This spring saw David Hockney’s magnum opus, the exhibition A Bigger Picture, fling him to the forefront of popular modern art. The exhibition, predominantly featuring landscapes from the Yorkshire dales, proved to be one of the most critically acclaimed and widely attended exhibitions ever featured at the Royal Academy. Its sheer accessibility and popular appeal shed some of the stigma of “obscurity” that haunts modern art, and proved a huge success, with both self-confessed “art-freaks” and the rest of us revelling in his colourful creations.
The covergirl – as it were – of the exhibition was Winter Timber. The focal point of this jaw-droppingly overwhelming piece is a 12ft tree stump which Hockney lovingly refers to as the totem. Last month, however, the totem was subjected to a violent attack with an axe, spray-paint, and possibly a chainsaw.
This apparent act of spite has triggered media interest akin to the death of a minor celebrity, with interviews and obituaries in regional, as well as national, newspapers. Hockney himself has spoken with Guardian displaying his feelings of loss, and proclaiming the wildly childish sentiment that the world is full of “mean” and “spiteful” people. Wherever you turn, there is a flurry of media attention, but in every piece, there lacks a focus: there is no relevant argument, nothing connected to its effects within the art world, and nothing to suggest its cultural relevance. In fact, it’s just a report of a tree being chopped down.
And my question is why? Why would national newspapers assume that because this stump was once featured in a popular painting, it demands news coverage? If the entirety of the Yorkshire countryside perished at the hands of a possibly mal-directioned, and ultimately completely ineffectual, terrorist nuclear attack, the press focus wouldn’t reflect the tragic loss of Hockney’s beloved inspiration, but on the disastrous consequences for the Yorkshire population (and future generations of triple headed Welsh sheep). The stump has been given a false status by its inclusion in a piece of art, and to revere it as a martyr to the art world would be wrong.
The reasons why the totem’s untimely death should be only be seen as a random act of vandalism, and not the destruction of a sacred shrine, stem back to principles of aesthetics and beauty. The act of displaying a tangible object within a piece of art is not enough to make the object itself art. Van Gogh’s A Wind-Beaten Tree. may have been beaten by the wind until it toppled over, and Manet’s Dejuner sur l’Herbe is probably somewhere underneath a concrete car-park, much like the bones of Richard III.
No one knows. In fact, no one cares.
And nor should they because the objet d’art is not changed physically, but the way in which it’s perceived is irreversibly altered by its inclusion in a piece of art. Hockney has augmented the perceived beauty of the stump to the extent that it has become synonymous with Hockey and his art. If someone stole, doused in petrol, and set fire to Winter Timber that would be a tragedy. It would also become a political statement about the art world, culturally relevant, and probably of sentimental value to Hockney. But this isn’t. This random, unaccounted for, act of vandalism bears no significance on, well, anything. It is undeniably sad, but not newsworthy.