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Art vandalism

Who vandalises art and why? Dr Donna Yates explores the motivations and justifications behind certain famous cases of art vandalism.
In previous steps, we’ve thought about the intangible qualities of art, our visceral and emotional responses that give art its power and significance. In our discussion of both art theft and art forgery, we’ve concentrated on how this intangible value translates to monetary value on the art market and thus to related crime. But when it comes to the crime of art vandalism, monetary value is of secondary concern. When art is vandalised, its intangible value is both harnessed and directly attacked. Sometimes destruction of art is accidental. For example, in August of 2015, a 12-year-old boy on school trip to a Taiwan museum tripped on a security barrier and fell into a valuable 17th century oil painting. His hand went right through the canvass.
The museum’s poor security barrier is likely to blame. In another well-known case from 2006, a regular visitor to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England tripped on his shoelace and fell down a flight of stairs, smashing three valuable Chinese vases as he tumbled. The museum’s decision to display the vases unprotected in a window recess was questioned. We don’t consider such mistakes to be vandalism. Rather, this is just the cost of allowing the public to view and interact with art. Vandalism then requires intention, intention to damage or destroy for whatever reason.
As you’ve read in the case of Ai Weiwei, a Florida-based artist smashed an ancient vase from one of Ai’s installations as an act of protest against local museums showing non-local art. In his mind, this was to call attention to a perceived lack of support for local artists. In 1974, also in an act of protest, this time against the My Lai Massacre, a man painted “KILL LIES ALL” across Picasso’s masterwork, Guernica. It’s clear that the vandal chose Guernica specifically, as the painting is considered to be one of the most important pieces of anti-war art ever created. Indeed, Vietnam War protest vigils had been taking place in front of the painting in the lead-up to the vandalism.
Some cases of art vandalism are all the more upsetting because we don’t know the vandal’s motives. In 2012, at the National Gallery of Ireland, a man punched a hole in a painting by Claude Monet. The restoration of this piece took 18 months of painstakingly sewing microscopic canvas threads back together again. And 7% of the damaged area could not be saved. The vandal claimed that a heart condition made him faint into the painting. But with the aid of CCTV, an Irish court found the act of punching was intentional and sentenced the man to six years in prison. Media reports state the man was also carrying paint stripper on the day he punched the painting.
And that he seemed to have considered attacking a Caravaggio before settling on the Monet. When his home was raided, police found a number of artworks stolen from galleries as far away as England. We still don’t know why he was punching and stealing art. Monet himself was arguably an art vandal. In 1908, a much awaited exhibition of three years’ worth of the artist’s work was scheduled for a gallery in Paris. During his final look at the artworks, Monet decided that he didn’t like the paintings and despite various protest, defaced 15 of his own works with a knife. Should art be politicised in this way? Well, some would argue that art is political anyway.
And by harnessing its intangible qualities for social protest, the vandals are themselves creating art. This is a fair point, which strikes at the heart of the question, what is art? And it is worth debating. That said, art vandalism is a crime. And art vandals should expect convictions. In the next step, we’ll learn about the many, many, many attacks on the Mona Lisa, arguably the most famous painting in the world. Because of her fame and because of the resulting symbolic value of the work, the poor woman with her enigmatic smile has endured repeat attempts at politically and socially motivated destruction.

Who vandalises art and why? Can art vandalism ever constitute a form of art itself? Dr Donna Yates explores the motivations and justifications behind certain cases of art vandalism and their consequences.

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Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime

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