Regular readers of these pages will recall a story I shared with you a few months ago, about how a vandal attacked a painting by Pablo Picasso in order to make some sort of statement. Fortunately he was subsequently captured and jailed. Had it been an isolated incident, we could simply have gone back to our complacency with respect to deteriorating standards of public behavior.
However there have been a recent spike in attacks on works of art over the past year or so which I find rather disturbing, for this was not an isolated incident. Just this past week, a man attacked a rather unique new portrait depicting Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey, and another attacked John Constable’s masterpiece “The Hay Wain” in London’s National Gallery. In both cases, the men were making “statements” – about what, exactly, is unimportant. If you care to debate the merits of their cause you are welcome to go at each other in the comment section of this post.
The real statement being made here is that our civilization is stuck in reverse. Works of art displayed in public places are there because, generally speaking, it is assumed that the people passing through public places will behave themselves, and not attempt to damage or destroy these pieces. While museums and historic sites do have security cameras and guards, they cannot be everywhere at once. Instead they are relying, at least in part, on both the individual visitor and indeed the people around him to treat the material on display with respect.
Once we lose that sense of respect however, and we embrace the egotism that says I can destroy someone else’s property to prove a point, we are embracing nothing less than anarchism. Self-aggrandizement means it does not matter how noble or righteous our cause may be. For once we are more concerned with how to get our names in the paper than we are with fighting for our cause, it stops being about a laudable goal, and starts being about drawing attention to ourselves.
And of course art is the ultimate victim in these situations. It is an inanimate object, so in attacking it there is a lessened likelihood that anyone will be physically injured. By its very nature it cannot defend itself, for it speaks only to the mind through the eyes. It is often viewed as being inherently unintelligible to the average person, or something only for wealthy elites. And even if the damage is only partial, rather than complete, its restoration can take months or years, and costs thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours to complete.
No matter how just one believe’s one’s cause to be, physically attacking works of art in order to make a point is monstrously unacceptable in a civilized democracy. There is simply no excuse for behaving like a cultural jihadist in Western society. The more we allow these acts to pass uncommented upon, the more it will encourage copycats to do the same.
We need to be asking ourselves what, in our attitudes toward public art, public protest, and public acts of vandalism, whether we ourselves are actually encouraging this sort of loutish behavior.
“The Hay Wain” by John Constable (1821)
National Gallery, London