Little Hate Crimes
You can throw soup on a masterpiece for the best causes, but at the end of the day you’re leaving us with a desecrated work of art. | Non-Fiction | Canned Soup
Writing stories, for me, has always been like taking a metaphorical cigarette break: five minutes of replacing pragmatic thought for a different sort of perception, a more reflexive one. Instead of thinking about profits, taxes, and your boss, you look out of your thirtieth-floor office window at the tiny little people rushing around in their tiny little cars, and for a few moments you stop being one of them and allow reality – instead of rushing you and ordering you around – to be something you can observe from the outside. If writing stories is a cigarette break, writing opinion pieces is more like fighting with the guy who cuts ahead of you in line at Starbucks. Most of my op-eds are instinctive, angry responses to something that ticks me off, something infuriating or dangerous that bursts into my world or my feed, which I simply can’t let slide without responding. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather have a cigarette break than a fight in a Starbucks, and that’s why I write a lot more stories than op-eds. But occasionally you can’t stay quiet about something, which is what happened a few weeks ago, when I sat up one night writing a response to the vandalizing of museum artworks meant to raise awareness of global warming. The result, which you can read below, was published in Libération in France and in Corriere della Sera in Italy, a couple of weeks ago. Meanwhile, I’ve had some time to step back from the visceral anger that made me write it (and during that time, activists mounted yet another attack, on a work by Klimt). Still, even with the distance I’ve gained, I completely stand by my arguments. However, rereading the piece, I can also see in it some of the very same righteous indignation that I called out the activists for. The world seems to be getting more aggressive and impatient by the week, and judging by the tone of my piece, so am I. Time for a fiction break.
At night I dreamed that a fearless gang of activists broke into a giant supermarket and graffitied the grocery-laden shelves with Van Goghs, Vermeers and Monets, to protest against the materialism and industrialization that are destroying Earth. But then I woke up and realized that in today’s reality, things are actually the other way around: factories, weapon manufacturers and forest logging have long ago stopped being the enemy of those who want to save the planet. The real threat to our future, as we saw in the past few weeks, is in fact—art. And only all-out war against the great masters’ works can save our planet from destruction.
It's interesting to see how an offhand comment from a messy celebrity divorce case or an anti-Semitic tweet by a mentally ill rapper can earn vociferous reactions across the board, yet a series of attacks on the masterpieces of our culture fly under the radar. Vandalization of art is reported on the margins of the news as if we’re talking about a panda born at the London Zoo. The same news anchors who make a point of using their outraged tone whenever there is an attack – real or symbolic – against a church, synagogue, government institution or flag, seem indifferent and even amused when such attacks are launched against museums, as though this were merely a new fad.
But make no mistake: what is occurring here is just that—a hate crime against art. What characterizes hate crimes is that their victims are targeted not because of who or what they are, but solely because of the collective, hated identity they represent. There is nothing particular about Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” Monet’s “Haystacks” or Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” that arouses these attacks other than the categorical fact that they are important works of art.
The environmental activists who vandalize art in order to raise awareness about the future of the planet put forward two arguments. The first is that these works, housed in museums, are physically protected and so no significant damage can be caused. To my mind, this claim, which is only partially true, is akin to a would-be assassin claiming he only shot the U.S. President in the chest as a symbolic act, because he knew the president was wearing a bullet-proof vest. A barbaric act of violence is a barbaric act of violence, and the fact that the only harm will usually be marginal does not justify it or make it any more society-friendly. The activists’ second argument is that these assaults are intended to symbolically illustrate what happens when something invaluable, like Earth, is destroyed by humans. This is a very poetic reasoning, but, as a professional writer, I can come up with an equally superficial, touching justification for pouring soup on masterpieces to stop the war in Ukraine, to support abortions, or to oppose abortions. Anyone can pour soup on artworks in the name of…anything, really. But if we peel off the layer of purist self-righteousness from these ideological motivations, we will always be left with the same old tantrum-like violence perpetrated by people who simply like throwing soup on artworks for a cause.
In the past year we’ve seen artists stabbed, denounced or cancelled because of their work. These cases are always shocking, but at least they possess a certain sort of logic, even if it’s a twisted one: artists and philosophers have always been targets of attacks, whether violent or less violent. But what’s been happening in the recent museum incidents doesn’t even meet that simple test. The activists are not attacking an opinion, but rather the broader idea of art and what it represents. They do this not because they think art is meaningful and influential, but quite the opposite: whereas a publicity stunt targeting a hospital, a shopping mall, or an Apple exhibition hall would be perceived as destructive, attacking a work of art is gentle, ecological, cultured, more environmentally friendly. It is an attack on something that was once central to our world but has now become so marginal as to be almost redundant. Since many of us seem to have forgotten its original purpose, let us remember that art, by definition, is ambiguous, polysemous, deceptive, perplexing. In short, it is all the things we don’t want showing up on our feeds. In this age of social media, we demand a simple, binary message, the kind that will tell us whether we hate or admire the person on the other side. And real art is unwilling to deliver those goods. Real art refuses to wear a team uniform and wave a flag to help us easily understand whether we like or dislike it. In this new reality, in which activists attempt to take the confusing, open-ended phenomenon known as art and force it into an unequivocal message about the future of the planet, in the end we are left with a vase of sunflowers, a tomato soup stain, and a slew of hesitant broadcasters mouthing the word “museum” as if they’ve never uttered it before, as they hurry on to the next item on the evening news.