by Jamal Stone

Contemporary art—art from the late 20th century to the present—often challenges preconceptions, stretching the boundaries of what is and is not art. But sometimes, definitions in the art world get too fuzzy—take, for instance, our understanding of art crime.

Traditionally, art crime is simply crime committed against art, used to describe all sorts of vandalism and acts of destruction. But is art crime simply crime against art, or does it include crimes committed in the service of art? In short, can the artists themselves be the criminals? Broad Street investigates contemporary art’s criminal side in this, the second of a three part series.


As established in part one, art crimes unveil an arbitrariness in high art. What is valued, or deemed protected in the art world can baffle outsiders. In response, some critics have encouraged the public to approach contemporary artists and their actions with a healthy dose of skepticism, questioning the intent and the effect of artists’ works.

Take Avi Brisman, who attacks art world definitions in his essay “Green Harms as Art Crime, Art Criticism as Environmental Dissent.” Brisman was perturbed by the work of provocateur Damien Hirst, whose art installation, the Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Something Living, involved the suspension of a fourteen-foot tiger shark in a tank full of formaldehyde solution. The tiger shark had not been found dead, instead it had been caught and killed especially for the installation. Well-aware of the controversy surrounding his work, Hirst demanded a second shark be killed to replace the first one’s fraying corpse.

This is madness. If we agree to fight against poaching, and its more-specified acts like dehorning rhinos and shark finning, then we should stand against similar cases, even if they’re hung and framed on museum walls. As a solution, Brisman suggests shifting our understanding of “art crime” so that it includes crime in the name of art. Hirst, having signed off the execution of vulnerable species, would be called to task for his actions. Would be, but won’t: Damien Hirst is the world’s richest living artist.

The strict protection of the art world has reached such heights that some within have taken notice. In a 2004 speech, Robert Hughes, famed author and longtime art correspondent for Time, assailed the art world, calling it a “modern obscenity.” While Hughes did single some artists out, including Damien Hirst, he left his most scathing critique for the patrons:

“When you have the super-rich paying $104 million for an immature Rose Period Picasso, close to the GNP [Gross National Product] of some Caribbean or African states, something is very rotten: such gestures do no honour to art: they debase it by making the desire for it pathological.”

Is Hughes right—have we turned art’s celebrities into megalomaniacs? At times, it seems like critics are throwing rocks at the castle. Perhaps Brisman’s solution, however neat, is untenable. After all, an art crime is only a crime if its punishable. In the art world’s economy, inflated by “pathological” desire, those at the top enjoy a near-diplomatic immunity.


For more information, read part one here.