Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Art as Defense : Open Thread

There's a jawdroppingly cheeky defense being offered by a convicted murderer in Northern Ireland for what authorities call an attempted murder: That wasn't a crime, it was a performance piece. has the details:
Michael Stone, a 53-year-old loyalist paramilitary on trial for allegedly attempting to murder Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, has told the court that his November 24, 2006, assault on the Northern Irish parliament, in which he carried explosives and a fake gun, was in fact “an act of performance art” meant to look like a terrorist act, the BBC reports.

Stone says that he was not looking to destabilize the peace process, but instead to help it along by staging a protest against the political deadlock that existed at the time.

Stone was convicted of triple murder and jailed for life for a 1988 gun and grenade attack on a funeral for fallen IRA members. He was released in 2000, under the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement.

He described his more recent attack as "a comic parody of my former self. I would rather be remembered as an eccentric artist that got it wrong in performance art than for my past, when I did some terrible things."
Stone's defense goes so far as to explain his "piece" in artspeak:
He said that each item he was carrying had symbolic significance, such as a sponge inside the butt of the fake gun that was meant to symbolize the "sponging unionists"; a bird-shaped pair of scissors were a "begrudging" symbol of Irish republicanism rising from the flames, and a badge on his jacket was a mark of respect for "fallen comrades."

Stone told the court he tried to keep everything in a "monochrome pallet" of black, white, and gray. "The symbolism of that was as in life, not everything is black and white — my perceived attack is a gray area, that it was an attack of art, an artistic protest."
I understand why Stone may have been released as part of the Good Friday peace agreement, but that doesn't automatically make him a citizen in good standing in my book. He's still suspect for his past crimes and as such not to be given the benefit of doubt in anything simulating additional crimes. All the same, the lad has big steel ones.

Personally, I hope the courts dismiss this defense in crystal clear terms. Crime is crime, even when it's art. We can separate the two for consideration in the court of public opinion, but within the judicial system, there should be no distinction, IMO. Break the law, you pay the price. I know this gets into tricky territory when the law is asinine or murky at best, as in the case of Critical Art Ensemble member Steven Kurtz, but when you bring actual explosives into the Parliament building, in clear violation of the terms of your earlier release from prison, it truly is chutzpah to expect anyone to give you any artistic license.

The other reason I hope Stone is laughed out of court and back into a cell for life is that I can imagine all kinds of future attempts at this defense, like, say when Bush & Co. are finally hauled into court in The Hague to account for their crimes against humanity and violating the terms of the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, the administration is already exhibiting breathtaking hubris by arguing that the reason they can't release photographs of the detainees tortured at Abu Ghraib is that doing so would violate their rights under, yes, the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions:
The argument is surprising, of course, because the same administration maintained for years that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to any of the detainees in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay. It is surprising because the same administration relied upon its determination that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to justify its use of barbaric and inhumane interrogation methods in the first place. It is surprising because there would be no photos of abuse to request had the government cared this much about the Geneva Conventions before the abuses occurred and the photos were taken.
If they thought they could get away with it, I'm sure they'd try Stone's defense:
Dateline, The Hague, September 24, 2013:

As expected, counsel for former President and war crimes defendant George W. Bush offered what is commonly known as the "Stone Stormont Defense" at the Hague today, claiming that the invasion of Iraq was one massive Buchel-esque performance piece. Bush's lawyers argued that anyone with any sense of art history would easily see the obvious appropriation of Cai Guo-Qiang's work in the "Shock and Awe" initiation of the war, the references to Marina Abramović's work in the spiderhole endurance component of Saddam Hussein's staged capture, and in a particularly daring defense the assertion that images of detainees standing with outstretched arms in black hoods were an intentional anticipation of forthcoming prints by Richard Serra.
OK, so that's a bit too flippant, I know, but as the world becomes increasingly surreal, satire becomes the only comforting safe haven.

Consider this an open thread on art and crime.

Labels: crime, open thread, performance art, politics


Anonymous ANN said...


9/24/2008 11:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I forget who it was, but someone said, shortly after the event, that 9/11 was a great piece of performance art. If we're going to let Duchamp say that any object can be art, then we have to say that any action can be a performance piece. But, like Ed says, that doesn't make it NOT something else (like a crime). At this point, calling something a performance is just semantics. Civil disobedience to make a political point is one thing, but if you kill someone (a person or an animal - we haven't forgotten you, Tom Otterness), or commit or threaten violence, I don't think that calling it art performs any purpose other than pissing people off. And smearing the reputation of art and artists in general.


9/24/2008 12:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

The sad fact is that murder "can" be an art, or so is how felt the opinion by the artist community at the times of the Black Orchid.

Even September 11 was tagged art by a number of artists who created the rare equivalent of a scandal
in today's news.

I don't think that because Crime can be an Art that it makes it less of a Crime. That would be my response to Michael Stone's claim.
You could put a time-bomb on a pedestal in a museum and call it "the last readymade". It's still dangerous and criminal.

There is a debate that is not going on about Hirst's art it's about the ethics behind his methods. We are not seeing how the
animals are killed, but I know the first shark was Hirst calling up in Australia to have a shark killed and sent to him, which is very different from his claim that the "animals were going to be food anyway".

Alas, animals have no court defense like we humans have (plus they have been killed for rituals since millenaries, art being simply the new religion). So unfortunately for Michael, he voluntarely chose to put humans in danger (or at least the dangers that could have unfolded from the panic caused by his threat) and should be punished by law.

Cedric Caspesyan

9/24/2008 12:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Oriane I missed your post, but about 9-11, there was at least Jean Baudrillard, Damien Hirst, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, among others.

Beuys already declared every action a performance piece.


Cedric Caspesyan

9/24/2008 12:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Anyway, the question that Edward asks is: can Art be criminal?

Answer is YES. Louise Bourgeois would argue that every artists are assassins.

Cedric Caspesyan

9/24/2008 12:20:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Something isn't art until the culture declares it so.

9/24/2008 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger joy said...

Yes, big steely balls... It was Stockhausen who remarked about 9/11 as the 'greatest work of art'; and it was mis-aprehended.

It's interesting to consider how often we 'forget' the difference between uses of metaphor ("I'll kill you"; Danish cartoons; Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, etc. etc.) and the oh so literal (actual 'fake' guns and actual real explosives...).

As for Stockhausen, a recent NYTimes article (05/02/08) {Link} notes:
"The composer, who died in December at age 79, was widely excoriated for the remarks, which he made several weeks after the terror attacks. He said that he was only speaking allegorically and that his words had been misunderstood."

This is discussed at length in a much earlier NYTimes piece, {Link}(published 09/30/01 !):

Mr. Stockhausen, who emerged in the 1950's as one of a reigning trio of avant-garde composers that included Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono, was taking questions before a four-day festival of his works in Hamburg. In disjointed comments that were taped by a German radio station and reported internationally, Mr. Stockhausen, 73, called the attack on the World Trade Center "the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos." Extending the analogy, he spoke of human minds achieving "something in one act" that "we couldn't even dream of in music," in which "people practice like crazy for 10 years, totally fanatically, for a concert, and then die." Just imagine, he added: "You have people who are so concentrated on one performance, and then 5,000 people are dispatched into eternity, in a single moment. I couldn't do that. In comparison with that, we're nothing as composers."

When he realized how the reporters were reacting, he backtracked and asked that his words not be quoted. "Where has he brought me, that Lucifer?" he asked, referring to one of three invented characters, along with Eve and Michael, who regularly figure in his works.

It was too late. The Hamburg concerts were abruptly canceled. Mr. Stockhausen left town, refusing further comment. On his Web site ( he protested that his words had been distorted, that he had been speaking metaphorically, that Lucifer, the "cosmic spirit" of anarchy who uses his intelligence "to destroy creation," was the creator of the "satanic composition," that is, the attack. German media and cultural figures continued to condemn him.

{end quote}

Through the ages, we seem to pick and choose when to treat mere metaphor as tantamount to real crime. Our distinctions seem highly irrational, and inconsistent.

9/24/2008 01:00:00 PM  
Anonymous ann said...

yes, almost psychotic

9/24/2008 01:51:00 PM  
Blogger madeleine said...

I agree with Ed and Anon who said that just because it is performance art doesn’t mean it is not also something else, in this case murder. Ipso facto: though graffiti and wheatpasting are largely recognized as legit forms, they are still, in many places, legally dubious at best.

9/24/2008 02:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

The popular horror movie series Saw is based on a premiss that murder can be sort of an art, at least in the realm of design
and engineering. There is a willingness from the fans of these films to develop a sympathy for the main evil, as they develop a fascination with the different mechanism of his pseudo-ingenious murder devices. With this comes sort of an ackward cultural acceptance that murder can be an artform, or maybe I'm wrong?


Cedric Caspesyan

9/24/2008 06:06:00 PM  
Blogger said...

If a crime could be categorised as an artwork would that mean that we could imprison an artist for crimes against the art world?

Nicholas Forrest

9/24/2008 08:25:00 PM  
Blogger Balhatain said...

O wow... mind if I post a teaser of this on the Myartspace blog with a link back to your blog? That is insane.

9/24/2008 09:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

A crime is a crime. It's just that it can be artistic or even serve an artistic purpose. In Japan, bondage is an erotic artform and I'm pretty sure the source of that was criminal. I don't even want to hear the horror stories of where that came from.

Cedric Caspesyan

9/24/2008 10:06:00 PM  
Anonymous ANN said...

I agree, Cedric. Tight wooden shoes, swollen feet. fuck.

anyway, I found this at art21:

No Responses to “Mining Ideas Part 2: Using Sketchbooks to Help Teach About Contemporary Art”

1. The Instructor on September 24, 2008 10:11 pm Your comment is awaiting moderation.

Thank you so much for the fantastic resource art21. :)
My students have been learning how to sketch variations of a Chickenhawk.

9/24/2008 10:16:00 PM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

I'm going to dissent.

First of all, Stone has not been convicted. There is a presumption of innocence that applies here. That he has been convicted of other crimes in the past does not affect that presumption.

'He's still suspect for his past crimes and as such not to be given the benefit of doubt in anything simulating additional crimes' is wrong.

The presumption of innocence does not only apply to people you like.

Secondly, 'Crime is crime, even when it's art' is far too black and white.

George Grosz and John Heartfield were prosecuted and convicted several times because of their work. The arguments presented here would seem to say that it's okay for the military or the State to censor work and punish artists as long as they do it through the courts.

Should Breton have been convicted for threatening to kill with his 'simplest surrealist act'?

I'm sure people can think of plenty of other examples.

9/24/2008 11:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Well, when I say that crime is crime and that it being art or not is irrelevant, of course that leads to the major problem of defining when exactly does crime begin, which with the question of what exactly constitute art, are notions which values (as it's being often reminded here) shift through times and much depend on consensus in the realms of aesthetics and ethics.

I mean, what art was not a crime under Stalin or Hitler, or in present Saudi Arabia?

Cedric Caspesyan

(Crime is Art, even when it's Crime, even when it's Art that is Crime, even when it's Art)

9/25/2008 02:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

Ok, I hate it when I'm on the verboso switch (I take long breaks once in a while), but, David, would you consider it a crime if people came unto you with fake bombs and fake guns and scared you to death? You know, September 11 was all fake bombs. People can get heart attack with these attempts at terror, or it could have unfolded in a military panic which would have caused much harm.

I'm just speaking from my "member of the jury" POV. I'm just discussing, not accusing. But in my opinion there is a limit to how much fun you can have at the expense of others. The whole ethic is in differencing the gravity between putting someone in danger or making them believe they are in danger.

United 93 dropped on the ground for the very reason that people "believed" they were in danger. Can you imagine if people realized sooner they they were dealing with toy bombs?? How many shops every year get stolen at the threat of toy guns? It's not funny! The joke gotta end.

Cedric Caspesyan

9/25/2008 02:22:00 AM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

Nietzsche usefully points out that crime was invented by the State. It's not defined by consensus; it's defined by the lawmakers. You don't get any choice in the matter (beyond voting for the idiots in the first place).

We should also clearly distinguish between crime and ethics. Behaving unethically is not necessarily a crime. Nor are all crimes unethical.

But I do agree that 'there is a limit to how much fun you can have at the expense of others'. I don't think this reaches that limit. No-one was actually hurt. And you have to admit surely that as performance art it was extremely effective. It got into news bulletins all around the world.

9/25/2008 08:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Somehow it completely passed through my hat that the examples I have cited (Nazism, Stalinism, Islam Republic) are not democratic at all!

These examples proove that even the arts of a whole country can result from the taste of just 2 or 3 people!

I must be very spoiled by the promisses of democracy to forget that fact. I stand corrected.

But I forgot who cited the famous example about Egypt: why did all the slaves not simply killed the Pharaoh. Probably because they believed Pharaohs were gods.
I think any beliefs, wrether they be political ideals or religious, can be dangerous. They can lead to that sort of consensus where everyone lets a golden person decide for them.

Cedric Caspesyan

9/25/2008 10:08:00 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home