February 2023
Alan Dean Foster

Throwing Stuff on Masterpieces

“All publicity is good publicity.”

Not necessarily.

I don’t know for certain where that famous old quote originates. I’m not sure anybody does, other than it dates from the 19th century. It is often attributed to the great showman (or huckster, depending on your point of view) PT Barnum. I would not be surprised if that was the case. Barnum once posted a sign inside one of his indoor attractions stating, “This Way to the Egress.” You all know what an egress is, but back in those days the general public was less conversant with the distant reaches of the English language. So folks would follow the sign, expecting to see some new wonderment, only to find themselves standing outside with a locked door behind them.

Barnum would make use of art. Just look at the spectacular posters he commissioned to promote his attractions. I don’t think he would have taken kindly to having someone throw paint on one. To use a term less in common use today, he probably would have given them a hiding.

Activists Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland did their thing at London's National Gallery in October.

Sadly, there are groups in Europe doing just that. Throwing black oily liquid at masterpieces to gain attention to their cause, which is a genuine concern for the environment. Also pea soup and tomato soup, which if one is really concerned for their fellow humans would be better used by heating them up and giving the result to hungry people (none of the protesters throwing food appeared on the verge of starvation).

Many of my books and stories revolve around ecology. Here and there I’ll insert a little concern, firmly believing as I do that if 50,000 people read one page containing a message then that’s better than 50 people reading an entire book of messages. But I don’t preach. People who read books, or listen to music, or view art, don’t want to be preached to. But they’ll absorb a message if it is contained within something entertaining or otherwise engaging.

Throwing oil or food at a work of art doesn’t qualify as engaging. It’s the gesture of a child, not a mature activist. Someone who does that believes they are saying, “Look at my message,” but what they are really saying is, “Look at me.” The group that attacked (I’m comfortable using that word in this context) Gustav Klimt’s majestic painting Death and Life in Vienna declared that the act was a “desperate and scientifically grounded cry that cannot be understood as mere vandalism.”

Sure it can.

I think I have a pretty good grounding in the meaning of words, and regardless of what anybody might claim, to me throwing an oily black liquid on anything, let alone a work of art, is vandalism, “mere” or otherwise. I assure  you that if you hang out in one of the bars in downtown Prescott and throw some black oily liquid over a couple of bikers, the correct interpretation of the word vandalism will be promptly explained to you in a manner devoid of ambiguity.

Yes, the environment is in trouble. Yes, governments and society are moving slowly — too slowly — in dealing with the consequences. Alas, that’s always the way governments and society have moved. It’s not as if nothing is being done. Certainly more could and must be done. But alienating the general public by performing acts of vandalism, regardless of how one tries to rationalize it, does nothing more than repulse the very people you want to persuade. I can guarantee (in fact, I’d put money on it) that not a single act of throwing oily black liquid pea tomato soup at a da Vinci has convinced a single museum-goer exposed to the act in question to suddenly change their position on environmental issues. Rather the contrary, I should think. When a protester is perceived as an idiot, the danger is that their cause is viewed in the same way.

That has always been the problem with protests. How do you draw attention to your cause without turning off the people you want to influence? Chaining yourself to a door that prevents people from getting to work is vandalism. Chaining yourself to the railing outside the door allows you to present your cause without inconveniencing people. It’s always been a fine line. Gluing yourself to a famous painting obviously draws more attention than gluing yourself to a gas pump, but is the attention you draw beneficial or harmful to your cause? How is it different from blowing up a coal train, assuming no one is hurt by doing the latter?

I know one difference: a coal train can be replaced. A painting by da Vinci or Vermeer or Botticelli (all targeted by these climate protesters and fortunately kept behind protective glass, so far) cannot.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.