In January of this year, I painted a picture. Last week, I burned it. There were a handful of people who had knowledge of my intentions with the canvas prior to setting it ablaze. Nobody lobbied for the artwork’s safe-keeping, but everyone had some sort of objection against burning it. The opposition surprised me because I thought, my painting, my prerogative. Nevertheless, the prospect of committing art homicide piqued my curiosity and prompted the research question:
Does an artist have the right to destroy his or her own work?
To answer our question, I turn to James O. Young’s article “Destroying Works of Art,” appearing in the 47th edition of The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Dr. Young is a professor in the philosophy department at University of Victoria. His framework, pun intended, is suitable for our analysis because he has a 3.3 out of 5 rating on ratemyprofessor.com, and his initials spell the word joy. We will set up Dr. Young’s model and then apply it to the death of my painting.
Before we can proceed, Dr. Young contends the art in question must fulfill two methodological criteria. First, the artwork must in fact be art. He states, “A failed artist may create, not bad art but, rather, something not art at all.” In other words, if the creation is not art, the philosophical dilemma would not exist. The second criteria pertains to the type of art and its permanency. “Paintings and sculptures, depend for their continued existence on the integrity of some particular object.” Again, the philosophical dilemma would not exist if copies survive. I can attest that my painting was art and the only copy, fulfilling the two methodological conditions.
Dr. Young explains, “When it is wrong to destroy some artwork, it is wrong for the same sort of reason it is wrong to vandalize public buildings, kill whales, or deface scenes of natural beauty: all of these things are valuable.” The difficulty is calculating a quantitative value considering there are many factors that add to a piece of art’s significance. However, Dr. Young outlines three tenets artwork must pass for an artist to have the right to destroy it: aesthetic value, historical value, and aesthetic pain.
First, when assessing aesthetic value, it is best to avoid using terms such as good art or bad art due to its relativity and variance among audiences; however, in context, an individual can observe an artwork’s utility. Dr. Young argues, one does not act wrongly in destroying art “when the aesthetic value of the work of art is so small that it cannot outweigh the disadvantages of preserving it.” For example, if a museum wanted to make space by selling a painting, but nobody buys it, tries giving it away, but nobody takes it, and finally resorts to leaving it outside, the institution is not wrong. The cost of preserving the painting was greater than the appreciation it garnered.
Using Dr. Young’s definition of aesthetic value we can put my painting into context. It was taking up space between a set of drawers and my desk. The appreciation it earned from people other than myself was zero. It is safe to say it had a low aesthetic value. By destroying it, a discussion evolved, inspiring new thoughts and a greater awareness of the painting’s existence in the first place, fulfilling the first tenet.
Second, Dr. Young highlights a reasonable but not infallible argument for an artwork’s future historical value. Even art which people unanimously find has no aesthetic value may in fact serve some other purpose. A “community may have reason to believe that… some future generation might be fascinated by the odd things we generate.” Yet, he goes on the say, “So long as a representative sample is preserved…there [is] no objection to disposing of some.” After all, we could not apply this logic to every possession or we would not be able to throw anything away.
There is the chance that a future child of mine might have interest in my art, giving it historical value. I even suppose there is a one in a million chance I become some revered artist and future societies wish to know the origin of my work. In which case, it is important to note that the painting in question was created at one of those drink wine and paint with 30 other people type venues. I have been to two, meaning an artwork of similar style and production still exists and could serve as a representative in the future, thus fulfilling the second tenet.
Finally, Dr. Young considers the issue of aesthetic pain. This is a term for when supporters of the arts are emotionally or psychologically pained when art is harmed. “It seems that rational persons have an obligation not to cause aesthetic pain” to others. If no appreciators are effected, there is no objection to the destruction of a piece of art.
This third tenet addresses the individuals who first protested the burning of my painting. One assumed it was because I perceived my work as bad art and, subsequently, did not feel that reasoning justified the ensuing fire. The other did not articulate her reason for objecting. However, both appeared placated after hearing I was going to document the process on video.
After exploring Dr. Young’s model and applying it to the destruction of my painting, it is apparent that an artist does have the right to destroy his or her own paintings, but only under specific circumstances. To wrongfully destroy a piece of art is to rob future generations of the beauty of today. Moreover, I may have had the right to destroy my own work, but only time will tell if I feel that was the right decision.
Dr. Young’s model is unbiased regarding who may destroy art as long as the work passes the described tenets. However, the notion that possessing a piece of art does not grant the right to remove it from the world hints at a greater implication concerning ownership. Legally, one may own the title of an artwork, but this is similar to the law granting freedom of speech. In some cases, freedom of speech is silenced because it infringes upon the legal rights of others. Dr. Young even condemns the idea that the creator owns an artwork, saying, “The individual artist is simply the last stage in a casual chain [of] many other artists.” Artists owe success to tradition, culture, and the dance between internal and external inspiration; to suggest otherwise is to romanticize “the artist as a lonely hero.”
Before last weekend, I adopted a mindset akin to Sartre’s radical freedom. Even though I still believe in radical freedom, this analysis has shown me a responsibility to treat the arts with a greater respect. “The act of destroying an artwork, even a bad artwork, is not to be compared, say, with throwing away an unuseful kitchen appliance. Domestic utensils make life easier but the arts make life worthwhile.”
Young, J. O.. (1989). Destroying Works of Art. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 47(4), 367–373.