Hijacking an icon

The cheeky vandals who defaced the Hollywood sign have something in common with the great art critic John Berger who died this week, writes Kelly Grovier.

In art, as in life, sometimes it is hard to see the wood for the weed. Such was the case on New Year's day, when a team of still-unapprehended vandals forced southern Californians to do a double-take as they glanced up to the Santa Monica mountains.

Eluding security and using nothing more than a few white sheets and black banners, the mischief-makers managed deftly to alter the famous hillside sign that looms iconically over Los Angeles into a momentary celebration of a new law that makes recreational use of marijuana legal.

Suddenly, the high life being trumpeted from the Hollywood Hills was no longer the glitz of Tinseltown, but the spliffs of "Hollyweed".

More a playful prank than an act of enduring defacement, the sly sleight of eye that innocently nudged the Os into Es reminds us, nevertheless, just how easy it is to hijack a cultural symbol and commandeer its meaning. As it happens, that reminder was eerily timed.

The following day, on 2 January, the writer responsible for helping make audiences aware of how vulnerable cultural icons are to manipulation - the British art critic and Booker-prize winning novelist John Berger - died in Paris at the age of 90.

Berger became a household name in 1972 when, in the opening scene of his now legendary BBC mini-series on Western art, Ways of Seeing, he forced viewers watching at home to do a double-take. Sporting a 70's shirt and a disco hairdo, Berger strode confidently up to a masterpiece by the Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli, pulled out a box cutter, and began tearing violently into the 15th-Century masterpiece until he'd prised the head of Venus from the canvas.

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