Paved Paradise: The Paradox of Art Vandalism

For more than a century, the art museum and its "masterpieces" have served as soft targets for acts of material and symbolic destruction in the name of protest. But what happens to the legibility of these protests – and to the art – when these spectacles themselves become business-as-usual?

In 1974, Tony Shafrazi took a spray can and wrote “KILL ALL LIES” directly onto Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, hanging at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He claimed his rationale was an anti-war statement, so ergo, his method was to deface an anti-war painting. And not just any artwork, but the anti-war painting of the twentieth century. Calculated to create a sensation and possibly elevate his own status, he placidly stayed in the gallery while awaiting arrest. When the judge asked if he was likely to re-offend in the same manner, he replied, “No, because it has already been done.” The bright red spray paint didn’t soak into the heavily varnished canvas and was successfully removed, but the dye was cast. The graffiti text gauged over the painting’s monochrome surface alluded to the words Picasso himself made famous: “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” Aside from this conceit, this was not a conceptual statement but a stunt, and like all stunts . . . once was enough.

Shafrazi went on to become a minted dealer of graffiti art, his commercial chutzpah supplanting a threadbare political conscience. Fifty years later, deliberate acts of art vandalism in the name of climate emergency are prevalent, but none of the activists are calling out “Bring a curator, I’m an artist,” as Shafrazi did. Soup, mash, and glue head the list of splatter materials for major art-museum interventions that are brief but disruptive. Following the model of “non-violent direct action and peaceful civil disobedience” laid down by groups such as Extinction Rebellion, the public art gallery has become a key stage. So far, the masterpieces involved have been salvaged by protective surfaces. The concern of international art curators and gallery directors is that sit-ins, demonstrations, and physical attachments and interventions to works will escalate or grow more extreme. Most of the groups claim respect for the art. Some of the activists even infer that the museum protests are executed in the rebellious spirit of the artists themselves. Duchamp! Van Gogh! Warhol of course! Yet, however one might rationalise the impulse, a splat is a splat.

One of the common arguments of recent activist events is the use of art to contrast material, monetary, and social value. The idea of the masterpiece held to ransom as a flashpoint for a threatened species is one. The symbol of Western art as a colonial trophy is another. The choice of these famous works is not arbitrary. Instead, it reveals just how freighted with ideology so-called Western masterpieces are. In this context, painting is clearly not dead, and is assumed instead to be a common language. No one so far has glued themselves to a Carl Andre floor panel. Contemporary and actual political art has not been chosen as a site of confrontation. The use of Andy Warhol’s soup cans by the Stop Fossil Fuel Subsidies activists at the National Gallery of Australia last November may have been a stab at irony, but in the main the focus of art “interventions” by activists is the old stuff: French impressionism, Dutch masters, and the Mona Lisa.

When looking at the history of art vandalism, great works have been defaced for worthy causes, but many more have been destroyed, bruised, or polluted for no reason at all. The guy who urinated on Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, in Nimes in 1993 felt he had something important to add to make the piece “fresh and new.” The Australian geologist who shattered Michelangelo’s Pietà, 1498–99, thought he was Christ. Perhaps Máximo Caminero, the disgruntled Miami artist who grabbed one of Ai Weiwei’s hand-painted antique pots and pulverised it, thought he was following a lineage of performative pot-smashing. Weiwei critiqued Chairman Mao in a photographic series entitled Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. This work, in turn, inspired a literal response. Not surprisingly, Caminero was not fêted, and instead was fined ten grand – the critical difference being that the antiquity that the artist smashed was his own. The tension between the freedom (and revolutionary circumstances) of art creation and the necessary rules of where it is housed and displayed form the bedrock of tensions surrounding political activism and art. Many museums are free. But their contents are bankable and delicate. The value of major public collections can be seen as a material commodity or something more intangible. Either way they are a soft target.

If the murder of a human is homicide, then what is the violation or destruction of a painting? The man who slashed Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, 1642, over twelve times later committed suicide in a psychiatric unit. It’s a track record such as this that weds attacks on art as isolated acts of insanity and projection, rather than cultural liberation. The repeated (and successful) attempts of Gerard Jan van Bladeren to deface and mutilate two major works by Barnett Newman at the Stedelijk Museum became the subject of the 2018 documentary, The End of Fear. The heat around this phenomenon is not transient, but cumulative. The power of art to calm is equal to the strange way it can provoke subjective extremes.

That said, there are moments in history where a specific artwork speaks to the times and statues or icons that must fall. I feel for Mary Richardson, a suffragette who surely set the stage for the Guerrilla Girls. When she attacked Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, 1647, with a meat cleaver in 1914, the slash marks left on the body of painted nude looked as if she had been clawed by a lion. Richardson justified the carnage by comparing the inertia of sexual objectification with the wrongful imprisonment of Emmeline Pankhurst. Her actions were visceral, but her sentiment was exquisite: “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as a colour and outline on canvas.”

Such eloquence marks a contrast to the bland outburst of the most recent attack on the Mona Lisa, 1503, when a man in Paris dressed in a wig and red lipstick leapt from a wheelchair to smear cake and cry out: “Think about the earth.” Surely this represents the last gasp?

Recent environmental activism has chosen the art museum as its palimpsest. And despite the fact that anywhere can be the sudden locus of mass-media attention in the digital age, the museum still represents a public arena steeped in establishment values. Museums guard priceless objects, but have far less security than bank vaults, or even a flagship store for Chanel or Prada. The safety of a painting is not just ensured by a thin layer of perspex or bulletproof glass, but by the collective respect of everyone who enters that space. Museums rely on corporate sponsorship, but they cannot exist without social goodwill. And trust. I cannot help thinking that the support for art-trashing by modern iconoclasts such as the late Vivienne Westwood and serious patrons such as Aileen Getty confer a cachet of Radical Chic upon the broken contract between spectacle and spectator. What happens when these protests become a commonplace convention? Will people start to attend galleries cynically in hopes of catching the live action instead of the show? When cliché replaces sensation, the act of destroying art (even symbolically) becomes normalised. This, in itself, plants a seed of cultural bad faith.

I understand the impetus, but question the means. Climate extinction is the most pressing crisis we will ever face. Perhaps this is why the response has been so crude. Perhaps not. Certainly the actions that have been staged in Europe and Australia have been deemed successful for the media attention they have attracted. Sloppy and obvious as they have been, the strategy of the anti-oil lobby has been used for other causes, most recently upon the surface of Frederick McCubbin’s Down on his luck, 1889. Instead of using the more arbitrary genre paintings of haystacks and flowers, this arrow met its target in terms of subject. An activist sprayed the logo of a known industrial polluter directly onto a painting of a colonial gold prospector, drawing attention to the current desecration of ancient Aboriginal rock art by Woodside Energy at Burrup Hub. In that action, the Aboriginal flag was laid upon the ground at the foot of the painting hanging in the Art Gallery of Western Australia. The activists demanded to know why one artwork was protected and the other pillaged. A fair and grave question when many ancient sites have been destroyed by mining. Of all the art-museum “actions” in the past three years, this was perhaps the most eloquent, and McCubbin’s own descendants were quoted as supporting it. Margot Edwards said in a press statement: “The actions of the Disrupt Burrup Hub protests have re-contextualised a national symbol.”

Taking the longer view, she and other family members drew the distinction that a corporation, and not a specific artwork, was the target of the message. OK. Right on. Perhaps tolerance was earned by a certain amount of ritual and basic flair. It was a lot more elegant than the duo who attempted to glue one protester’s head to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665, and then add soup. That particular event approached farce.

Defenders of the art-museum activists point out that raw, exposed canvas has not yet been broached. In swift reply to the idea that each event has been largely benign, the curators of international museums issued a collective statement arguing that the absence of physical damage to priceless artworks still generates damage, and expense for additional security. The most extreme knock-on effect is that less art will tour as insurance becomes too costly, which I suppose is the ethical reality with regards to a painting’s carbon footprint. Blockbusters, no doubt, will attract further flurries, but what will the museum experience look like in an atmosphere of siege and intensified surveillance?

Obscene, banal, and always ripe clickbait for the right-wing press, activists who use art to push their message create a double negative. Destruction actual and destruction symbolic meld together. Meanwhile, the numberless masterpieces of Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan are lost off-camera in the numb fall of shell and gunfire. Art, so often, is the unspoken casualty of war. No one understood this better than Picasso, and I’m tempted to imagine his bemused response to the slogans and slops that use creative works as their basis. My favourite Picasso quote is the bleak and boundless: “Everything you can imagine is real.” So, why can’t we reimagine the revolution? The medium is not always the message.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 62

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