The History of Protests Through the Vandalization of Art
By Roy Huh, Staff Reporter, The Pawprint
Earlier last month, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (fourth version) painting was vandalized at the London National Gallery by protesters from Just Stop Oil. The protesters threw tomato soup at the painting and glued their hands to the wall below it. Following the incident, climate change protesters threw and covered mashed potatoes onto Monet’s Meules on October 24th. Some may recall the incident where a climate protester disguised as an old lady smeared the Mona Lisa with cake from earlier this year. Though none of these artworks were severely damaged due to their protective glass, these incidents make people wonder; is it a mere coincidence that these vandalizations were committed for the purpose of protesting –all environmental at that– during a similar time period? Or is there something going on here? Today, The Pawprint dives into the history of the vandalization of artworks and the protests related to them.
The first notable instances of art vandalism in terms of political and religious reasons occurred during the aforementioned French Revolution, where the people would bring down statues of former kings and damage artworks related to the royals in order to make political statements. A century later, in the 1800s, more cases of art vandalism were being reported. These include the vandalization of Vasily Vereshchagin’s The Holy Family. This piece, along with five other paintings of Vereshchagin, were splashed with acid by monks from the Catholic Church due to the paintings’ evangelical characteristic. Another example would be when Diego Velázquez’s The Toilet of Venus, also known as The Rokeby Venus, was slashed in 1914 by journalist and student Mary Richardson. She was protesting against the arrest of the British suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, which makes the slashing of The Rokeby Venus one of the first notable incidents in more recent times where art vandalism was driven by political motives. As Richardson later stated, “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.” More famous occasions of art vandalism include the vandalization of the Mona Lisa during the 20th century, The Night Watch, and the statue of The Little Mermaid, though all of these occurrences were not politically motivated. A famous political protest in modern times includes the vandalization of Picasso’s Guernica –which in itself is also a political statement– where artist Tony Shafrazi reacted to U.S. president Nixon’s pardoning of William Calley (an army officer who was trialed because of his participation in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnamese War) by spraying the words “Kill Lies All” onto the painting. He also claimed he was protesting against war and civilian deaths as well.
As the years progressed into the 21st century, the majority of art vandalism has been appearing to be committed in part of protests that are mostly environmental. This begs the question, what has art got anything to do with the environment and random food items like cake, tomato soup and mashed potatoes the Just Stop Oil protester who threw the tomato soup onto the Sunflowers said, “We’re using these actions to get media attention to get people talking about this now and we know civil resistance works, history has shown us this works.” The climate protester that smeared the Mona Lisa with cake said in an interview, “Think about the Earth. There are people who are destroying the Earth. Think about it. All the artists tell you to think about the Earth. All the artists think about the Earth. That’s why I did this. Think about the planet.” The main motives of these vandalizations seem clear; it is not necessarily about the vandalization of art, it is the effort to raise awareness of protests and their causes. However, whether these actions of vandalism can be justified in the name of protests is a topic up for debate, and perhaps it is a matter that all of us should have a second thought on.
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