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In The Defense of Art

Article written by Yvonne Wright, M.A.

Owner at Studio YNW, 100 West Broadway. Jim Thorpe, PA 18229.

Recent events in Europe at the National Gallery in London England, and at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne Australia, has prompted heated international discussion about the ways in which protesting against the dangers of climate change and the global need to move away from fossil fuels (considered vital to our survival), can be addressed without irrational vandalism of valuable cultural artifacts by environmental activists. Such incidences also highlight the cultural importance of art as our collective human heritage, igniting international outcry and uniting art-loving individuals in emotional outbursts (largely on social media) in activists’ condemnation. At the same time, it also brings to question the growing need for better protection and preservation of cultural treasures, and how the costs involved in doing so relate to the environmental and social concerns of the 21st Century.

The October 14th 2022 attack on Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpiece “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London was perpetrated by two young fossil fuel protesters representing the Just Stop Oil group (a coalition of UK activists working together to pressure their Government to commit to halting new fossil fuel licensing and production), by throwing the contents of a can of tomato soup on the painting, and then glueing themselves to the wall beneath the 1889 work, while at the same time live streaming their actions on social media. The protesters explained that they chose to use a can of soup because “it symbolizes the dilemma of Brits who are so strapped because of gas prices they won't be able to heat up food in the coming winter,” adding that "the cost of living crisis has been driven up by fossil fuels.” Fortunately, the painting (having an estimated value $84.2 million) wasn’t damaged, but three of the people involved were charged.

The “Sunflowers” incident is just one example in a series of recent protests targeting famous works of art in an effort to draw attention to the role of fossil fuels in climate change. Being of the opinion that protesting through art is the most valuable tool to use, because “an emotive action produces maximum publicity,” it is believed that the activists concentrate on targeting publicly funded art museums rather than vandalize properties belonging to oil companies with an acute awareness of the latter being generally well secured, and with the means to sue them into oblivion.

Just two days before, on October 12th, two Australian climate activists from Extinction Rebellion (another global environmental movement with the aim of “using nonviolent civil disobedience to compel government action to avoid tipping points in the climate system, biodiversity loss, and the risk of social and ecological collapse”) were arrested for gluing themselves to the perspex cover of Pablo Picasso's 1951 painting "Massacre in Korea" at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. On the floor, at their feet lay a black banner that read "Climate Chaos = War + Famine” in white letters.

In July, three members of the Just Stop Oil group glued themselves to a frame housing a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper" at the Royal Academy of Art in London, believed to be painted by the Renaissance master’s two pupils, Giampietrino and Giovanni Boltraffio 15 years after the original fresco in Milan was completed. The same month, two members of the Italian climate activist organization Ultima Generazione (Last Generation) glued their hands to the Sandro Botticelli’s painting “Primavera," the 540-year-old painting at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, but to their credit, “the activists had consulted art restoration experts to make sure no damage was done.”

In May, a 36-year-old man disguised himself as an old woman in a wheelchair and used compassionate advantage to get closer to da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre Museum in Paris in an effort to smear a cake over the painting’s protective glass while shouting “Think of the Earth! There are people who are destroying the Earth!” And, it wasn’t the first time this famously iconic work was attacked. A Bolivian man threw a rock at the painting in 1956, damaging the canvas near the sitter’s left elbow. Since then, the artwork has been protected by thick glass, making it hard to fully appreciate the masterpiece.

In 1972, the 33 year old Hungarian-born, Australian geologist Laszlo Toth jumped an altar railing in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and dealt 12 hammer blows to Michelangelo's marble sculpture “Pieta”, severely damaging the Renaissance masterpiece. It took over two years to complete the restoration efforts, and the sculpture is now displayed behind bulletproof glass.

In 1914, in an act of rage Suffragette Mary Richardson, an art student and journalist, slashed the 17th century painting by Diego Velazquez “Rokeby Venus” five times with a meat cleaver at the National Gallery in London because (as she explained) "the way male visitors gaped at it all day long.”

For centuries, art has played an important part in the social conciseness of nations, narrating and reflecting historic events, religious believes, cultural values, aesthetic trends, philosophical concepts, patriotic sentiments, social belonging, and many other artistically stunning and emotionally charged examples of narratives advocating for human rights and environmental concerns. Naturally, considerable funds are required to protect them from vandalism, theft and the ravages of time. A 2016 survey of American museums indicated that about 30% of their operational budgets comes from selling admission tickets, parking spaces, gift shop merchandise, etc., while the rest depends upon private and corporate donations, endowments and government funding.

Sadly, people attempting to vandalize art seem to believe in the misguided notion that art museums are for the privileged only, and not really ‘useful’ for the working classes. Subsequently, if “old art is just another currency for the super rich” then what the activists are doing is attacking an economic entity rather than a thing of beauty and cultural importance. And yet, many publicly funded art galleries are free, or provide varying free admission options to anyone interested in art. For example, the target of this latest attack, the National Gallery in London (famously located at Trafalgar Square) charges no fee at all to enter it, and is open daily; in the United States, many of Washington DC's major museums and art galleries do not require tickets and offer free timed-entry passes; the Philadelphia Museum of Art offers Pay What You Wish admission fees on the first Sunday of the month and every Friday night, while visitors 18 years-of-age and under enter free. In addition, there are also discounted general admissions to over 50 museums, gardens, theaters, and cultural sites throughout the Greater Philadelphia area, offered to individuals with disabilities and low-income families.

As designated guardians of cultural heritage, art museums have been identified as the most popular and frequently visited tourist destinations around the world. They are also employers of vast numbers of people in various services and expertise levels. The first major public art collection in Europe was made available in 1793, when the Bourbon residence at the Palais du Louvre became nationalized during the French Revolution. The once-socially-exclusive Grand Galleries were opened to the viewing pleasure of all French citizenry. The Napoleonic wars and mid-19th-century social upheavals turned many European aristocratic residences, with their splendid art collections, into public spaces. Previously restricted cultural assets became tools for social change and education, accessible to all through a democratization process.

During the 1870s and 1880s, in the so-called ‘gilded age’ of North America’s prosperous economy, most major American art institutions were founded (e.g., the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art in New York City, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, and so on); these initiatives were inspired by a similar unprecedented museum-building-boom taking place in western Europe at the time. The cultural and economic importance of these new art institutions began to define and reflect the American nation as a whole. They became repositories of unique and irreplaceable objects with ‘an auratic’ value “to increase and diffuse knowledge,” bridging and connecting socially diverse communities under the umbrella of mutual interest in art - the benefits of which can only be fully comprehended from our modern perspective.

George Brown Goode, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in the 1890s, proposed that “future art museums should minister to the mental and moral welfare of the masses, turning them into good citizens by providing education disguised as entertainment.” But it wasn’t until the last decades of the 20th century that fine art begun to position itself firmly in a cultural landscape ruled by the accelerated consumption of images, and an overt emphasis on monetary value rather than aesthetic.

The dangers of climate change and the global imperative to move away from fossil fuels is compelling. In October 2022, the World Wildlife Fund reported that since 1970 we have lost 69% of earth’s wildlife populations. A staggering statistic, and yet, apparently this news didn’t make the headlines in much of the British media, whereas the attack on “Sunflowers” did.

As a result, some people choose to abuse art - they take hammers to it, throw food at it, slash it, or glue themselves to it in an erratic act of defying the symbolic ‘authority’ of art, motivated by desperation and fear for our global future. But there is a great danger in believing that the cause justifies the means, and when individual beliefs rise to a ‘religious’ fervor of medieval iconoclasts… we’ve seen it before, and it didn’t end well.

While it appears that these attacks on art have achieved public attention, it can be questioned whether this attention is helping advance their cause or hindering it through its association with violence against inappropriate targets. Art, is the soul and the pulsing heart of any nation. It gives people a sense of pride that transcends political alliances and social status. With its multi-faceted characteristics, art unites peoples rather than separates them. It's universal appeal inspires, comforts and communicates with us in ways that surpass understanding, indulging our senses and enriching our soul in the process. Great works of art need our protection!

1. Van Gogh Sunflowers, 2. Picasso Massacre in Korea, 3. Da Vinci Mona Lisa, 4. Boltraffio The Last Supper, 5. Botticelli Primavera, 6. Buonarroti Pieta, 7. Velazquez Rokeby Venus

Yvonne Wright, M.A. owner at Studio YNW, 100 West Broadway. Jim Thorpe, PA 18229.


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