The New York Times

art & design

 

A Symbol of Freedom and a Target for Terrorists

Denis Doyle for The New York Times

Picasso’s “Guernica,” attacked by a vandal at the Museum of Modern Art in 1974, at the Reina Sofía museum in Madrid.

 

By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN, nytimes.com on the Web, October 13, 2007

 

MADRID — Last Saturday, on what Parisians call White Night, when thousands of people cavort in the streets until dawn, a bunch of intruders broke into the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and punched a hole in a Monet.  Then from the obscure and formerly bucolic university town of Lund, in southern Sweden, came news that a group of hooded vandals with crowbars and axes stormed into an art gallery and, to the accompaniment of death-metal music, destroyed several sexually explicit photographs by Andres Serrano.

While the Parisian hooligans were undone partly because they were caught on the museum’s security cameras, the Swedish gang went them one better.  They proudly advertised their crime on YouTube.

So the other day I stopped into the Reina Sofía here to check on Picasso’s “Guernica.”  The threat of violence is nothing new in Spain, where Muslim terrorists blew up commuter trains a few years ago, killing many, and where the threat of killings by Basque extremists (there was a bomb attack in Bilbao on Tuesday, a truce with the government having broken down in June) has again become part of the daily background noise of life.

Only a simple stanchion, and a discreet alarm, as I discovered when leaning too close, separates the public from Picasso’s famous mural about a midcentury act of terror:  the German bombing of the ancient Basque town of Guernica in 1936.  The picture presides over a big gallery of related Picassos, each a target, I suppose, if you adopt the mindset that terrorists, and those who would exploit terrorism, like to foster.

Twenty-six years ago, when the painting arrived in Madrid from New York, it was installed in a huge bulletproof glass cage at an annex of the Prado, flanked by soldiers guarding what had become an international symbol of antifascism.  Picasso had wanted it to go to Spain only when Generalissimo Francisco Franco was gone.  To anyone who remembered it at the Museum of Modern Art, the sight at the Prado was sad and shocking.  The picture looked forlorn, suffocated.  It was almost impossible to see.

It had already been vandalized at the Museum of Modern Art when a small-time artist named Tony Shafrazi sprayed the words “Kill Lies All” on it in 1974.  In the creepy, amnesiac way that celebrity and money operate in America and in the art world, Mr. Shafrazi went on to become a rich and powerful art dealer.

The painting moved some years ago from the Prado to the Reina Sofía and was finally let out of its glass prison.  I’ve never loved “Guernica,” to tell the truth.  Its lofty ambition obscures the detriments of its telegraphed emotions and inflated billboard-size Cubism, but time only adds to its patina of glory for the crowds that come to commune with it and who can now get almost, but not quite, close enough to touch the picture.

Proximity is the cost, and virtue, of a civil and democratic society.  We run the risk that some lunatic or self-promoter will violate the public trust of an open space because we value that space as a democratic ideal.  Part of what’s beautiful about an art museum, aside from what’s on view, is that it implies trust — it lets us stand next to objects that supposedly represent civilization at its best and, in so doing, flatters us for respecting our common welfare.

Complaints that museums are snobbish palaces and that works of art in them are treated like holy relics may not be all wrong, but they miss the point that people go to museums partly to enjoy this compact with what, as a society, we decide has enduring value — with art whose fragility and vulnerability to attack make our encounters with it that much more special.

Even a commercial art gallery that sells lousy art trusts the public enough to let strangers off the streets through the doors to see what’s on the walls.  Unlike many museums, galleries are free.  Often they’ve got the best shows in town.  You don’t pay to get in, nor do you have to buy the art.  You’re just expected not to touch the pictures.

Walling off art behind alarmed glass wouldn’t guarantee total safety, anyway, although people in France might well be asking about erratic security there.  A spate of attacks includes one in July in Avignon by a woman, an artist named Sam Rindy, who left a lipstick-stained kiss on a white painting by Cy Twombly, saying that she thought it had improved the picture.  On Tuesday Ms. Rindy’s lawyer, playing the obvious French card, told a court in Marseille that she had been “overcome with passion.”

The lawyer for the picture’s owner responded, “In love, there need to be two consenting people.”

Touché.  But the alternative to an open society can’t be what the Louvre does with the “Mona Lisa.” Every year it seems to recede farther behind glass.  Parked, as if in amber, where guards can move crowds swiftly past it, it seems hardly a real painting any longer.  It’s a station on the cross of package tourism and an emblem of our own worst fears and impulses, the opposite of the way you experience “Guernica.”

It’s tempting to look for a grand, unified theory of vandalism, but the specific motivations of the people who attack art are clearly as diverse as the objects they choose to hurt.  I admit that I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn the next morning about the shenanigans at Orsay, having spent White Night in Paris, where I was awakened at 5 in the morning by the sound of drunken revelers inching along my hotel window ledge.

But more often it’s not pranksters who slash art but self-promoters with a supposed cause.  For the moment, let’s leave aside the opportunism of artists who seem to provoke reactions. Their art may be a cheap trick, but that’s never an excuse for violence.  With the memory in mind of the riots that broke out last year following the publication of cartoons mocking Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, Al Qaeda extremists recently promised a reward to anyone who kills the publisher of a newspaper in Sweden that lately printed a Muhammad cartoon and the artist who did it.  No doubt they’re disappointed at their failure so far to rekindle similar mayhem.

You might say that what troubles such terrorists is precisely the freedom that art, and its public display, represent.  Many of the criminals are religious and sexual puritans.  They are offended by art’s power to embody values they fear.  Art has a totemic power that goes back to cave paintings, which is too easy to dismiss in the modern world.  It’s why ancient Greeks used to chain statues to prevent them from fleeing, and why in the Philippines enraged citizens attacked billboards of Ferdinand Marcos.

But art is also expensive, even more so in an increasingly deranged commercial art world, and the combination of money and symbolism means that attacking art will make headlines unlike other acts of ordinary vandalism.

Getting attention is always the bottom line.  That the hooded Swedes with crowbars in Lund went straight to YouTube (the video has since been removed) was predictable and ominous, a case of Internet self-promotion that is minor compared with the beheadings in Iraq, but with the same idea:  that direct technological access promotes acts of violence whose basic requirement is to be witnessed.

Thanks to its historic authority, the aura of “Guernica” has become like a bubble or halo that psychologically separates it from the gazing mobs, never mind that there’s no longer a glass wall.  Standing before it, you can almost imagine that it has, historically speaking, passed beyond harm — that to attack it now would only make the picture a martyr, that it’s indestructible.

Of course it’s not.

 

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