Feature image: Valerie Hegarty, Melted Captain (Small). 2011. View here.
A recent TikTok trend has some artists heading to their local thrift stores to repurpose old paintings, sparking heated debate over the morality of altering original artwork. The social media trend formed in honor of the spooky season. However, this is not the first time artists have modified second-hand paintings to give them a second life.
Whether it be a ghost taking a bubble bath or “Bob’s Burger” characters Bob and Linda drinking wine in a Sicilian vineyard, DIY-ing dust-covered paintings has offended those disgusted with creators“ruining” the thrifted paintings.
However, one can’t help but wonder if the original artists would even care that someone was repurposing a piece of art that would have otherwise been dumped in a landfill. It begs the question: is this trend an example of fun, creative freedom, or a testament to disgrace and defacement?
Defacement, by definition, is “the action or process of spoiling the surface or appearance of something.” With that in mind, you could argue that this trend is technically defacement. However, like most things in life, the answer requires more analysis than skimming a dictionary definition
People are obtaining thrifted paintings legally, and there is no law that states people cannot buy a painting and paint whatever they want on it. If this discussion involved painting over “Mona Lisa” or “The Last Supper” or another museum-owned and protected painting, then the argument claiming defacement would be stronger. However, the morality of altering thrifted work ultimately boils down to an individual’s perceived sanctity of original creation.
Many keyboard warriors assert that thrifters destroy artists’ hard work. Instagram user @boyo.art commented, “...you also cover the hard work of the original painter- effectively deleting a part of their existence as well.” Others beg for artists to use copies of the paintings; Instagram user @arialupa said, “No, please, I'm a restorer, and I think it's crazy.. and it goes against the conservation of artistic heritage! why don't you use copies?!” Some proponents of this argument have gotten personal, lobbing personal hate speech at those who alter art. “I think I hate you now,” says Instagram user @yourgirlismay on Emma Kenny Creative’s post.
Team Creative Freedom
On the other side of the coin, some Instagram users recognize the importance of creative freedom, defending artists like Emma Kenny. Creative freedom is defined as “the freedom to imagine, create, and distribute diverse cultural expressions free of governmental censorship, political interference or the pressures of non-state actors.” While this specific freedom protects artists from the government reprimanding them for the subject of their art, it does not protect artists from obscene and dreadful comment sections.
Small artists who simply want to participate in a trend have the right to do so. Similarly, commenters have the same freedom to speak their opinion—as long as it is respectful and complies with Instagram’s Community Guidelines. This thrift flip trend is just one example of how artists use “defacement” as a deliberate element of their work. Defacement is thus a niche in the art world—a polarizing one at that.
Artists like Emma Kenny create and imagine new ideas and apply them to a medium. Their medium of choice is an old, discarded piece of art. Emma’s supporters have rushed to her comment section. Instagram user @baileyvital said, “Literally no one in these comments cared about antique art until a second ago… art is about being TRANSFORMATIVE!!!” If Emma’s video never tracked attention from hundreds of thousands of people, you can’t help but wonder if anyone would have ever thought about paintings rotting in thrift stores.
Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle enthusiasts, like @katerinehelmin, comment, “Don’t all the haters know how many paintings are thrown out every day by privates and [second] hand shops. There are so many paintings just accumulating dust. Better to give them a new life.” And she wouldn’t be wrong. About 11%, or 22 million pounds, of Goodwill donations are sent to landfills after being deemed “unfit” for the sales floor.
Most repurposed paintings have little to no monetary value. Does that mean the painting needs to be valuable for it to be considered vandalism?
What Are The Chances You Find A Million Dollar Painting At Goodwill?
Unless you are an art fanatic, chances are, you aren’t going to recognize a valuable painting. Yes, you could take any thrifted art to get appraised but will likely pay more than the painting itself. However, your chances aren’t completely zero.
Back in 2017, a woman purchased a painting for $4 at her local thrift store. Six years later, after the painting found itself stuck in the back of a closet, the woman rediscovered the heavy painting in 2023. She said she had a “hunch” that the painting contained high value. Turns out, her $4 painting equated to over $250,000 (later officially sold for $190k on September 19). A fellow Facebook group member of Things Found In Walls - And Other Hidden Findings, a group dedicated to posting about their random findings, identified the woman’s painting as an original Newell Convers Wyeth piece. The painting had been missing for 80 years, only for it to end up at a thrift store.
This anecdote is as rarely occurring as it is fascinating, leaving pundits speculating about the possibility of an influencer defacing an iconic painting that they found in a thrift store. It exemplifies the blurry line between vandalism and the importance of creativity.
When Does Creative Freedom End and Vandalism Begin?
If someone were to spray paint Henry Matisse’s “Goldfish” as it hangs in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, Russia, then yes, one could identify that as vandalism. If your neighbor came into your home and ruined a piece of your own furniture, you could claim that as vandalism. But the repurposing efforts of the thrifty artists of TikTok fall somewhere between the endpoints of defacement and originality. This conversation is undoubtedly complex and multifaceted.
So, what are your thoughts? Is this trend a violation of artists’ original work or an exercise of creative freedom?
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