Can Assassination Be Art?

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There's nothing pretty about depicting the murders of famous political figures, but Brazilian artist Gil Vicente is attempting to find the art in assassination. A prominent art show in Brazil is featuring Vicente's controversial work, nine charcoal drawings depicting the artist poised to kill a world leader. In each, the casually dressed Vicente is shown holding a gun or knife to politicians—who are often bound—such as U.S. President George W. Bush, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The artist has given somewhat conflicting explanations of the series. He told the Agence France Presse that he wanted to express his "disappointment" with global leadership. "Because they kill so many other people, it would be a favor to kill them, understand? Why don't people in power and in the elite die?" However, he told Sao Paulo's Folha newspaper (translation), "My question was very straightforward, was to purge the anger I had. ... I do not understand art and also do not read anything about art."

The exhibition has attracted unsurprising controversy. Al Jazeera's Gabriel Elizondo reports:

The exhibit is being shown at the Sao Paulo Bienal, which opened this weekend to the public. It's the most important modern/alternative art show in the country, hosting dozens of different works from artists around the world. Organizers are expecting close to 1 million visitors before the show closes December 12.

A respected Brazilian legal organization asked that the 'assassination' works by Vicente be pulled from the exhibit, saying that freedom of expression has limits and the works incite violence akin to terrorism. The organizers, the Bienal Foundation, refused, saying while the views expressed by artist do not represent the organizers, it would be against free speech to pull the plug on the exhibit.

Vicente hit back against his critics in an interview with the Agence France Presse. "They claim [the art] justifies crime. Stealing public money is not a crime? The reports on TV aren't trying to justify crimes? Only my work is justification of crime?"

Al Jazeera's Elizonda muses, "As I gazed at the works by Vicente, it was hard not to feel little disturbed, to say the least. I was thinking to myself, 'Should I even be looking at this?' Maybe that is exactly the internal response the artist wanted."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.