In New York, a person or group dubbed "The Splasher" has been getting plenty of attention for dousing street-art works with paint, then wheat-pasting posters beside them decrying their creators as "advance scouts for capital." The NYC street-art crowd is up in arms about the destruction of their work and doesn't want people like me giving attention to vandals.
And that's understandable. Their work can be seen, in many cases, as reclamation of the streets. One could argue that Swoon's intricate papercuts glued to a wall beautify and add unexpected wonder to the grime and ceaseless uniformity of the city. While their interventions are illegal, at least the motive in many cases is addition -- to add a question or a surprise or perhaps just a testament to their own creative impulse. Splashing paint on them is an easy and destructive -- i.e. subtractive -- act.
We could explain the Splasher's work in art historical terms -- the Dadaists acts of destruction, Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, the Francis Alÿs work where he punctured a can of paint in a museum and made an ambling dérive through the neighborhood, dripping all the way, and ended up nailing the empty container to the gallery wall. We could even consider the destructive acts of Lucio Fontana (who defied the picture plane and embedded performance into his work by slicing through a canvas), the Destruction in the Arts movement, even Duchamps' urinal and the many copycats who've emulated his work to literally or figuratively take a piss on the sanctity of art institutions or the preciousness of art.
Such readings seem far too generous for work that smacks of an over-wrought art-school prank. The critique is too easy, taking only a few seconds to accomplish and with little personal risk, and it opts for mean-spiritedness, not mischief, unlike the Dadaists its manifesto references. At the bottom of each wheat-pasted poster that accompanies paint blasts is a warning (which those who've seen the posters first-hand say is bogus): "The removal of this document could result in injury, as we have mixed the wheat paste with tiny shards of glass."
Given this, the Splasher's anti-art sentiment reads as anti-artist. And why target (or suggest you're targeting) the safety of artists if your real beef is with commodification? Why not take on the ads that have engulfed our public spaces? (Although, apparently a commissioned Dewar's mural was hit.) Isn't it more deplorable that communal spaces are sold, without our consent, to market deodorant or the latest Fox series to us? Or is that part of the point: Shepard Fairey's Obey, Swoon's paper pieces, are they just brands? Ads for the next gallery show or the line of posters and boxer shorts (in Fairey's case) that get a marketing boost from the perceived street-cred of their makers? Such arguments seem valid, but they're deflated a bit by the irony of the Splasher's use of Dada to decry the bourgeois nature of street art.
On the other hand, maybe street artists should relax a bit. They're creating unsanctioned works in public space: modifications -- or complete destruction -- are bound to happen, and that's the flow of the city. Art pieces get covered or blasted by truck exhaust or tagged by gang graffitists. Cities are all about this kind of accretion and erasure. One of the Splasher's posters mentions a Dadaist print made using a smashed clock, which, rather than sparking a wave of clock-smashing, jacked up the value of the print. If his or her critique is about the museologizing of art, that's not a bad point: street-artists too worked up about the destruction of their work might reconsider the tenuous canvas they're using.
In the end, though, I think the critique is hokey. Too outraged, self-righteous, and, well, flaky. I cynically expect this person to eventually come forward--ta-da!--and reveal himself as an artist making what he considers an incisive critique. If that happens, there'll surely be a gallery show, complete with a bound book and an essay likening the modified street art to an exquisite corpse or referencing Situationist tracts. The Splasher, then, will be hoping to get a paycheck, like those he criticizes, through the "fetishized action of banality" and "an alienated commodity." Which will simultaneously deflate and underscore his entire point.
Update: Visual Resistance has a nice (and far less measured) response, plus a series of images of works by Swoon, Os Gemeos, and others that have been damaged.
And: From Wooster Collective, "NYC's True Graffiti Problem."