Recently, some activists protesting climate change attacked Vermeer’s well-known painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring at a gallery in the Netherlands. Van Gogh’s acclaimed painting, Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London was also in the news for a similar attack. The performance was repeated with Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris not too long ago. These incidents or acts of vandalism immediately made global news. While the paintings remain unharmed and have been reinstalled for public display, these acts of vandalism have generated much discussion. Some have dismissed these gestures as empty gimmicks for publicity while others have wondered if vandalism is the answer at all. How can one act of vandalism be used to combat another or be taken seriously as an attempt to sensitise the world about the perils of climate change?
It goes without saying that repeated attempts to throw paint, black ink or soup in the case of the Van Gogh incident invite attention to the attackers and their cause. The attackers also mentioned that if the onlookers are so bothered about the destruction of beauty in art, how can they be indifferent to the destruction of nature? I am however not certain if these attacks benefit their cause. There is a lot to critique about art academies, the showcasing of art in these institutions and their overall functioning. But incidents like the ones mentioned above help none, least of all the cause of climate change.
By vandalising the art museum are the activists also making a statement about the nature of controlled art institutions and their non-inclusivity? These museums in the West equate great art exclusively with European painters. The museum turns into a pilgrimage of sorts where the visitor is expected to look in admiration and offer benediction to the great masters. The uncritical acceptance of museum spaces is unwarranted for sure. But can vandalism fix the system?
There is no denying the fact that we have learnt much from these painters and their work on display. Generations of Indian painters have visited these museums, seeking inspiration from these paintings. These influences could have left a mark on their work. It is important to acknowledge them. Would their creative process be different if they had access to the works of other painters? This process was made possible because of the existence of these museums and their sustained representation of certain artists and their work which then entered the realm of greatness through reproduction in textbooks. Where are the others? Who were they? Many questions are left unanswered and voices are systematically silenced or erased.
By vandalising works of art, the activists perhaps unknowingly bring attention to the museum and serve its inherent elitism. It also results in more visitors being curious to see the painting that was recently in the news. The cause or intention of their protest is soon forgotten in the media jamboree that follows. Who does it benefit then?
The writer teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune
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Kunal RayThe writer teaches literary and cultural studies at Pune’s Flame Uni… read more

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