Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Art sabotage – legitimate form of political protest?

An exciting exhibition has just opened at Tate Britain: Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm. This phenomenon, art sabotage, is somewhat of an elephant in the room for museums. It is seen as a threat to the accessibility, the advancement – perhaps even the existence – of art. By highlighting such acts the museums fear they will encourage more.

Thus, Tate should be commended for having the invigorating audacity to address the phenomenon. Their exhibition problematizes the act of art sabotage in various forms, including as a political act.

This reminded me that actually, as of late, a number of acts of art sabotage have been carried out in London. With these as starting points I set about reflecting on art sabotage as a form of political protest. Can it be legitimate? As a  continuation of the struggle against oppression by other means? Provocatively put: Can one man’s art saboteur be another man’s freedom fighter? And so the title goes:

Art sabotage – legitimate form of political protest?

Presumably, all works of art are potential political targets. For the activist, sabotaging a prudently picked piece offers an auspicious opportunity to raise his/her issue in a media friendly, symbolically poignant and (towards other people) non-violent way. The likelihood of a subsequent prison sentence might only make it more alluring for the assiduous activist with martyr ambitions.

Lately, quite a few acts of art sabotage have been carried out in London. And more might be in the offing. In October last year (2012) some words were ‘inked’ on a Mark Rothko in Tate Modern. The perpetrator, Wlodzimierz Umaniec, defended the sabotage as a type of art and a manifestation of his own -ism. Sympathy has been in short supply. The media – and the judge, who handed Umaniec a two-year prison sentence – considered the 26-year-old a “vandal” and his act a selfish, meaningless one.

Rothko's Black on Maroon after Umaniec's spraying
Still, Umaniec has succeeded in so far as here I am, writing about him. Who knows where he will be in 40 years time?

When Tony Shafrazi in 1974 sprayed “KILL LIES ALL” on Pablo Picasso’s anti-war painting Guernica at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the supposed reason was to protest against the Vietnam war and President Nixon’s recent pardoning of a US officer convicted of war crimes. Shafrazi was handed a five-year suspended sentence, but was soon offered the opportunity to establish himself as a leading art dealer. Today, he ranks as one of the world’s top dealers.

Both Umaniec and Shafrazi professed their admiration for the artist whose work they attacked. And in both cases the saboteurs seemed to suggest an aesthetic justification in that their act and the work interacted dialectically, creating a new value, a new work. A key difference, though, was that Umaniec had no discernible political motives. This difference should not be underestimated. In his book Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon (2004) Gijs van Hensbergen writes that Shafrazi’s “vandalism, intervention, or [...] ‘collaboration’” was admittedly: “Dangerous as a precedent, [but] his gesture nevertheless had a point. It was honest” as a political protest.

I guess one can say that Umaniec was also sincere. But the lack of political undertones in his ‘collaboration’ might render his act unforgivable, and him a pariah, in the eyes of post(-sabotage-)erity. This to be compared to Shafrazi whose supposed political motivation appears to have made his act forgivable and if not facilitated at least not hindered his career.

However, this June, eight months after Umaniec’s apolitical deed, an act of art sabotage took place that struck some fairly audible political chords. 41-year-old Tim Haries walked into Westminster Abbey and sprayed “Help” on a new painting of Queen Elizabeth II. Father’s Day was approaching and this was Haries’s desperate way of appealing to see his two daughters. 

At least, that's how the act was explained by Haries’s organization Fathers4justice; an organization fighting the gender discrimination it believes fathers are subject to in cases of child custody. Or, put another way, fighting for “equal parenting”. Patriarchal structures may dominate in other sectors of society, but when it comes to child custody the oppressive structures are of a matriarchal kind.

The symbolism in Haries’s sabotage is of course striking. A “father for justice” attacks the image of the highest matriarch, Britannia incarnated, the State in the form of its ultimate mother.

Haries was arrested and met little or no sympathy in the media. Daily Telegraph denounced the sabotage, albeit whilst expressing some sympathy for these desperate fathers since: “It is too easy for the mother to deprive fathers of their access rights [sic!], regardless of the decisions of the family courts.” The analysis of Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones amounted to little less than that the sabotage would in any case not weaken the monarchy.

The painting before and after Haries's act
Haries was probably protesting against monarchism as much as Emily Davison was protesting against horse racing when she in 1913 met her death in front of the horse of Elizabeth’s grandfather George V. As we know, the Suffragettes made extensive use of symbolic actions in their struggle for women’s suffrage. Less than a year after Davison’s fatal deed, a fellow suffragette, Mary Richardson, walked into London’s National Gallery with a meat cleaver. Her target was Diego Velázquez Rokeby Venus, a painting which embedded significant patriarchal, patriotic and pecuniary values. Richardson managed to give Venus a half dozen blows before she was stopped and arrested. Shortly afterwards she stated that she had “tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history”. But she added that “[j]ustice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas”, and as long as the government denied womanhood justice it was committing another (and much worse) form of destruction, namely “human destruction” of “beautiful living women”.

Rokeby Venus. The cuts post–Richardson in black and white 
Hence, Richardson carried out a symbolic attack on the patriarchal state. And as certain as you can smash a mechanized loom to bits with a pair of clogs, Richardson’s sabotage was met with an outcry in the media.

Whether Tim Haries is a 21st century Mary Richardson is probably best left unsaid. But he should not simply be dismissed as a marauder of a man whose marring of the monarchical motif was but a manifestation of a mind-boggling madness. As established, what Haries did was to deface the image of the nation’s most elevated mother, the embodiment of the state. Consequentially, the way Fathers4Justice has described the sabotage –  including  by recounting how Haries had in vain “tried to petition the Queen for help […] not just for himself, but for all fathers” – this iconoclastic act can be understood as a desperate symbolic attack against a state perceived to systematically destroy fathers and children by denying them each other.

Two weeks after Haries’s lèse majesté, and on the day his trial began, another “father for justice”, Paul Manning, entered the National Gallery and glued a photo of his son on John Constable’s The Hay Wain. The photo had “HELP” scribbled on it. Constable’s painting depicts a rural idyll in Suffolk and is one of England’s most prized paintings.

Thus, yet again, an attack on a symbol of national identity. Within hours Fathers4justice issued support for the act and called on other fathers to – “[f]or every 1,000 families destroyed each week in the family courts” do the same as Haries and Manning, whereby they would also “follow [in] the footsteps of the courageous women in the Suffragettes”. Civil disobedience by way of art sabotage.

Two days later, a statue was sprayed in Westminster Abbey. Hence, further acts of sabotage might be in the offing.

Through all of these acts of sabotage the art works became arenas on which the saboteurs tried promoting – by provoking – attention to their respective agendas. Can this be deemed legitimate?

Of course, whether an art saboteur is a marauder or a martyr lies in the eye of the beholder. That the media and judiciary reacts with repulsion when art is destroyed is understandable. The sabotage does not only desecrate the work but also the artist and ultimately the public who has access to the work; an access which risks being curtailed for each successive act of sabotage.

Indeed, if the purpose of the sabotage is purely aesthetical (see Umaniec) it might be hard to do anything but dismiss the act. ’Tis perhaps not quite as clear when the act has political motives. Yes, where you destroy art you do not only destroy property and creation but – in a more abstract sense – also human beings. But desperate, frustrated citizens may find it equally repulsive that the state supports the daily, concrete destruction of them and/or others.

Is it not to that extent possible to accept – or at least tolerate – Richardson’s, Shafrazi’s, Haries’s and Manning’s acts? To the extent that they were carried out as political acts in seemingly legitimate political struggles against relevant symbolic targets where no humans were physically hurt and the respective attackers were willing to take their punishment?

As Picasso put it: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”