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Who’ll stop the art attackers?

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

One problem of being mugged, I am told, is not just the event itself but the dreams of violence that follow. If a thug relieves you of your wallet and you hand it over without a fight, for some time you will keep dreaming about what you might have achieved had the mugger confronted you when you had a gun or chainsaw to hand. Or if you had studied martial arts and could do over the punk in the style of Jackie Chan.

I must admit that similar dreams now haunt me whenever I see the Just Stop Oil protestors. Needless to say, their cause is wrong as well as irritating. Everyone in this country is suffering a cost of living crisis. Everyone looks at their energy bills and wonders ‘How did that happen?’ The one thing that would be a dead cert to make things worse would be to ‘Just stop oil’. If we just stopped oil the country would go dark. Perhaps some day we can run the grid off magnificent solar farms and wind farms that cover all remaining green spaces. But for now we don’t have the capabilities. So a more destructive and short-termist demand than ‘Just stop oil’ is hard to imagine.

Yet it is not the wrongness that provokes my terrible thoughts, but rather the group’s tactics. When Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain chose to blockade bridges and motorways I had similar thoughts. Whenever they glued their hands to the ground and stopped ambulances passing, commuters getting to work and children getting to school, I thought: why do the police not just pull them off the roads?

The French police, who are slightly less pacifist than our own, did just that when the eco-nutters tried that trick there recently. The French police did not just simply stand around acting as a sort of personal protection force for the protestors, then threatening any motorists who dared to be angry. The French police pepper-sprayed the activists and just tore them off the Tarmac, causing a certain amount of ripped skin and a rather pleasing amount of rolling around on the floor – as though the protestors had never imagined that supergluing themselves to a motorway could have any negative consequences.


Which brings me to the activists’ latest tactic, which is gluing themselves to priceless works of art. It started last week in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. They stuck themselves to a painting’s frame while their brave comrades spray-painted slogans around various works of art. As they were finally led away one shouted: ‘The art world is responsible. Every sector of our culture is responsible.’

The forward wing of what seems to be in every sense an anti-oils movement then attacked the Courtauld in London, where they painted their slogans and glued themselves to Van Gogh’s ‘Peach Trees in Blossom’(1889). By this stage you might have thought that art galleries would step up their security a tad. But it turns out that security in British art galleries is even weaker than the British constabulary.

This week the protestors targeted ‘The Hay Wain’ at the National Gallery in London. They covered the surface of Constable’s most famous painting with an ugly version of their own and then glued themselves to the frame. I marvelled at this because in general it is hard to even lean in too close to – let alone point a finger at – a painting of such significance without a guard understandably asking you to step back. Who knew that you could step over the security cordon, cover the whole thing up and then glue yourself to it with so little interference?

On Tuesday it was the Royal Academy that was attacked. This time five protestors entered the collection and stuck themselves to the frame of ‘The Last Supper’, an early 16th-century copy of Leonardo da Vinci, attributed to Giampietrino (a pupil of Leonardo’s). They then used graffiti cans to spray the words ‘No new oil’ inches from the canvas and delivered little speeches for the camera crews they had brought with them. One of the protestors said that she is an art student and that while she respects art (a strange thing to claim given where her hands were), ‘No painting in this gallery is worth more than the life of my six-month-old nephew.’ But I’m not sure it’s an either/or matter.

Of course, the amount of narcissism and self-assurance you must have to go about the nation’s art collections behaving in this way is noteworthy in itself. But the only thing perhaps even more noteworthy is the sight of the security guards approaching the activists mildly, asking them to stop and sort of ambling around talking into their walkie-talkies as though to pretend they are doing something. I am not certain you can call someone a security guard if all they do is talk into their walkie-talkie when the collection they are meant to protect is being assaulted is such a fashion. Why can we not have the security guards wrestle these activists to the floor and duff them up a bit?

The activists think that civilisation is worth attacking in the name of sustaining life. I say a bit of force is sometimes required to defend civilisation. Once again the question is where all the men have gone. Perhaps ‘toxic masculinity’ scared them away. In any case, I propose we get new security guards in place in the nation’s galleries. Perhaps Taki could organise the training? Only then will my dreams of ultra-violence recede and some sanity and peace be restored to my nights, as well as to the nation’s collections.

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