Ethics Quiz: Smashing The “Million Dollar Vase”

Miami performance artist Maximo Caminero walked into the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, entered a special exhibit of sixteen ancient Chinese vases painted over in bright colors by celebrated Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, picked up one of them, and immediately after a security guard instructed him not to touch the exhibit, allowed the vase to fall from his hands, shattering into bits. Some strange and interesting details of the incident:

  • He did not say “Oopsie!”
  • In fact, he admitted that smashing the pottery was intentional, and was his protest against in support of local artists like himself whose work is not exhibited at the museum while the art of international artists like Weiwei is.
  • The painted vase the 51-year-old artist destroyed is said to be valued at a million dollars. Each of vases used in the exhibit  are about 2,000 years old, dating back to China’s Han Dynasty. The artist often uses ancient  artifacts in his work, and has drawn criticism that his art consists of  defacing the original work or another artist.
  • Caminero says he thought the vases were cheap pottery purchased at Home Depot, and never suspected that they were so old or valuable. (And yet he still didn’t say “Oopsie!” Or “Doh!”
  • The museum HAS exhibited local artists.
  • He broke the vase directly in front of a series of larger-than-life photos of  Weiwei dropping and destroying another Han Dynasty vase.
  • He says that he interpreted the photos as a fellow artist’s provocative statement, encouraging him to break the vase.
  • Caminero was charged with criminal mischief, which is not a trivial charge. At very least, he would be required to pay for the destroyed item.
  • The news reports say that the museum is assisting police in the investigation. What investigation? The entire episode on video.

No, you can’t make this stuff up.

And our Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz is this:

Should the justice system treat Caminero’s act  more leniently than any other act of deliberate vandalism resulting in the destruction of a million dollars worth of property?

To me, the answer is a resounding “no”:

  • The fact that the vandalism is a protest? It doesn’t matter why he destroyed the vase. It wouldn’t mitigate the crime even if he had something legitimate to protest, which he did not.
  • The fact that he didn’t mean to break a a million dollar vase, just a cheap one? Too bad. You break it, you’ve bought it.
  • The fact that the photo display behind him showed the artist doing exactly the same thing? Completely irrelevant. The artist was breaking his own vase.
  • The fact that the art that Caminero was destroying was itself created by a destructive act? Oh, there are a number of bad rationalizations he can use in his defense, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he uses them all. The protest was performance art, and punishing it severely infringes on free artistic expression! Punishing him is the ultimate hypocrisy, as he was calling attention to Weiwei’s own vandalism! He started it! Tit for Tat! It’s for a good cause! All ethically invalid.

Someone this stupid, irresponsible, self-centered and reckless is a danger to the community. His next protest may harm more than a vase.

I hope they throw the book at him.


Pointer: CNN

Sources: Miami Herald, C News

48 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Smashing The “Million Dollar Vase”

  1. I’ll be astonished if anyone answers in the affirmative.

    Or, for that matter, if any gallery or museum ever exhibits this clown’s work in the future, regardless of its quality (which I’d bet is pretty low). Protest? Imagine the protests from other artists towards any exhibition space that would display the work of someone who deliberately destroys another artist’s creation without their consent.

  2. Question–if Ai Weiwei can be deemed to have improved the vase, cannot it be said that Caminero further increased its value by making it part of his performance art?
    That is, rather than deeming it destructive, deem it transformative. Perhaps there would be a civil claim for conversion, but not the felony of criminal mischief. Do the ethical considerations differ from the legal, other than the fact that is was not his to transform?

    • Love it—I almost included this line of argument, and decided to see who would try it out.

      I think here the legal and ethical considerations are in convergence. Performance art can be anything, legal or illegal, but it is unethical to break the law, even for art’s sake. IF the shards could be sold by the museum or the original artist for the value of the intact vase, then that would reduce or eliminate part of the punishment. Let’s wait and see.

      I’ve always been amused that the famous “tunnel tree” in Sequoia National Park fell over decades ago but the Park Service still sometimes uses the image of the upright tree in promotions. When you go to the park, the gigantic tree is now labelled “Fallen Tunnel Tree.” And the damn thing stretches out as far as the eye can see….it’s MORE impressive toppled.

      • I don’t think it’s relevant. If Weiwei chose to destroy HIS OWN PROPERTY, it could be called ‘transformative’. If someone else chooses to destroy Weiwei’s property, it IS destructive, regardless of what the market ascribes to it.

    • I don’t see how. Ai Weiwei made a choice to modify (through destruction) his own property. The perceived value after the fact was pure chance, and not one anticipated. He wanted to destroy the vase, so to him, the destruction did have a new value independent of the value he perceived in the undestroyed vase.

      It is different with this act of vandalism. Whether or not the Market generates a value for the shards of Weiwei’s vandalized artwork is irrelevant the destroyed value of Weiwei’s original work. Weiwei’s artwork may have a market value of $1 million, but to him, that dollar amount is irrelevant: he valued the work he created in the form in which he created it. Being his property, that trumps the market value of the vase, until he puts it on the market.

      Now, the vase being destroyed (from it’s original form) can never have it’s value increased. Never. The shards may net on the market a greater dollar amount than the original work, but that is not the value Weiwei attributed to HIS PROPERTY. It is not ‘transformative’, it was destructive simply because it wasn’t the vandal’s property.

      • However, the law is being called upon to determine the monetary value of the damage. I can run over your beloved poodle, but the law will only value it at the cost of a replacement poodle.
        Consider this: it is December 6, 1955. You have in your possession a mint T206, which you show to Mr. Honus Wagner as he lay dying. Without your permission, he snatches it from your hands and signs it.
        You no longer have that mint T206 that might ultimately have become the Gretzky T206 last sold for 2.3 million dollars. But I can tell you it is probably now worth more. I’m pretty sure you lose your case against the Wagner estate.

        • Which brings into play my question about previous alterations. Is the vandal to be charged with destroying an object with the worth of a Han dynasty vase? Or an object with the worth of an art object by Ai Weiwei? Because Weiwei already eliminated the vase’s value as a Han vase.

          To use your example, if I run your Honus Wagner card thorugh a shredder, I’m assuming the law treats it as the uber-valuable signed object it was. If, however, your mint Wagner card was signed by your wacky neighbor “Homer Wagman” as a joke, then should I be legally handled based on the value of the original mint card, or of the value of the card with an idiot’s marks all over it?

        • Right, but the law values the replacement poodle at the market cost of the formerly alive poodle (X dollars). They don’t value it at the cost of the squished poodle ($ 0). The valuation should be based on the object BEFORE it was destroyed.

          By analogy then, the valuation of the vase, should be based on it’s market value PRIOR to it being destroyed (because that is the closest approximation to the owner’s value) not based on whether or not its post-destruction value is actually increased.

          I think the Honus Wagner analogy is shaky as well, it can be reasonably assumed than an athlete’s signature more times than not will ADD value, and a reasonable assumption can be made by athletes that when approached by fans with something bearing their image, they want an autograph. By analogy, you’d need a scenario in which Weiwei, with vase in possession gave a reasonable scenario to Caminero that would imply “please make my art better, in a way that we can culturally assume WILL make it better”.

          • Actually, you have damages calculations wrong. Damages=value of poodle before (replacement cost) – value of poodle now ($0). Similarly, damages here would be assessed= value of weiwei vase (As modifified by weiwie) – value of vase (including value of shards). If post smashing value = $0, then Caminero is in for a heap of hurt. if smashing created a market for the the shards, then post smashing value >$0 and it could even be greater than pre-smashing value. Even a shredded T206 Honus Wagner could have worth if Wolverine was the one who shredded it.

              • Adjusters ply their trade based on how the law values things. Jack has otherwise posited that law guides ethics.
                But, it is a quandary–if unwanted modification of property increases the value of that property, is it unethical?

                • Does that then mean the law values things unethically?

                  The way I see it, the vase’s value before the vandalism is completely incomparable to the vase’s value after vandalism. The value of Weiwei’s vase before destruction was $1,000,000, and after destruction was $0 (because it no longer exists). The value of Weiwei’s shards, before creation was $0 (because it didn’t exist) and whatever afterwards. Weiwei didn’t want shards he wanted a colored vase — regardless of the possible market value of those shards. Had he wanted shards of HIS property, he’d have done it, or asked another to do it. It is almost as though the two are separate entities.

                  If that is valid reasoning, then would it be, ethically, (not what the law commands right now), that the vandal still owes Weiwei the value of the undestroyed vase, and Weiwei just enjoys the luck if the shards end up being more valuable?

                  So, what if it was Picasso who decided to spray paint something Cubist on Weiwei’s house that the market would consider to be worth $1,000,000?

                  Here, based on the consideration in the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs above, would not exclude Weiwei from giving post-crime approval of the vandalism by not seeking compensation for the vandalism, and still benefit from the luck of what the market considers the vandalism.

                  That would seem to keep the initiative on the victim, and would also accommodate your Honus Wagner autograph scenario as well. It may seem harsh, but I don’t have much patience with those who chose to destroy other people’s property.

                  But yes, if the shards ended up being more valuable than the vase, then I’d assume according to the law, the vandal would owe nothing to Weiwei, owe to the community whatever penalties vandalism carries, and I don’t know if emotional damages would hold weight.

                • In retrospect, I think it is fair that whatever the destroyed property value is, offsets total necessary compensation on the theory, that the victim would want an equally valued replacement.

                  This situation is just muddied to me, because the items destroyed are irreplaceable, leading me down the rationale in the most recent response.

                  Now, if it were replaceable, and the vandalism did increase the value of the damaged item, does the excess value come into the lucky possession of the victim or the one who created the additional value despite it not being their property?

  3. He’s functioning at the same level of the Taliban blowing up ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. Waterboard the mfer in front of the museum and call it “Performance Art”.

  4. No, No No. The vase and the other artists’ work cannot be replaced. He owes the replacement value and more. (no kickstart or others can pay for him) For this level of vandalism I lean toward all of his works being smashed without fanfare or record because an artist destroying others’ work like this is that ultimate in selfish. The legal mess will make him an ‘oppressed’ artist, that some chumps will support because they are willing to ignore that he has censored the original in the most violent way. Now more art will have to be locked away separate, to protect it from jerks like that. ‘Performance art’ isn’t art of it’s founded on destroying what he does not own. He also owes the most sincere apology to the living artist and original from the Han dynasty, but I doubt he is capable if he is this narcissistic.

    • An apology to the contemporary Weiwei? Sure. To the Han dynasty? Nah. Weiwei had already destroyed the vase as anything but a platform for his own self-indulgent “dissidence.”

      • Thank you; reading some of the comments I was beginning to think I had some sort of mental break. Personally I think what Ai Weiwei did in the course of making his (ugly) “art” is horrific.

        • Which of course does not justify breaking his art either, from a legal standpoint, but my Schadenfreude is getting in the way of me feeling very bad for Weiwei. On the subversive dissident scale hee’s not V blowing up the Old Bailey, he’s a teenager taking a dump in the Lincoln Memorial.

  5. I do have a question about the “million dollar vase” though- was the vase as exhibited, painted gaudily by a modern artist, worth that much? Or was the base material, the Han dynasty vase, worth the million?

    If it is the former, then I have nothing to offer in his defense. If it is the latter, then I don’t think he should be on the hook for a million dollars worth of damage. He’s still a criminal who destroyed Weiwei’s art, but should not be responsible for what the vase WOULD have been worth had Weiwei not already vandalized it.

    (And in case you can’t tell- I think Weiwei’s art is absolute bullshit, complete self-indulgent narcissistic historical destruction for the sake of squealing “look at me! I’m subversive!” but that only matters so far as how his “art” changed the value of the original vase)

      • I will say this- Weiwei has every right to be angry about the destruction of his property, but no real right to artistic indignation over his work being co-opted by someone else in a way that leaves it useless for his purposes. As Finlay said above, “What kind of artist destroys the work of another?” Both of these guys, apparently.

  6. Central bankers destroy hundreds of billions of dollars through engineered inflation each year. Why is there not punishment for this arguably much more pervasive destruction of wealth for the world’s population as a whole? Is it because they are “faceless” and “gods” of the economic realm, and not a single identifiable “criminal” like Maximo?

  7. I just want to express my admiration that we have had almost 30 comments and not a single Weiwei joke. This speaks to the underlying seriousness of the readers, or the fact that nobody reads the New York Post.

  8. I suppose vivisection of this “artist” on film could be considered “performance art”… still, while the thought has a certain appeal, I’d settle for restitution.
    I just have grave doubts as to his ability to create something of any value.

    • I suppose vivisection of this “artist” on film could be considered “performance art”… still, while the thought has a certain appeal, I’d settle for restitution.

      I swear to god, you people never want me to have any fun…

  9. A related question which your post brings up, Jack: what’s your opinion on how much news outlets reporting on stories like this should say about the perpetrator? I know that people are naturally curious about who would do such a thing but I can’t help but think that putting his name in the headlines is giving this “artist” exactly what he wants. I felt the same way when that twat defaced a Rothko to draw attention to his stupid [name of movement elided]ism movement a while back; that giving him the oxygen of publicity is likely to inspire others to follow suit.

    Another ethics question that I don’t have a clue how to answer is, can it ever be ethical to buy or otherwise legally procure a piece of art with the intention to destroy it?

    • I don’t believe that news organizations should start censoring the news and information based on those considerations. They should report the news and all relevant data in a timely fashion, not glorifying jerks but not treating them differently from any other newsmaker either. Heroic citizens often have their lives disrupted by notoriety and fame–should reporters protect them? I object to the practice of not publishing the names of those who accuse others of rape, while publishing the names of the accused, and for the same reason. I don’t trust journalists to make such decisions. They are neither especially smart, educated, wise or virtuous. Report the news, period. Otherwise we end up with arrogant and meddling reporters not reporting damning facts about politicians and leaders they admire or support, in the nation’s “best interests.” See: “Kennedy, Jack.”

  10. Ai’s “art” reminds me of some of the garbage that the bored upper middle class housewives of Alexandria try to sell at the Del Ray Art Festival.

  11. “The fact that he didn’t mean to break a a million dollar vase, just a cheap one? Too bad. You break it, you’ve bought it.”

    Since your question is about how the criminal justice system should treat this incident, “You break it, you’ve bought it” is not particularly relevant. Intent matters. For example, if you accidentally rear-end someone else’s car and do $5000 worth of damage, you get charged with a violation of following too close, not felony vandalism. Then again, when you set out to deliberately destroy someone else’s property, your indifference to its value shouldn’t be a mitigating factor. Also, I think he’s lying about that.

    I’m curious why you listed the detail that “The museum HAS exhibited local artists,” since that has no bearing that I can think of on the ethics of what he did.

    • I mentioned it because it undermines the protest claim, his only conceivable mitigation. If he wants to say this is civil disobedience, and is willing to take the punishment for his act in order to highlight a real injustice, fine—but he is obligated to be responsible and do his homework. Chaining themselves to doors wouldn’t be an mirable suffragette protest after women had been awarded the right to vote—it would just be foolish.

      As for the value—the statute calibrates the seriousness of the crime with the value of what is destroyed, and mistaken value isn’t mentioned as a defense.

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