Burning A Birkin Is Not "Art"

California celebuspawn Francesca Eastwood got into some hot water recently when photographs taken by her boyfriend of eight months, Tyler Shields, ignited a fierce tabloid backlash. Eastwood, who is depicted lighting an Hermès Birkin bag on fire — one of the world's most coveted luxury goods, a handbag people pay tens of thousands of dollars for and wait months or even years to buy, thanks to Hermès' mastery of artificial scarcity — and taking a chainsaw to the flaming remains, has apparently been getting some mean @replies on Twitter (and a commenter on this very site called her "a horrible human being"). Some people are really upset, either by the wasteful destruction of a beautiful object of value, by Eastwood and Shields' nose-in-the-air, you-don't-understand-my-art attitudes, or both. Shields talked to ArtInfo to give his side of the story.

Shields is a Los Angeles-based photographer best known for his pictures of Glee's Heather Morris made up to look like an abused housewife. (Domestic violence organizations protested.) Shields also shot Lindsay Lohan covered in fake blood, Hayden Panettiere sucking on the barrel of a machine gun, and Mischa Barton gnawing sexily on raw meat. The formula seems to be: C-list starlet, oral fixation, passing familiarity with the oeuvre of Terry Richardson, DSLR. Bullett calls Shields' work "bloody, expensive-looking, yet unconvincing."

Shields asserts that not only did he have every right to burn the Birkin, which he says he bought in London ("somebody brought me one in the trunk of a Bentley") with $100,000 of his own money, but that the bag's destruction was necessary for his art. Because once something is art, you see, it exists on a magical plane where it is accorded total immunity from all critique and/or criticism!

"I think if people are [upset] because I spent money on a photo shoot, then they should be upset about every single photo shoot that takes place ever. A $100,000 photo shoot, actually — Paris Hilton spent $200,000 on her album cover. The catering budget for the movie "John Carter" was $5 million. It takes money to make art. People spend money to make their work. If I was operating a McDonald's, would people be upset because I bought inventory? How many people buy sports cars? How many people buy watches? What if I bought a $100,000 car and I crashed it? I'm not taking anything away from anybody else. That's the thing, somebody wrote me an email, and she was very upset, and she was like, "How could you do this? You should have given that money to me.

I was very poor just like six years ago, I had $11 and nobody gave me any money. Nobody just handed me anything. I had to fight for it. I had to work to get what I have. That's the thing about the country that we live in. You can dream anything you want, and if you're willing to work hard enough, you can get it."

Emphasis added. If you work hard and tug those bootstraps right up tight, you too can become famous on the Internet for shooting minor TV actors being strangled by irons!

Shields, who says he settled on a 35cm red crocodile Birkin because "whenever I asked anybody, 'What's the best brand? What's the biggest thing?' Everyone said, 'the Birkin,'" has wrecked valuable objects in the name of celebrity photography before. He sawed a pair of Christian Louboutin pumps in half (and then lit the pieces on fire). He jokes that next, "I'm just going to blow some diamonds up."

Burning A Birkin Is Not "Art"
Sarah Sze's installation Things Fall Apart includes a Jeep SUV that she dismantled. It now hangs in the permanent collection of the SFMOMA.

Destroying valuable items or materials in the process of creation is hardly unknown in art, where various artists have long explored the definitional tension between the value of a work of art qua art and the ostensible value of its component parts. The artist Sarah Sze had an SUV sawed into pieces and painted red for an installation at the SFMOMA; the car hangs there in the building's atrium, gleaming. Artists bent on plumbing the relationship between materiality, capitalism, and art have used gold, diamonds, and currency in their work. When German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann won a $100,000 art prize in 2010, he created an installation at the Guggenheim in New York by pinning 100,000 dollar bills to the museum's walls. In 1994, artists Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, working under the name the K Foundation, burned £1 million in a cabin on an island off the coast of Scotland. "If poverty of material is not to disqualify artworks," wrote the Independent, "why should the expense of material?"

Burning A Birkin Is Not "Art"
A still from the film K Foundation Burn a Million Quid shows £50 notes on fire.

Artists have methodically destroyed all of their possessions. The fashion designer Helmut Lang, when he decided to become a visual artist, ran his entire, 6000-garment design archive through a shredder. Lang says he did it "without remorse or preference. It was about erasing the difference of what they once stood for." He used the pulverized pieces to make sculptures.

Artists also sometimes destroy items of perhaps even greater value: other art works. Picasso created, and destroyed, 20 works for the 1956 Henri-Georges Clouzot documentary Le Mystère Picasso; the artist wanted them to exist only on film. In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg had the idea of creating a drawing by erasing one — forcing the viewer to confront the question of what, exactly, a "drawing" is. That's how he came to make his Erased de Kooning, a paper page that bears faint traces of the Willem de Kooning drawing that it formerly hosted. Once he had his idea, it had to be another artist's work, Rauschenberg decided. "When I just erased my own drawings," explained Rauschenberg, "it wasn't art yet."

Burning A Birkin Is Not "Art"
Robert Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning, which is exactly what it sounds like, is now part of the permanent collection of the SFMOMA. A de Kooning painting sold for $137.5 million in 2006.

Here's how Rauschenberg said it happened:

"So I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels and hoped that Bill wouldn't be home when I knocked on his door. And he was home. And we sat down with the Jack Daniels and I told him what my project was. He understood it. And he said, Okay, I don't like it, but I'm going to go along with it because I understand the idea. He went through one portfolio and he said, No, it'll have to be something that I'll miss. And I'm thinking, it doesn't have to be something that you'll miss! Then he went to his second portfolio, which I thought was kind of interesting — things he wouldn't miss, and things he would miss — and he said, I'm going to make it so hard for you to erase this. And then he went to his third portfolio, that had crayon, pencil, charcoal. And uh, it took me about a month, and I don't know how many erasers, to do it."

"It's not a negation," said Rauschenberg, "it's a celebration. It's an idea."

What key "idea" did Tyler Shields take away from his experience cutting through a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes? "It took us six saw blades," he says. "So the money that you pay for those is obviously worth it."

So Shields' act was not even some kind of statement about capitalism, materialism, or consumer culture. (That would have been a trite and sophomoric message, some serious low-hanging critical fruit, but it would have at least been a message.) He was performing a publicity stunt for an E! reality show that documents Francesca Eastwood's travails, and his "message" is, "Buy more luxury goods! They're totally worth it." Shields and Eastwood, as the owners of the Birkin, could of course dispose of it by whatever means they pleased. But that doesn't make either the act or the photographic documentation of it "art." And even were it art, that doesn't mean it's any good.

"I Will Give One Family in Need $100,000": A Q&A With Tyler Shields on Destroying a Birkin Bag With Francesca Eastwood [ArtInfo]