Over the weekend, the Tate Modern in London had to deal with a museum nightmare: in full view of other guests, a patron left a piece of graffiti in the corner of a valuable work by one of the world’s most famous artists. Even stranger, he claimed he was adding to the painting’s value.
The man, Vladimir Umanets, walked into the gallery, sat around for a bit, and then wrote on the bottom of a Rothko painting: "Vladimir Umanets ’12, A Potential Piece of Yellowism." After spending a few hours defending his actions to the media, he was arrested, and although he claims he's not a vandal, plenty of respectable people disagree: Why would anyone write on a painting that could be worth tens of millions of dollars?
As it happens, Umanets has already told us exactly why. As the co-founder of a (very small and not particularly influential) intellectual movement, he has left a trail of writings across the Web to that explain the theoretical principles that guide him – including a manifesto on “Yellowism.”
It's short, as manifestos go, and is fairly successful at making the word "yellow" sound like nonsense, rather than a word for the color of daffodils, sunshine, and canaries. That's part of the point. What Umanets and co-founder Marcin Lodyga are pushing for is a system where anything can be made, essentially, meaningless.
Other bits and pieces of writing on the Yellowism website make it clearer that yellowism is supposed to be a sort of thought exercise. One "fragment" explains that: "Spectator must, regardless of all the overbearing meanings, symbols, references and associations, think about yellow." (Yellow, remember, means basically nothing.) They call this "a radical change of perception," "a totalitarian system," and a "kind of intellectual violence."
In other words, it's up to you, as a viewer, whether you're willing to consider any particular object, image, or ideas as part of Yellowism. Just look at it, and try to see it as an object signifying nothing at all.
This is why Umanets tagged the Rothko as a "potential" Yellowist work. As a viewer, he's giving you the option of seeing it, not as a masterpiece of abstract art, but as a blank. Of course no one need take him up on that invitation - though it would be convenient for him if he could at least convince Scotland Yard.
[Rothko detail via Maureen Lunn / Flickr]
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.