A man walks into a gallery and punches a Monet. And you laugh. I mean, I did. Quite frankly it sounds like a joke.
But then a reporter from the Mirror screams at you that this guy is a career art-thug who gets his kicks (and punches) from pilfering antiquities and leaving a profusion of punctured paintings in his wake.
The tabloid paints Andrew Shannon, the man sentenced last year for ripping Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sail Boat in 2012, as a volatile ‘thug’, who was carrying a can of paint stripper at the time of the attack, prepared to tear apart any number of precious objects at the National Gallery of Ireland. It is noted that before ‘thumping the Monet’ CCTV footage had captured him walking past one of the gallery’s most iconic (and obviously most expensive) paintings, the Taking of Christ by Caravaggio. As though the very presence of a ‘thug’ like him in proximity to such a prized artefact is tantamount to a ‘threat to society’.
Obviously the Mirror offers an overwrought tabloid’s interpretation of the event. Nonetheless, Shannon was sentenced to prison (for six years, no less) and we nodded along with the sentiment behind that – because we all know that destroying art is vandalism and vandalism, particularly that of things that have been venerated and preserved by our institutions, is unequivocally a Bad Thing.
But as Dario Gamboni suggests in The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution (1997), the obliteration of art has not always been framed as such. He cites Martin Warnke’s assertion that the way in which iconoclasm and vandalism have been conceptualised through history has been largely informed through discourses of power, where iconoclasm has become a ‘privilege for the victors, and a sacrilege for the vanquished.’
So how does this relate to how we treat people like Shannon? If the Mirror’s wording is anything to go by, it may manifest in how we disdain them.
We might say that an individual like him is crazy, or fame-hungry, or both. The judge presiding over his case labelled his a ‘peculiar crime’ and stated that the perpetrator must have known the painting was valuable, implying that the ordinary Shannon sought infamy through his assault.
This sort of treatment is fairly common in discussions about art vandals. In Gamboni’s book, the director of relations at the Rijksmuseum’s reacts dismissively to a similar destruction, stating that ‘the assailant and his motives are wholly uninteresting to us; for one cannot apply normal criteria to the motivations of someone who is mentally disturbed.’
Pathologising such acts serves a purpose. It tars all destructions of art with the same broad brush strokes, and defuses the gesture of legitimacy and meaning. By framing its perpetrators as barbaric individuals acting on impulse and aggression, they can be quarantined as irrational adversaries in antipathy to our institutions.
Such destruction, without a rhyme or reason, can make us uncomfortable. But this discomfort, rooted in the absurdity of the destruction, may reveal something of the absurd in its antithesis – in our idealisation of the museum.
While we socially vindicate public museums as protectors of cultural objects, conversely, they can also be defined by what they deem unworthy – by what they discard and reject. This process of selection is instrumental in the manufacture of the rarity of art and its conflation to capital. We cannot ignore the extremity of the £8M price tag attributed to the Monet, and the arbitrary heft of the five-figure sum and of the two years required for its repair.
Of course, within the museum context, destruction inevitably occurs. However, it is clandestine, softened by euphemistic terminology and obscured partly through the hysterical Othering of the vandal. As Gamboni writes, outside of the watchful eye of CCTV, works often vanish ‘without leaving a trace’, or through de-accessioning, where they are suppressed from the inventory and often offered up for sale and use or abuse. These are, of course, vital acts necessary to curating a collection. But the hegemony with which heritage is treated necessitates its being hidden from the public eye.
According to Gamboni the way the West thinks about iconoclasm shifted radically and then stabilised after the French Revolution. Before then opinions toward on iconoclasm were subject to a wider variation. But, throughout the Revolution numerous artworks relating to the sovereigns were wantonly destroyed, and in reaction to this devastation, iconoclasm became irrevocably stigmatised.
This reinforced the reification of heritage in Western thought. Such a belief now operates through the cultic preservation of material objects, which is indelibly linked to their economic value. Some cultural theorists, such as Tim Winter, have written of how this exultation of heritage can breed a sentiment of aggressive nationalism. Whatever the worship of the past does, it should not be immune to analysis, and dissection. Or to facetiousness.
Recently, someone created a basic online game based on the incident, where you use a disembodied CGI arm to punch a framed photograph of the Monet in question. As you punch, the damage amount is equated with a rising dollar amount, until the frame smashes the painting to the ground. And yes, there is something oddly satisfying, and funny in replaying the assault in this remediated form, juxtaposed with its ridiculous economics.
Yet the cultic veneration of heritage persists. The repaired Monet as an artefact reinforces these unquestioned mores; the power of the museum as conservator tacit in its unspoilt facade. The punch was rendered invisible in its redesign, as were the measures taken to replace parts of and to repair the painting (of which an exactingly quantified seven percent was lost). In its perfect form, its material worth, and the values that underpin it are shown to be impervious and aloof from dissent.
While it is not necessary to support or exonerate someone like Shannon, associating the destruction or the repurposing of art only with these wanton acts carried out by lunatics shuts down the possibility for a rational debate regarding the criteria by which art work is preserved, or not.
It puts the materialistic logic innate to the worship of the museum and its objects above question, above reproach and above the input of thugs. Or of anyone at all.