Yellow-bellied coward or the new Duchamp?

Your comments, please, on the Rothko defacement.

This Sunday, an “invaluable” painting by Mark Rothko was tagged in plain view by Vladimir Umanets, a manifesto-writer and co-founder of the mysterious and previously unheard of “Yellowism”. It’s an act that has hit a collective nerve. With a runaway comment thread on the Guardian website, this has got to be the most discussed new story to hit the art world since the fresco fiasco. (Though, I’ll warn you, there are those who suggest they were in it together.)

Hundreds of readers have cast in their thoughts on various news sites. “Selfish”, “shameful”, “self-important” and “dull” are just a few of the things Umanets’ act of vandalism has been called. Others have praised his audacity and the questions he raises about the ever-questionable state of contemporary art. “Let me be the first to say: Good on him,” says Rah90. “After all, what is art anyway?” chips in Glenorglenda, both from the Guardian. “Rothko is overrated don't you think?” says WHYGODWHY on New York Magazine’s website.

In his own defence this morning, Umanets compared his act with the Dadaist absurdism of Duchamp, executed with the panache of Hirst. He told the Guardian:

I believe that if someone restores the [Rothko] piece and removes my signature the value of the piece would be lower but after a few years the value will go higher because of what I did. I was expecting that the security at Tate Modern would take me straight away, because I was there and I signed the picture in front of a lot of people. I didn't destroy the picture. I did not steal anything. There was a lot of stuff like this before. Marcel Duchamp signed things that were not made by him, or even Damien Hirst.

An article in the Independent has him adding:

I am a Yellowist. I believe what I am doing and I want people to start talking about this. It was like a platform.  It's good people are shocking about what happened, no-one is realising what actually happened, everyone is just posting that the piece has been damaged or destroyed or defaced. But I believe that after a few years they will start looking for it from the right angle. So that's why I did it.

And in his cryptic manifesto (co-written with with Marcin Lodyga), he writes:

Yellowism is not art or anti-art. Examples of Yellowism can look like works of art but are not works of art. There is no evolution of Yellowism, only its expansion.

There you have the facts. For what it’s worth, I’ll throw in my two cents below. But mine is just a voice among many. What do you think? Please participate in the discussion by leaving your thoughts and responses in the comment thread below.

An open letter to Vladimir Umanets

From where I’m sitting, your act reeks of self-congratulation. Well, congratulations Vladimir, you got us talking about Yellowism. But with a website high on nudity and low on lucid, engaging information, I doubt you’ll accrue many new fans. They call yellow the colour of cowards. Sorry to say it, but your act of Yellowism doesn’t feel all that courageous.

The joy of the modern art gallery is that it’s still a reasonably democratic space, usually free from barriers, protective casings or overbearing security guards. The relaxed atmosphere that enabled your act is exactly that sort of luxury that your act will destroy. Art is a shared experience and cherishing its communal value is the reason so many fight to keep galleries accessible for all. The unfortunate legacy of your act is unlikely to be an enlightening debate on the state of art, but rather a big glass plate between us and the paint.

You forget that this painting does not belong to you; it belongs to everyone. Stop hogging it for your personal agenda. If you’ve got a message to spread, go and make some art of your own.

And shouldn’t we always be wary of things that claim to “expand” rather than evolve? Sounds a bit like the blob if you ask me. And no one thought the blob was very clever.

Vandals at work? It all seems so civilized... The Yellowism studio in Cairo, 2010/2011 (PHOTO: Marwan Abd El-Alim)

The writing on the Rothko appears to read: "Vladimir Umanets '12, A Potential Piece of Yellowism." (PHOTO: Tim Wright)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis