Surfing the Spectacle

That Which Doesn’t Exist

[A guest entry by composer and robotic sculptor Frank Garvey]

In the 20th century there have been many incidents of mindless physical attacks by deranged persons upon art masterpieces residing in churches, museums and other places of worship.

To the madman, the artwork seems to substitute symbolically, perhaps animistically, for the hated political, religious, or economic ideal he blames for his personal misery.


Two specific cases of this interesting transfer come to mind: one in 1934 and the other in 1972. The first was the destruction, by a madman, of progressive Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s masterpiece in Rockefeller Center, New York City. This mural included a portrait of the communist leader Vladimir Lenin amidst depictions of the degradations produced by capitalism.


The second case that I wish to bring to your attention was the smashing of the face and hand of the Virgin in Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peters Cathedral, Rome. Some interesting conclusions about our society can be reached if we examine the fate of the two vandals. In the hammer attack on the Pieta, the perpetrator, Laszlo Toth, was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Toth is a Maryonist, a bizarre religious sect that opposes all images in art of the Virgin Mary. He is now resting comfortably in a sanitarium. Society put him there for his own good, though there appears to be little hope of his ever recovering.


In the first case, the destruction of the Rivera painting, the perpetrator’s name was Nelson Rockefeller. In 1933, Rockefeller commissioned Diego Rivera to create a huge mural to grace the lobby of Radio City in the Rockefeller Center in New York. The grand theme would be “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.”


Rockefeller soon noticed, however, the images unfolding of suffering workers toiling under the regimen of capitalism. He found the stirring depiction of Lenin particularly displeasing. He demanded the head of Lenin be painted out and replaced with some other figure. Rivera rejected this “mutilation” of his work and was promptly fired. On the night of February 10th, 1934, workmen demolished the mural.

Nelson Rockefeller is a follower of a bizarre economic system called capitalism, which opposes all images of Lenin. He was appointed vice-president of the United States. He was put there for the good of his class, the billionaire class that rules the art and political world of America, and continues its imperialistic efforts to expand the empire internationally.


Of course it should be pointed out that, before he became vice-president, Nelson Rockefeller was already widely known as one of the 20th century’s “greatest” collectors of modern art. On lecture tours, he would often tell the story of the destruction of the Rivera mural as an amusing anecdote, noting ironically that the artist refused to speak to him for years afterward.

The writer of this essay traveled to New York to see the actual wall where the Rivera mural once resided. The information desk clerk was visibly uncomfortable when asked if the area behind him was “the wall.” He had obviously been schooled to deflect this question. He finally told me the mural never actually existed because it had never been “accepted by Mr. Rockefeller.” I realized that by that definition, I didn’t exist either.


In 1994 I sent one of my robots, Goboy the mechanical beggar, to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to see an exhibit of BLANK WHITE CANVASES by Robert Ryman. His paintings do exist; they even sell to elite collectors fortunate enough to acquire one for $500,000 or more. Goboy was soon kicked out of the museum. He was not, the guard firmly explained, a work of art.


[Go here for Diego Rivera’s account of the story]

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