Attacking the Canvas: Political statement or sheer vandalism?

Over the past number of years we will have seen an increase in the number of protests drawing attention to certain movements or causes. No one will forget many of the buildings which were mounted by the group ‘Fathers for Justice’ dressed as Batman, Spider-man and other Superhero characters. Just recently it seems that a new wave of protesting has launched itself onto society and into the art world. No less than three paintings have been vandalized in the past year. All were done in the name of one cause or another, and all three received high levels of interest from the press.

I’m sure no one would dispute that in each case these acts would amount to nothing less that property damage. However unlike in years gone, these acts of destruction have been done almost solely with the intent and purpose of proving a point or highlighting a cause. The most recent attack on a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey by the aforementioned group ‘Fathers for Justice’ is one such example. Such attacks are an almost perfect weapon for fringe groups who may not receive much attention to gain publicity and have the public to hear about their campaign.


Adding to this last October at Tate Modern a man scribbled on Mark Rothko’s ‘Black on Maroon’. He claimed his destructive act was a creative gesture known as movement called ‘Yellowism’, but this cut no ice with a judge, who sentenced him to two years in prison. One defence used by the perpetrator was that Rothko would actually have welcomed the addition to his painting and it was in keeping with Rothko’s own artistic thought.


Then in February, a woman defaced one of the icons of French art, Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix, at the new outpost of the Louvre in Lens. This act was used as a way to draw attention to a website which specialises in conspiracy theories related to the events of 9/11.

In each case, the reason for attacking the painting was not to damage the painting itself, but to put across an opinion, a stance, a belief. Is this not what art is used for in the first place? These attacks have certainly proven successful if we take into account why they did it and the trend may be one that we begin to see more of.

This is an age of protest! If you have a cause you can share with lots of other people, you take to the streets. But what if your cause is too strange or overlooked for mass protest? Attacking an authority figure is one way to get it in the headlines, and as authority figures go, paintings are vulnerable. A portrait of the Queen has a lot less security around it than the woman herself. A museum is a tranquil place where a moment of destruction can catch guards unaware. The results can be gratifying, if you are desperate to get your voice heard.


4 thoughts on “Attacking the Canvas: Political statement or sheer vandalism?

  1. Good post George. I think making your mark on the work of a deceased artist and claiming they would be in favour of it is lazy at best, and attacking a painting of the opposed figure (the Queen in this case) is equally a cop out. Great art can inspire passion and response for its own nature which is why Guernica is still behind bullet proof glass. In most cases though its looks like attention seeking vandalism.

    • I suppose the idea of protest in this fashion is to create as much impact as possible with not much effort all though it’s fair to say, a good deal of thought as to which painting would create the most amount of public hysteria has certainly be initiated. In affect it’s a shame and I do believe its vandalism, however no lives are lost as opposed to violent protest or the blowing up of certain historical buildings?

  2. Certainly better than violent protest but even that appears justifiable in some circumstances these days. Ultimately we are as a species self concerned and impervious to the harm we inflict on each other, art, culture & history. I find the malicious destruction of an opponents history to be an awful, spiteful and small minded response. The cultural vandalism of world hertitage sites (quite often places and artifacts that have only been rediscovered in recent history) through both war and commerce is sad beyond belief. I’m going to hide and sulk now.

    • I completely agree. History has always taught us that heritage come and goes. Is easily destroyed. Countries such as Greece and Egypt are perfect examples. In this country we have managed to preserve such arts, something we should be proud of.

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