Ai Wei Wei is currently (yet again) a trending topic. On February 16, 2014, Dominican-born artist, Maximo Caminero was arrested at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) after smashing one of Ai's painted urns from Colored Vases to pieces. Caminero has alternately said that his action protests PAMM's choice of displaying international (rather than local) artists, and that his performance shows solidarity with Ai's dissident stance. Apprehended by police, Caminero was charged with criminal mischief and released after posting bail.
Here's an installation view of Ai's work:
Here is an example of a painting by Caminero:
Ai himself is no stranger to run-ins with the law. Undertaking performative acts that are deeply steeped in political messages, Ai almost appears to be challenging the authorities to censor him or restrict his activities. For example, after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Ai became a vocal critic, calling for an acknowledgment that a lack of solid infrastructure may have lead to the increased number of school children deaths in the area. In 2009, he was allegedly beaten by the Chinese police in Sichuan while trying to testify on behalf of Tan Zuoren, another Chinese activist.
With respect to the incident at PAMM, Ai has been reported as stating that he does not agree with Caminero's strategy: "You cannot stand in front of a classical painting and kill somebody and say that you are inspired" by the artist.
At issue, here, is whether what is legally defined as an act of criminal mischief can be considered an artistic act with a political message that is worthy of protection. Under Florida law, a person commits criminal mischief if "he or she willfully and maliciously injures or damages by any means any real or personal property belonging to another, including...the placement of graffiti thereon or other acts of vandalism thereto." Therefore, according to this specific definition, just as much as Banksy cannot paint one of his iconic graffiti works on the side of a building he does not own if he intends to do harm, Caminero is similarly not permitted to break one of Ai's painted urns out of intended spite. However, Ai drawing a Coca-Cola logo on a Han dynasty urn or smashing a Han dynasty urn to pieces and creating artwork out of such actions is permissible, as long as Ai rightfully owns the urns. This being the case even if Ai's very act of purchasing and defacing cultural antiquities in the name of creating new art is impudent, co-optive and destructive.
It will be interesting to see whether criminal charges against Caminero continue to be pressed. Upon a plain language reading of the law, it appears that Caminero most likely committed criminal mischief, unless there is not enough evidence that he maliciously intended to damage Ai's work. In my view, though, the situation is a bit more nuanced than just proving whether a criminal act was committed. If I were PAMM's in-house lawyer (and of course, I'm not, and views in this post and throughout this blog are my own, made in my personal capacity, and not the views of any institutions with which I am affiliated), I think it would be important to discuss with PAMM's management the various risks involved in pressing criminal charges against an artist from the local community. While what Caminero did was disrespectful to the exhibited artwork, does it serve the interests of the general public to prosecute criminal charges? Would it not make more sense to hear Caminero's thoughts, identify his reasons for his actions, have him issue a public statement or apology--ideally, voluntarily-- and then document the event in a legally and art historically appropriate manner? Simultaneously, management should alert the insurance company that was covering the display of Ai's Coloured Vases, have an appraiser determine the value of the damaged urn (in relation to the composite whole), and make Ai financially whole.