. Perhaps even now some unfortunate on the minimum wage is charged with ensuring no Yellowist gets near it.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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