On Sunday 7th October 2012 Vladimir Umanets walked into the Tate Modern in London and, via the medium of the graffiti bomber’s tag, claimed Rothko’s 1958 Seagram mural Black on Maroon as ‘a potential piece of Yellowism’. Gallery visitor Tim Wright tweeted a photo of the tagged painting before the ink had even dried, sending the story viral to a predictably seething commentariat. Claudio Borghi, one of the first disinterested spectators on the scene of the photograph of the crime, caught the mood when he tweeted ‘I have no word. Hang the guilty on the spot.’ Perhaps the idea of executing a man before the Seagram murals has a certain morbid appeal – their original purpose, after all, was to ‘ruin the appetite’ – but this was not Umanets’s fate. In a move considered severe even by his staunchest detractors (though still too lenient for the Claudios of this world) he was given a custodial sentence for his transgression that December. As I write, Umanets is paying for Yellowism’s fifteen minutes of fame with two years of his freedom.
On the day of the attack, Umanets spoke to The Telegraph: ‘I am a Yellowist. I believe in what I am doing and I want people to start talking about this.’ But since the commenters spent their vitriol and made their summary judgments, such talk has been unforthcoming. Almost a year later, and the silence of professional art critics on the subject is deafening. Yellowism, it seems, has been written off as the folly of a couple of irreverent hipsters, and Umanets’s act reduced to the work of a petty vandal. But what if we take them at their word? If nothing else, Umanets’s act demonstrates a commitment to a formal principle that is pure avant-garde – something not only lacking among the contemporary artists lauded by the Tate et al, but completely incomprehensible to them. Why? Because their work follows the logic of fashion and the market, in other words, a cash-driven relativism, which is no principle at all. As such, I’m inclined to think the critics’ silence is less a result of myopia than downright disingenuousness: as part of the system Yellowism critiques, they’ve got too much to lose. The whole machine would rather sweep the unfortunate incident under the carpet and get back to business as usual. But I won’t let them. While artists profit from their art, Umanets suffers for his yellow. We owe it to him to at least try to understand the motives for his act if we want to avoid complicity in the power structures that locked him up. And in fact, Yellowism means a great deal more than the ‘homogenous mass’ proposed by its founders or the narcissistic barbarism it’s dismissed as by its detractors. Rather, Umanets’s ‘vandalism’ is an iconoclast’s response to what Robert Hughes called the ‘spiritual vandalism’ of the art market. Yellowism points towards a sickness that has long crippled art – the art of the avant-garde especially – and while it may not offer a cure as such, it’s our most effective diagnosis yet.
So what is it? Invented by Umanets and Marcin Lodyga in 2010, Yellowism is a third space – neither art nor life – in which all content, all meaning, is flattened to ‘yellow colour only’. In contrast to the gallery space, where meaning is made multiple and ambiguous, Yellowism presents its ‘yellowistic chamber’ – a room whose walls have been painted violet – in which the only possible meaning, regardless of the content of the work, is yellow. Essentially, that’s it. Like the best conceptual art, it’s an experiment in cognition that subverts artistic convention. And as Umanets so beautifully demonstrated on that fateful Sunday, it’s got teeth – big fucking teeth.
Now the main problem critics seem to have with Yellowism – by which I mean the amateur critics of the internet and the few scholars I’ve spoken to on the subject, since no-one seems to think it worth the ink – is that it’s a completely unoriginal rehash of Duchamp. But wait a second. Didn’t Duchamp call into question the whole notion of originality when he stuck a mass-produced object in a gallery? And hasn’t Duchamp’s influence been so great that pretty much any pop-conceptualist or appropriated work of the last century is to some extent a Duchampian rehash? Actually, Yellowism isn’t so much an unoriginal rehash of Duchamp’s ideas as a response to them as they’ve come down to us through a century of unoriginal rehashes. Here’s how.
What happened when Duchamp tried to put a urinal in a gallery and called it Fountain? It was first and foremost a transgression: an iconoclastic joke at the institution’s expense that sure enough led to his rejection from the fold (all the more effective since the Society of Independent Artists, who staged the exhibition, had claimed that no work would be rejected). This is the Dada gesture. But this gesture contains the seed of liberation, presenting a condition of total imaginative anarchy. This urinal is a fountain; this fountain is art. Ergo art can be anything and anything can be art. As for institutions, they just get in the way of all the fun stuff. This is Dada play.
Over fifty years after Duchamp’s transgression, Michael Craig-Martin kickstarted British conceptual art as we know it with An Oak Tree – a glass of water on a shelf. Again, the limits of the imagination are stretched to breaking point: this glass of water is an oak tree. Only this time the work is not rejected by the institution, but given its own reverential space, while Duchamp’s pseudonymous scrawl ‘R. Mutt’ gives way to a highfalutin Q&A between artist and (ideal) viewer. As such, An Oak Tree institutionalises the principle of Dada play, re-asserting the dogma of the artist as miracle-worker and of the gallery as site of miracle-working. So while we’re free to interpret An Oak Tree however we want – not least as the glass of water it so manifestly is – the rules of the game have subtly, but crucially, changed. When we read Fountain as a urinal it’s the institution that’s the butt of the joke; when we read An Oak Tree as a glass of water, it’s us. We ask the questions, the artist gives the answers – and if we don’t get it, too bad, we leave thirsty. Where’s the Dada gesture in all this? Answer: there isn’t one. Craig-Martin’s work is counter-revolutionary. The institutionalisation of Dada play neuters the very possibility of the Dada gesture in the anarchic, Duchampian mode.
It’s impossible to underestimate Craig-Martin’s influence on contemporary British art. As a teacher at Goldsmiths in the late 1980s he nurtured the dubious talents of Damien Hirst and others associated with the YBA explosion of the 1990s. His brand of pop conceptualism – talking the talk while pandering to the very institutions Duchamp sought to subvert – was more or less taken on wholesale by that generation, with one crucial difference: money, and lots of it. When Hirst was told that anyone could have made his shark-in-formaldehyde The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living he gave the classic conceptualist response: ‘But you didn’t, did you?’ Very good Damien – but something is left unstated. Had the question been asked of Duchamp, he could have said ‘you didn’t – because you didn’t have the balls’. Thanks to Duchamp, however, Hirst didn’t need any balls. What he needed was an advertising mogul with more money than sense and a vain desire for cultural capital prepared to foot the bill. ‘But you didn’t, did you’ – says Hirst – ‘because you didn’t have the cash.’
Hirst’s work – not least his diamond-studded skull – is a fitting synecdoche for the art world as it exists today. This world is perhaps the prime example of what Baudrillard called a semiotic order: an elaborate system of commodity exchange in which value is assigned without any real world referent and signs are only ever exchanged for other signs. The entire system, driven by capital, has no other goal than reproducing its conditions of existence i.e. those most conducive to capital. The contemporary art world is the semiotic order par excellence, and the once revolutionary art of the avant-gardes is now the most valuable pawn in its service. So long as capital is its motor the art world makes a mockery of aesthetics. How can the value of Cézanne’s The Card Players, currently the world’s most expensive painting at $250million, be countenanced against the poverty of millions such a fee could doubtless alleviate? The answer is: it can’t. No painting on earth is that beautiful – but the name of Cézanne has an absurd prestige in this semiotic economy. Nor can art ever honestly critique this system so long as it remains a part of it. Baudrillard: ‘Capital no longer looks to nature, God or morality, but strictly to political economy and its critique for its alibis, and lives through its own denunciation from within itself – feedback or a dialectical stimulus.’ Art is powerless. Capital has bankrupted art absolutely.
So today the Dada gesture is dead and buried, while Dada play has become the self-indulgence of a handful of wealthy artists with even wealthier patrons presented to the public as dumb spectacle clinging desperately to the vestigial aura of ‘art’. If the institution can co-opt Dada even at its most anarchic extreme, what hope is left for the avant-garde? No hope, we fear. But enter Yellowism, ‘Dada’s little bitch’. Aware that Duchamp’s anarchic gesture has – despite the artist’s best intentions – turned art into a playground for the rich, Yellowism knows that to exhume the Dada gesture and make it anew requires a radical recalibration of its terms. This is exactly what Yellowism does. Yellowism is fascist Dada.
Now fascist is a scary word, so don’t forget the Dada bit. Umanets and Lodyga know exactly what they’re doing. Do the Yellowists genuinely believe they can reduce all interpretations to ‘yellow colour only’ even as they insist on painting the walls violet? Did Duchamp genuinely believe his urinal was a fountain? Or do both play a game with a serious purpose? The Yellowists know that the anti-institutional ‘anti-art’ of Dada has become the very thing the Dadaists wanted to destroy. That’s why they’re neither artists nor anti-artists but Yellowists – the ‘young dictators’ – subverting the Duchamp–Craig-Martin–Hirst narrative with a totalitarian parody of the Dada gesture, a Swiftian modest proposal.
This is what Baudrillard calls symbolic exchange, an attack on the semiotic order that ‘turn[s] the principle of its power back against the system itself: the impossibility of responding or retorting.’ In other words, go yellow. Capital flattens aesthetic value? Fuck you capital, Yellowism flattens meaning. Umanets’s defence of his act even follows the system’s logic: he says it’ll ultimately increase the value of the painting, and he’s probably right. Lodyga, in a text enumerating the signature styles of the great modern artists (‘Mondrian owns geometry, Pollock owns drippings’ etc.) concludes that ‘Yellowism owns ownness’. Well, doesn’t capital? While the notion of the yellowistic chamber is a fun conceptual game in the best tradition of Duchamp, Ad Reinhardt and Joseph Kosuth, the real strength of Yellowism lies in this gesture. Their fascism of meaning points the finger at something immeasurably more insidious. ‘To defy the system with a gift to which it cannot respond save by its own collapse and death.’ Fuck you art world, and merry fucking Christmas!
So Umanets’s act was, among other yellow things, an attempt to shock the art world into acknowledging the capitalist sickness at its core that fatally corrupts its radical mythos. In this respect it is analogous to Pussy Riot’s ‘punk prayer’ in Moscow, though few in the West have noticed, so blinkered are they by their secularised idolatry. Replace art with the church and capital with Putin’s regime and you’re there – and domestically at least, both were almost universally construed as blasphemous transgressions met with incomprehension and rage. Both Umanets and Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison too, but where were Madonna and Björk’s proposed benefit gigs when Umanets needed them? (It’s worth noting that Pussy Riot declined the divas’ offer, recognising its inevitable complicity in the system they were striking against, which demonstrates just how little contemporary artists understand the avant-garde – they probably think that if Pussy Riot had been American they’d be touring with Green Day by now.) Moreover, the idea that Umanets’s act is somehow worse because it causes material damage is bullshit. There will be no perceptible difference between the painting pre-act and post-restoration, so why do people care? John Lydon once said that ‘you don’t write a song like “God Save the Queen” because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re sick of seeing them mistreated.’ As a self-confessed admirer of Rothko, Umanets would understand. He pitches his heretical love against an unquestioning dogmatic reverence. And right now art needs Yellowism like Lydon’s England needed the Sex Pistols.
Symbolic exchange is catastrophic and sacrificial. That’s why the object of Umanets’s attack had to be one of art’s most sacred cows. It’s also why Umanets is currently languishing in a prison cell. Perhaps the reason the sentence was so harsh was because someone, somewhere realised how much was at stake. Perhaps Umanets was very nearly the butterfly that flapped its wings in the Tate and caused a tsunami in every gallery and auction house in the Western world. Perhaps Yellowism will be that butterfly yet. One thing is certain: as long as art is blind to its current role as the fashionable lackey of the super-rich, it’s fucked. For these lackeys, the only thing worse than the avant-garde never having happened (because they need its breakthroughs for their formal liberties) is for it to happen again (because the avant-gardes knew that liberty is only a precondition for commitment). As for the critics, they should be fucking ashamed. When Hyperallergic.com describes the Yellowism manifesto as ‘schlocky high school art theory’ I can only assume that they’re so deeply immersed in the affective jargon of International Art English they’ve become completely impervious to anything with an actual fucking idea in it. When the Tate organises an exhibition celebrating defaced artworks (showing at Tate Britain from October) despite their complicity in Umanets’s conviction it reeks of exploitation and hypocrisy. And when Umanets is sentenced to two years in prison without a single critic rising to his defence it’s brutally apparent that whatever the avant-garde actually meant is the last thing on these people’s minds. Either that or they’re reading a different Dada to the one Umanets and I did. And if that’s the case, fuck them, they can keep it. We’ve needed a third space for a long time. Yellowism is a fissure that shows us how it might be done. Fuck the critics. Fuck the courts. Fuck the Tate. Fuck capital. Art is comatose. Long live Yellowism. Long live the avant-garde.
Calum Rodger, September 2013