Letter from London

Letter from London: Vandalabra!

Legonardo da Vinci,

Legonardo da Vinci, 'The Mona Lisa'

Last Sunday, a Russian woman walked through the galleries of the Louvre Museum in Paris carrying a small empty ceramic tea cup, which, upon arriving in one of the museum’s largest galleries steadily elbowed her way to the front of the crowd before she threw the cup, firmly and decisively, at Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The hurled cup splintered into pieces on the inch-thick security glass and five guards slammed the woman to the floor as the encircling tourist cameras strobe-lit the scene.

For the four and a half minutes it took to escort the woman to the Louvre’s security offices at the rear of the building, the Mona Lisa was entirely unwatched. For four and a half minutes, it was just a painting. Then, crunching over the broken crockery, the crowds returned, like a sigh.

The Mona Lisa is not a well-looked-after painting. Its presentation (hung above average eye-level, in a rectangular recess in a huge floating wall, behind a screen of bullet-proof glass, in front of a projecting wooden shelf, behind a semicircular railing, guarded by two museum attendants) and prominence in the museum (it is announced in black-and-white reproduction on a series of signs with a big black arrow which lead straight past the Nike of Samothrace and paintings by Uccello, Mantegna, Titian and Veronese) suggests that the Louvre has been commandeered by its own PR department.

At the audioguide desk, you can pick up a special guided tour narrated by actor Jean Reno, who speaks as his character from Hollywood’s The Da Vinci Code. “In theees room,” he hisses, sexily, “is zee greatest meeestery of all.”

Can we feel just a tiny bit of sympathy for the Russian woman?

The woman’s protest (she had recently been denied French citizenship) is another addition to the long list of damaged or destroyed works of art. When suffragette Mary Richardson took a knife to the back of Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus in 1914, or when the young Tony Shafrazi spray painted “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s Guernica in 1974, or when the Taliban dynamited the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, they were reacting to an image’s power to enthrall.

In effect, attacks like these (ironically) restore an image’s potency: they shock them back to life. That’s not to say I endorse vandalism of art–although I’ll distract the guards if anyone fancies slashing a pre-Raphaelite work–but such events question Walter Benjamin’s notion that reproduction diminishes the ‘aura’ of a work of art; we still hanker after an original source, the relic in the jar.

The questions that these acts of vandalism raise are the core of what Dave Hickey (in The Invisible Dragon) calls the ‘therapeutic institution’ – what he describes as the ‘loose confederation of museums, universities, bureaus, foundations, publications and endowments.’ The notion explicitly (in wall-texts, education programs, outreach projects, young members’ programs, corporate sponsorship and online facilities) and implicitly upheld by such institutions is that art is good for us, ‘regardless…and in spite of the crazy shit that individual works might egregiously recommend’.

We should be quick to condemn acts of vandalism on works of art. At the same time, though, we ought to consider why and how works of art are able to disturb, rather than affirm, our most deeply-held beliefs, or hopes, about public virtue and the benevolence of beauty. What if we decided art was bad for us, like Philly Cheese Steaks or Wham! or Adam Sandler?

A little irreverence – a la MD – is not always such a bad thing.

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