This week, artist Scott Campbell ceremoniously took all of his artwork off of the walls of Vice Gallery in Roma, Mexico, and burned it in the street.
As the initial sensational reports of this were published alongside a single cellphone photograph of the holocaust, the decidedly punkass aspects of the world’s blogs let out a resounding cheer. They didn’t really know what they were cheering, of course: at this point, no one knew why Campbell burned his art, or why he made a performance of it—just that he was “unhappy with the gallery.” The reasons were not initially described, but they could have been anything from the gallery’s failure to represent his work properly, to the fact that they didn’t give the artist free refreshments. Artists have gone on rampages for less.
Unfortunately, this positive reaction to Campbell’s destruction was mindless. To cheer on someone “sticking it to the man” without actually understanding the finer points of why is a perfect example of the anti-establishment crowd being just as mindlessly sycophantic as the drooling establishment crowd. No one knows what they’re fighting for—they’re just itching for a fight against something. We’re a culture of impotent James Deans, willful enough to type against The Man, but not really up to doing anything about it.
No one asked why, but a follow-up interview on Interview magazine’s website revealed the ultimate reason for the immolation: Vice Roma turned Campbell’s show into an enormous vodka advertisement and compromised the integrity of the work without properly consulting the artist himself. So, according to Campbell, he made one last attempt to clear things up, and subsequently decided to burn his work. Much of the work had already been purchase, and the damaged works have reportedly been re-hung in the gallery for anyone who wants an original. Campbell has even promised to create new works for paying customers. Whether or not these charred works are now worth more or less because of their involvement in the tantrum hasn’t really been figured out yet.
Campbell’s a good artist. He does some fairly amazing topographical sculptures using stacks of dollar bills, carefully burnt away with laser etching until they resemble elaborate tattoos, and commenting on both tattoo culture and the value of currency versus the value of art. He has no issue with destroying money, and uses heat to create his artworks, so thematically, burning his gallery show is perfectly in sync with his philosophical and physical methods of creation anyhow. So, the question has to be asked: was this planned, or was it truly a spontaneous act of weird vengeance, or an attempt to cling to creative dignity? And of course, was this done for the publicity it would inevitably create?
The battle of the artist against the gallery, and vice versa, is an impossible battle of egos where common ground is nearly impossible to establish. Between these two surfaces exist the pressure of art in its purest form, and the commercial responsibilities of running a gallery. While art and money are inexorably intertwined, it’s never as personal as when an artist fights a gallery to be treated fairly. The gallery believes itself essential to the survival of the artist, and we exist in an arts culture where this has become truth, and is propelled forward superficially with such momentum that artists can no longer remove themselves from the system and hope to continue surviving.
I’ve given up the gallery scene. I’ve had works stolen by organizers, works destroyed by lazy shipping, works shipped back with grossly inflated shipping charges which the gallery skimmed, and works torn apart by angry Turkish customs officers who weren’t bribed quickly enough. I’ve come to terms with the fact that people attend openings to be seen and verbally fellate each other and aren’t generally interested in the art. It’s a pathetic scene that lives up to every cliché you could ever imagine about gallery culture, and gallery openings run by artists have been some of the worst organized fiascoes I’ve ever witnessed. Even having your heart and soul embedded in the art itself often isn’t enough to create a good show.
So, it turns out that Scott Campbell isn’t a prima donna. He’s just a guy who saw his art being treated as something to advertise booze instead of something pure, so he did something about it. While the “taking my ball and going home” attitude is something that’s probably best left to the petulant eight-year-olds of the world, it got the job done.
It probably would have been far more insulting to take the work and hang it in a Barnes & Noble, though.