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When Art and Protest Collide

By Catriona Miller

A recent attack on a Cambridge University portrait is the latest in a series of protests in which art has become the target. Iconoclasm is nothing new but is cultural vandalism ever justified?

Diego Velazquez, Rokeby Venus, c.1647-51, National Gallery, London ( Wikimedia Commons)

In 1914, Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery with a meat cleaver secreted under her coat and slashed Velazquez's Rokeby Venus five times in an act of suffrage protest. Richardson was a veteran of the suffragette movement, arrested nine times, she had gone on hunger strike, committed arson and bombed a railway station. She justified her actions in a statement published in the Times: '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 colour and line on canvas.'

Richardson's actions have become romanticised by time. We see black and white images of a sensible, middle-aged, middle-class woman in Edwardian skirts and oversized hat and perhaps admire the courage and conviction she must have felt. It helps that the cause seems a just one - all she wanted was to be allowed to vote in a country which claimed it was a democracy. And we know too that the painting was successfully restored: the slash marks, though still visible if you really look hard, do not spoil the overall appearance of the work today. Yet at the time, suffragette action was controversial, not only opposed by the authorities but by many women who wanted to pursue a nonviolent solution. And there were genuine fears that a highly significant cultural landmark - Velazquez's only nude which had just been acquired by the gallery in 1906 - had been damaged beyond repair.

In November 2023, history repeated itself. Two Just Stop Oil protesters attempted a recreation to Richardson's act of political vandalism by attacking the same painting, now hung behind glass, with safety hammers. Environmental action groups have been using art as a focus of protest since the summer of 2022 when there was a spate of incidents involving activists gluing themselves to the frames of works. In an escalation, tomato soup was thrown at Van Gogh's Sunflowers in London,'oil' at a Klimt in Vienna and most recently the Mona Lisa was also 'souped'. Just Stop Oil insist their actions are not designed to damage artworks, but to draw attention to their cause. All three artworks were behind glass.

In an interview with Frieze, one of the activists who attacked the Van Gogh justified their action in remarkably similar terms to Richardson: 'using such a beautiful piece of artwork was poignant because, when people saw it, they had that gut reaction of, ‘I want to protect this thing that is beautiful and valued.’ Why don’t people have that same response to the destruction the fossil fuel industry is causing to our planet?' More strikingly, the Rokeby Venus attackers directly referenced suffragette protest, shouting: 'Women did not get the vote by voting, it is time for deeds not words'. By linking their actions to those of the past, Just Stop Oil are cleverly claiming a false legitimacy. On one hand they are implying they are on the right side of history, ignoring the fact that suffrage protest did not directly achieve the vote for women. On the other, they are stressing their reasonableness and restraint - soup not slashing - whilst leaving open the possibility of greater action. The use of hammers against the Rokeby Venus suggests that things may be about to get more extreme

Last month, in a protest against events in Gaza someone took spray paint and a Stanley knife to a portrait of Arthur Balfour by Philip de László hanging in Trinity College, Cambridge. The video which circulated on social media had an immediate and visceral impact. This was an act of genuine violence albeit perpetrated in proxy against an image of a person rather than actual bodily harm. Balfour, Foreign Secretary in 1917, gave his name to the Balfour Declaration which set out British support for the principle of a Jewish state in Palestine. It is not the first time Balfour has been singled out: in 2022, long before the current crisis, his statue in Parliament was squirted with fake blood. The Palestinian cause, polarising as it is, will be viewed as justified or indefensible in equal measure, although there can be little doubt of the conviction of the individuals who carried out the attacks. However, the protestors are taking a very narrow view of their target. An artwork is painstakingly created by someone, usually for someone or for some reason, and what or who is represents is only part of the story. Just as Balfour's life should not be reduced to a single document, so a painting cannot be reduced to the face on the canvas.

Perhaps the Trinity College picture can be restored - although the level of damage seemed catastrophic. Many people might argue that the world will not miss one more old painting of a dead white man. Afterall, there are at least twenty other portraits of Balfour in UK collections, according to and de Laszlo, although a significant early-twentieth century portraitist (there is currently an exhibition of his work at Gainsborough's House in Suffolk), is hardly a household name. It is also, of course, impossible to argue that any piece of material culture can be considered more important than the climate emergency or the deaths of civilians in Gaza. Activists know that in that sense art is a soft target.

However, once you start justifying the destruction of culture in the name of politics, protest or progress, the waters very quickly become muddied. There was outrage at Isis attacks on Palmyra in 2017, yet every cathedral in Britain bears the scars of Protestant iconoclasm and the cultural loss of Henry VIII's decision to dissolve monasteries goes largely uncriticised in histories of the period. Similarly, those who expressed doubts about the toppling of the Coulson statue in Bristol, or argued against the 'Rhodes Must Fall' campaign, probably have little issue with crowds destroying images of Saddam Hussein or Hungarians attacking Stalin's statue in 1956 Budapest.

Art is an effective, emotive and easy target but that does not mean it should be the go-to method of protest. If we start arguing that damage or destruction can be justified then we give anyone, anywhere the excuse to attack culture in the name of whatever cause they champion. The truth is we should be fighting to save art, always.


About the Writer:

Catriona Miller is an independent art historian and writer on art based in the UK. She has taught and lectured on all aspects of art history and is currently researching women artists in British collections and issues of nationalism and identity in nineteenth-century landscape painting.

Twitter: @cmillerartlife 


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