The Conflict Over Vandalizing Art as a Way to Protest

This article is part of our special report on the Art for Tomorrow conference that was held in Florence, Italy.

Seldom in the history of art have so many masterpieces been vandalized in so little time. In October, major paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and Vermeer were targeted by environmentalist activists as part of a concerted push to raise awareness of the climate emergency and to stop new fossil-fuel projects.

Cans of tomato soup were splattered over Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at London’s National Gallery by a pair of activists from the Just Stop Oil movement (while a third captured the act on video). “What is worth more, art or life?” shouted one protester, Phoebe Plummer, 21, as visitors gasped and called for security. “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”

Later that month, a painting in Monet’s “Grainstacks” series was smeared with mashed potatoes at the Barberini Museum in Potsdam, Germany. And at a museum in The Hague, a man glued his head to Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” while another man, his hand glued to the wall, poured a thick red liquid over him. None of the paintings involved were damaged.

The acts of eco-vandalism seemed aimed at pressuring world leaders to take radical action at the United Nations climate summit the following month. Videos of the attacks were seen by millions of people around the world, including, no doubt, the leaders. Yet the attacks also upset many members of the public concerned about art damage, and led the directors of top world museums to issue a stern statement, raising the question of whether art actually is an effective vehicle for protest.

The topic of art and protest was discussed by a panel at last week’s Art for Tomorrow conference in Florence, Italy, created by the Democracy & Culture Foundation in concert with New York Times journalists.

One of the speakers at the conference was Clare Farrell, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, a U.K.-based international protest group that brought parts of central London to a standstill in 2019. She defended the acts of vandalism against artworks, including Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” saying the art was not harmed and the protests drew public attention in a way that was necessary, given the seriousness of the issue.

“It’s not going in a good direction, folks,” she said during the panel that also included Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum. “Some soup on some glass on the front of a painting is the very least that people could be doing to draw attention, to bring alarm.”

Vandalism against art is nothing new. In March 1914, a militant suffragist named Mary Richardson, furious at the arrest of a fellow activist, walked into the National Gallery in London with a meat cleaver and slashed Velázquez’s “Rokeby Venus” (1647-51), leaving a half-dozen cuts in the canvas.

In the decades that followed, there were intermittent attacks on other major works, including Michelangelo’s “Pieta’” (1499) at St Peter’s Basilica, which received several hammer blows in 1972 from a man claiming to be the resurrected Christ, and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa, which suffered several attacks, including having acid and a rock thrown at it before it was permanently shielded by bulletproof glass.

The masterminds of those attacks were mainly seeking to draw attention to themselves, whereas their present-day counterparts seek to draw attention to the climate emergency.

To environmentalists, the cause is worthy of being loudly and clearly heard.

In a telephone interview before the Florence conference, Ms. Farrell said that for a long time, there was little public awareness of the sheer urgency of the climate crisis. So it was normal to sound the alarm in a big way.

“When people are about to get hit by a train and they don’t realize it, you don’t invite them in for a meeting,” Ms. Farrell said.

Referring to the recent spate of art attacks, she said throwing soup at one of the world’s most famous paintings “makes everybody pay attention,” and noted that no damage had been done to the works. The art attacks were “extremely useful,” she added, because once the initial shock dissipated, people actually gave the climate crisis some thought. And previous Just Stop Oil actions — such as occupying gas and oil terminals, and smashing gas station pumps — had received almost no media coverage.

Museum managers were not amused. The leaders of 92 major cultural institutions — including the Louvre, the British Museum, the Guggenheim and the Mauritshuis (the small museum in The Hague)— said in a statement in November that they were “deeply shaken” by the actions of the eco-activists, who “severely underestimate the fragility of these irreplaceable objects, which must be preserved as part of our world cultural heritage.”

The Musée d’Orsay in Paris — whose president was among the signatories — almost became the target of yet another act of vandalism in October when a woman attempted to throw a liquid at a 19th-century painting. She was stopped, said Pierre Emmanuel Lecerf, the museum’s general administrator.

“We were prepared for the possibility of an intervention, because of the escalation of such interventions at the time, so we had tighter security measures put in place,” he said in an interview.

The museum was not so lucky in 2007 when someone believed to be among a group of drunken intruders punched and damaged the Monet painting “Le Pont d’Argenteuil” (1874). The painting has since been restored.

These days, said Mr. Lecerf, the vast majority of the Musée d’Orsay’s paintings are covered with glass, using technologies that make the protective sheet glare-free and nearly invisible to the visitor.

Nonetheless, “there is no such thing as zero risk,” he cautioned. “You can throw something at a glass-protected painting, and damage the historic frame, or the painting itself, if the liquid seeps through.”

Looking back on the repeated acts of vandalism that took place last year, Mr. Lecerf said he and his colleagues were “staggered to see art become the target of attack.”

“When you’re an environmental activist, you seek to preserve the natural environment. And when you’re a museum, your duty is to preserve the cultural heritage of humanity,” he said. “Our missions are, in reality, quite similar.”

How did art historians react to the recent wave of eco-vandalism?

“I wasn’t as horrified as people might expect me to be,” said Sally Hickson, an art historian at the University of Guelph in Canada, who was interviewed by phone.

She described the activists’ campaign as effective, “because it certainly captured a lot of media attention.” But she also pointed out that, “all of the damage was reversible,” since the activists picked “works that they knew were covered by glass.”

Yet there was no obvious link between the environmentalist cause and the paintings, she said. The activists “had to provide the dialogue and the narrative” to connect their actions to climate change, “because one thing has nothing to do with the other,” she said.

Ms. Hickson said that the worrying aspect of the recent art attacks was that museums entrusted with the care and preservation of some of the greatest masterpieces of art history had been breached and violated — and were probably going to seriously question the degree of access they would grant the general public going forward.

“How many people do you let in? How close do you let them get to things?” she said. “It must be costing museums a ton in terms of increased security.” Institutions could decide to “make things less accessible to people,” she added.

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