History

All the Times People Have Shot, Puked Upon, and Meat-Cleavered Famous Paintings to Make a Point

Destroying art in service of justice is a time-honored tradition. Does it ever work?

Velazquez's Venus painting of a nude woman is shown slashed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via National Art Collections Fund/Wikimedia Commons and Sunlion2000/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Once, I asked a guard in a large museum in New York City about the strangest thing he had ever seen a visitor do. He told me that on the closing day of a blockbuster exhibition, when visitors had to wait for hours on a line snaking through the other galleries, he had discovered a pile of human excrement on the floor. Rather than lose their place in line, someone had relieved themselves beside a case of ancient Near Eastern statuettes. Which is to say: Throwing tomato soup or mashed potatoes at famous paintings, or even gluing your scalp to one, all things climate activists did this month, probably wouldn’t have made his top 10 for unexpected visitor behavior.

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As long as art has been on public display, visitors have caressed, attacked, broken, or made unauthorized additions to it. Their reasons have varied widely. In the ancient world, victorious armies knocked the heads off statues of conquered rulers. People suffering from mental health crises have often attacked artwork, believing, for example, that the Virgin Mary commanded them to take a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pietà (Rome, 1972), or that the Lord told them to cut Rembrandt’s Night Watch with a bread knife (Amsterdam, 1975), or that hurling several ancient Roman busts to the floor was the right response to being denied a meeting with the Pope (the Vatican, 2022).

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Meanwhile, artists have vandalized or modified existing art on purpose to create new works. Some of these acts have been hailed as artistic breakthroughs, like when Robert Rauschenberg erased a drawing by his fellow artist Willem de Kooning in 1953. Others who have used destruction as a tool of art, like a student with a talent for projectile vomiting at will, have passed into obscurity. In 1996, Jubal Brown decided to redecorate a Piet Mondrian painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. With the aid of food coloring, he completed the red and blue portions of a planned primary color triptych before museum officials caught on that something more than a stomach bug was afoot.

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Sometimes, visitors attack an artwork because they believe it is obscene, blasphemous, or immoral. For example, in 1999, a Catholic man squirted white paint on Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum to cover the elephant dung and images from pornographic magazines used in the work (including buttocks repurposed as wings of attendant cherubim). And sometimes, it seems like people just get bored, like the Whitney Museum guard who doodled “I Love you Tushee, Love, Buns” on a Roy Lichtenstein painting in 1993.

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The activists of Just Stop Oil, the organization behind the recent food hurlings and gluings in museums in England, Germany, and the Netherlands, have explained that they knew their actions would not hurt the paintings, which were safe under glass. Instead, they threw food and then glued their hands to the walls near the art to draw public attention to climate change. They want all of us to change our lives to save ourselves and the world. And they are certainly not the first ones to try to make change by harming, or threatening to harm, art.

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In the second half of the 16th century, reformers smashed Catholic religious art all over Europe as the ideas of the Protestant Reformation spread. The most fervent attacks happened in the Netherlands in 1566, where many of the iconoclasts saw their acts as symbolizing their rebellion against the Hapsburgs, the Catholic Spanish dynasty that then controlled parts of the Low Countries. Other image-breakers wanted to protest the church wasting its wealth on art when so many were going hungry after the failed grain harvest of 1565.

Another outbreak of art-based protest erupted in 1913, when three English suffragists campaigning for women’s right to vote smashed the glass over 13 paintings in the Manchester Art Gallery. They said they did so to protest the treatment of Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the movement’s leaders, who was imprisoned many times and went on multiple hunger strikes in the course of her activism. They did not want to damage the art itself. But the next year, another suffragist protester, Mary Richardson, attacked Diego Velázquez’s c. 1650 painting of Venus in the National Gallery in London. As she explained in a statement printed in the Times, she slashed “the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history” with a meat cleaver to point out that public outrage over her action would be hypocritical “so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs. Pankhurst and other beautiful living women.” In the following four months, nine other suffragists slashed 14 more paintings in British museums to make the same point. Despite this fervent protest, British women gained full voting equality only in 1928.

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Similarly, in 2020, Black Lives Matter and other protesters frequently gathered around public monuments. They painted, toppled, or sought official removal of artworks honoring enslavers, colonizers, and white supremacists. What these protests have in common with the Reformation iconoclasts and the suffragists is that they all used physical action directed at artworks to draw attention to abstract problems.

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Such protests can be very effective because of the peculiar way we humans react to art. Think of the difference between ripping up a piece of paper and ripping up a photograph of an ex. The disturbingly satisfying violence of the latter hints at what the art historian David Freedberg has argued is the persistent human belief that the images in artworks are still a little bit alive. No wonder that taking a meat cleaver to a Venus is so shocking—it is the closest a nonviolent protester can come to carrying out a human sacrifice.

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Indeed, it seems that it is the closeness, without the reality, that is key to the protest. The recent suicide of an environmental activist who self-immolated in front of the Supreme Court in an attempt to draw attention to the climate emergency drew relatively muted media attention. A death like this is too horrifying to symbolize something else, even something as important as climate change. Attacking an artwork instead draws similar aghast attention but leaves the audience asking “Why?”—a question activists can then try to answer.

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The actions of the Reformation iconoclasts, Black Lives Matter protesters, and the suffragists bore some essential relationship with the artwork on which they focused. Beautiful gilded altarpieces captivated worshippers, to the frustration of the iconoclasts who wanted people to pay more attention to the political realities of their lives than their afterlives.
Confederate monuments were erected by white Americans who believed they were superior to Black Americans, and they continue to spread this hateful message. The suffragists’ protest had the loosest relationship to art, since there was no reason why people could not enjoy looking at a Velázquez piece and also support votes for women, but in the aftermath, Richardson eloquently contrasted newspaper readers’ horror at damage done to a painted woman with their previous indifference to the damage done to a living body.

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The Just Stop Oil activists have successfully drawn public attention, and the most recent incident, which took place in The Hague on Thursday, comes the closest to the suffragists’ model. As one man glued his head to the glass covering Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring and another poured on a can of tomatoes, the activists asked viewers how it felt to see something so beautiful at risk of harm. “Do you feel outraged? Good. Where is that feeling when you see the planet being destroyed before our very eyes?” Still, the connection between their actions and climate change is not as startlingly clear as between Venus and Pankhurst. They could have threatened to damage anything people care about. And why all the tomatoes?

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Their actions reminded me of a few past examples of similar loosely connected protests. In 1974, the artist Tony Shafrazi wrote “Kill Lies All” on Pablo Picasso’s Guernica as it was on display in the Museum of Modern Art. Shafrazi claimed he did so as a comment on President Richard Nixon’s pardoning of Army officer William Calley for his role in the 1968 Mỹ Lai massacre. In 1987, a man who would later say he was protesting poverty fired a sawed-off shotgun at a Leonardo da Vinci drawing in the National Gallery in London. In the same museum in 1998, the nudism activist Vincent Bethell stripped down and smeared the pound sterling sign in yellow paint on a Rembrandt self-portrait. (He would become the first defendant in U.K. history to stand trial while naked.)

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Guernica is a painting about a massacre, but spray-painting it did not turn it into a commentary on Vietnam. Nor did shooting a da Vinci do much to change social inequality. And what, if anything, a yellow pound sign had to do with nudism was never clear. (Bethell would even take to Twitter in 2019 to lament that his naked protests have been all but forgotten.)

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Bethell’s yellow paint wiped right off the self-portrait’s varnish. The Picasso and da Vinci were also repaired, although the latter drawing still bears a few scars, which are visible behind its current covering of bulletproof glass. Will the Just Stop Oil protests be forgotten as quickly?

When I asked what happened to the museum visitor who pooped on the museum floor, the guard told me the most amazing part of the story: They were never caught. Apparently a poop ninja, they did their business and got back into line to see the exhibition. Everything continued as it was supposed to. Museums are powerful cultural institutions—disrupting their smooth functioning takes more than soup, or even poop. Fossil fuel companies are even more difficult to ruffle. I wish the Just Stop Oil activists luck in changing the destructive habits of centuries of extractive exploitation of our planet—but if coating a Monet in mashed potatoes is going to help, they have to make the symbolic connection a lot more clear.

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