Photo by Just Stop Oil / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The souping of Saint Vincent

The iconoclastic impulse must be curbed

Artillery Row

Growing up in the Eighties, the only iconoclast I knew was Madonna. That’s what they called her every time she had a haircut so I assumed that iconoclasm had something to do with peroxide. Only later, slogging through Gibbon, did I discover that it means breaking icons. Civilization restrains the atavistic urge to smash and slash, but a hooligan lurks within all of us. With the right cause, the vandal becomes a holy warrior. Sometimes the mobs are organised by the state, but the German word bildersturm nicely conveys the inherent instability of the phenomenon. It’s worrying then that iconoclasm is back in style, a trend confirmed by last month’s news of eco-warriors invading art galleries from Manchester to Milan. 

As a sculptor I take a professional interest whenever art makes headlines. Usually it’s about money — an Old Master painting fetching a record price at Christies — or something enjoyably silly like the embarrassing discovery that a Mondrian had been displayed upside down in a Düsseldorf gallery for decades. Occasionally it’s serious. The original Crusaders stitched a cross to their tabards before they marched on Jerusalem; the two young ladies who marched into London’s National Gallery last month wore t-shirts emblazoned “Just Stop Oil”. 

“What is worth more?” purple-haired Phoebe Plummer demanded of onlookers after dousing a Vincent Van Gogh painting in soup. “Art or life?” 

Back in the reign of Bad King Trump, everyone loved norms

It’s a question that stumps most artists. Art tends to be so entwined with an artist’s roots as to be inextricable. It is in my case. I remember how the Catholic year held distinct highlights for the Irish altar boy: there were the winter crop of funerals where appropriately solemn lads were sure of a generous tip. There was Midnight Mass at Christmas where the narcotic combination of candle flame and smoky frankincense tested one’s mettle (I failed spectacularly one year, collapsing and spewing vomit on my white vestments). My favourite occasion was the Stations of the Cross, the Easter ritual following Christ’s footsteps on his final journey. A small group of worshipers would tiptoe from station to station, each depicting an episode in a drama our ancient priest mysteriously called The Passion. The story unfolded and we, somehow, were in it. A budding draughtsman, I noticed that the stations were something between sculptures and paintings. In high relief the drama’s crudely carved, garishly coloured characters — cruel soldier, suffering son, grieving mother — swayed in the candlelight. Taking place during Lent’s privations gave the commemoration gravitas, making the denouement of Holy Week that much more cathartic. Scourging, execution and resurrection, it was heady stuff. Though I eventually lost my faith, the power of these primitive icons is a quality I still chase in the studio. 

Is art worth more than life? For me, it’s a false choice. For Miss Plummer, however, the question was clearly rhetorical (and never mind the painting’s estimated £72 million value). Any doubt was vanquished as she took to TikTok to explain Just Stop Oil’s motivations: “We’re using these actions to get media attention to get people talking about this now and we know civil resistance works … ” On that last point at least she’s not wrong. Whatever one thinks of these protesters’ cause or methods, political theatre can be effective. Anarchist theorist Mikhail Bakunin called it, “the most irresistible form of propaganda”. So it proved: if Vincent was Patient Zero, then Raphael, Goya, Klimt and Munch soon followed. Lock the Louvre — the barbarians are at the gates!

Why, for goodness’ sake? How have the Prado, Tate and Hermitage become battlefronts of our ideological forever war? If atmospheric carbon is the problem, one can see some logic in blocking motorways or picketing refineries, but why attack those few things we all agree are beautiful? Monet didn’t melt any icebergs. Why was his painting pelted with mashed potato in Germany last month? 

It’s partially about norms. Remember norms? Back in the reign of Bad King Trump, everyone loved norms. You hear less about them these days, but they really matter. Case in point: in March 2001 the Taliban blew up two giant Buddhas in Afghanistan. Their reason for destroying the 6th century statues — that they were pagan idols — cut no ice with the West. We had a norm: attacking art is barbaric. They broke it. The desecration was widely condemned, but back then Afghanistan seemed far from everywhere so they got away with it. Later that year, emboldened perhaps, they helped Al Qaeda attack another pair of symbols from quite a different culture. Twenty years after 9/11, attacking art is no longer taboo in the West. 

Ten days after the London attack, another Just Stop Oil member in Holland glued his head to Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring. “Do you feel outraged?” he taunted museum goers, “Good. Where is that feeling when you see the planet being destroyed?” Onlookers, unimpressed, simply said that he should be ashamed. It was one of those flashes of lighting on the plain that reveals the gulf between the deplorables and the intelligentsia. The spectacle raised awkward questions too for a media class for whom ostensibly scientific matters have taken on an ideological fervour. Those who read about these protests on The Guardian for example were reminded that the paper has “a huge global team of climate writers around the world and have recently appointed an extreme weather correspondent”.

Could all this scaremong … sorry, rigorous journalism be inspiring extremism? Clearly some fancy footwork was required of the commentariat. Social media, the cat the broadsheets love to kick, came in for some severe finger wagging. Nor is this undeserved. Algorithms that care only for clicks have created a perverse economy where rage-inducing images get to the top of the queue. Other liberal pundits argued that far from bringing discredit to the cause, the nihilism revealed by these acts demonstrated its seriousness. “At least the activists ‘desecrating’ art works are doing something,” said Una Mullaly in The Irish Times. “What are you doing?” 

Got that? The kids are all right — we’re the problem. If decent college-educated youngsters could do something so daft, their elders’ negligence must have forced their hand.

Conservative critics had an easier job. “Eco-loonyism is an upper-middle-class rite of passage,” Gareth Roberts argued in The Spectator. In many cases he’s right to think these are merely the gap-year politics of rich kids. Age has a cruel way of diluting conviction, and some who once occupied Wall Street now must work there. It is also a mistake to be too dismissive, however. Most of these punks — to paraphrase St Johnny of Rotten — mean it, man. In any case, the sputtering of reactionaries will not bother the protestors. No, the true audience for these stunts are fellow travellers whose faith is lukewarm.

Like the proverbial dog who finally catches the lorry he’s been chasing, climate campaigners have attained political influence in recent years. To meet self-imposed emission targets, Western states are taxing fuel. This disproportionality hurts the poor. Hence the temptation for working-class drivers who meet activists blocking roads to hit the accelerator. Subsidies would normally be the answer, but even the most economically illiterate knows the Magic Money Tree is looking bare of late. The perverse solution to this impasse are fatuous gestures that only annoy the rich. That’s why Vincent got souped. Put simply, if you suffer from climate anxiety, you probably visit art galleries. Culture and environmentalism fill a religion-sized hole for secular Westerners. Vandalising art is sacrilege. Miss Plumber’s insistence that they choose between art or life is the ultimate test of progressive faith. 

How is an escapee from a Dostoevsky novel now taken seriously?

Don’t worry. Most passed with flying colours. The protesters might be annoying, Bob Geldof admitted to Radio Times, but they were “1,000 per cent right!” Andrew Durbin, editor of the art magazine Frieze, grilled Miss Plumber with hard hitting questions like, “Usually, when artists and activists upset people in the art world, they’re on the right track. Were you thinking about the history of protest in formulating yours?” Vox’s Aja Romano praised the “thorny brilliance” of the stunt. For her, the fact that the Van Gogh had a glass screen made the act laudable. “When I heard that the painting was unharmed, my reaction rapidly shifted from ‘This is horrifying’ to ‘This might be the best protest ever’.” Art historian Lucy Whelan, on the other hand, fretted that the glass ruined the metaphor. “I implore Just Stop Oil and other anti-art protesters to stop their performative attacks for this simple reason. So long as you keep on throwing soup at protective glass around great art works, you will just keep proving again and again that ‘the system’ will save us.” 

Strangely, neither Ms Romano nor Ms Whelan worry that the attacks may become less “performative”, an escalation that the history of iconoclasm suggests is inevitable. In the same gallery where Miss Plummer got creative with soup, suffragette Mary Richardson slashed Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus, and that was back in 1914 when destroying art was frowned on. 

The confused bystander asking how this helps the planet is missing the point. The point of a sacrifice, fasting for Lent or slashing a Velasquez, is that it hurts. In the coming world of eight billion souls, the stewardship of our environment requires level heads, but that becomes impossible in a subject so burdened with obviously religious concepts. In this account the industrial revolution is our ecological original sin, just as global warming is our deserved apocalypse. The moralistic narrative comes with a cast of secular saints and sinners, with David Attenborough as John the Baptist and Greta Thunberg as the pigtailed Messiah. Donald Trump? Well, you can guess who he is.

If this seems a cruel caricature of a serious political movement with achievable goals, consider “Advice to Young People, as you Face Annihilation” from Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion: “Let’s be real,” says Uncle Roger, “the world is a gas chamber. The gas which will kill you has been sent down the pipes in vast quantities for thirty years now, in the full knowledge of what it will do. In the next thirty years, it will destroy the weather, and thus our ability to grow food. This means starvation and the collapse of our society. This means war and violence, the slaughter of young men and the rape of young women on a global scale.”

How did we come here, where an escapee from a Dostoevsky novel is taken seriously? It helps to know that Patient Zero was not in fact St Vincent. The one-eared Dutchman was just the artist who caught the world’s attention. Back in July, an Italian group called Ultima Generazione (Last Generation) glued themselves to Sandro Botticelli’s painting of Spring. The protest caught my attention, not least because I spent many a happy hour in the Uffizi when I studied in Florence. Reading of the incident, it occurred to me that Botticelli would have heartily approved. 

Old gods topple in times of regime change

The protesters targeted a painting created in the 1480s. Young Sandro was then caught up in neoplatonism fashionable in the swinging court of Lorenzo the Magnificent — The Birth of Venus comes from the same joyful period. Decades later, Botticelli regretted his blasphemous flirtation with pagan philosophy. He became an acolyte of Savonarola, a preacher who would give Roger Hallam a run for his money. The firebrand Dominican persuaded Florentines that the only way to avoid the fires of hell was a Bonfire of the Vanities. They lined up in the Piazza Della Signoria to burn their decadent Humanist baubles and walked away feeling virtuous. Botticelli quit painting according to Vasari and then “fell into considerable distress as he had no other source of income. Nonetheless, he remained an obstinate member of the sect, becoming one of the piagnoni, the snivellers, as they were called then … ” Savonarola’s fate was to be consumed in 1498 by the fires he lit. On my way out of the Uffizi I always made a point to dance on the spot where he was burned at the stake. 

Today we don’t burn heretics or burn books; we have cancelled authors and public shaming instead. Historian Tom Holland has convincingly argued that this neo-puritanism has roots in Judeo Christianity. This explanation often overlooks the brutal political efficacy of cancelation. Ostracization and boycott make quite a combination punch. When we are too weak to destroy our enemies, smashing their symbols is no empty gesture. It is both rehearsal and symbolic castration. Louis XVI of France was guillotined in the square where his predecessor’s statue recently stood. During the October revolution, a colossal statue of Tsar Alexander III was decapitated; soon after, Lenin put the Romanovs against the wall. 

Iconoclasm is not a historical constant — otherwise far fewer masterpieces would be available for student agitprop, but it is a recurrent phenomenon. Old gods topple in times of regime change. When Yahweh gives the Israelites the Promised Land, He instructs them to massacre the occupants and to “destroy all their molten images”. Christians running the late Roman Empire proved fiercely intolerant of the old polytheism and its art. Another high tide of Iconoclasm was the Reformation — no surprise that Martin Luther approved of Savonarola. The most worrying parallel to our own overheated age is surely 1960s China.

Mao Zedong fomented the Cultural Revolution when he felt his grip on the Communist Party weaken. Arguing that the Revolution was moribund, he urged young Red Guards to smash “old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits”. Mao, himself steeped in Chinese Classics, boasted that the first Emperor had only “buried 460 scholars alive — we have buried 46,000 scholars alive”. Once Mao’s rivals were neutralised, the violence miraculously ceased. The Great Helmsman is now safely embalmed in Tiananmen Square. The CCP has made its peace with the past — or at least a carefully curated version of it — and waxes strong whilst the West, in a crisis of confidence, undergoes its own creeping Cultural Revolution. 

It began in the US in 2020 with a martyr, George Floyd, and good intentions. The statues of ancestors were toppled to atone for their sins, our guilt. The frustrations of the lockdown and the bombast of election season fuelled the fervour. It was manipulated and encouraged — as all purges are — for political ends, until it came unmoored. A dubious destructive tactic with some justification in a narrow American context became seen as a legitimate act in wholly different settings. The crusade has ended here, in absurdity, in the souping of Vincent. 

Let’s take a breath. Let’s attempt to restore a vital taboo before we do ourselves permanent harm. The folks who told the campaigner who glued himself to the Vermeer that he should be ashamed were right. Attacking art is shameful. It is shameful because it is intolerant. If tolerance means anything, it is allowing others to display their symbols, voice their opinions, practise their creed, observe their customs and fly their flags. Tolerance is difficult; conformism and scapegoating are easy. That’s why we need this norm so badly. It protects the free society. Norms matter. This matters most.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover