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Protest & Paint: What’s Wrong with Targeting Art?

photograph of van Gogh's Sunflowers

On Friday, October 14th, members of the activist group Just Stop Oil gained international attention by throwing cans of tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The two women who threw the cans were arrested and charged with criminal damage. London’s National Gallery, the home of the painting, stated that the painting was undamaged. This incident is one of numerous protests by the group, including vandalizing a luxury department store, disrupting sporting events and blocking traffic, sometimes by gluing themselves to roads and others by climbing on bridges. Targeting Sunflowers appears to have inspired copycat protests; on Sunday, October 23rd two protestors associated with the organization Letzte Generation (Last Generation), a German climate activist group, threw mashed potatoes on Monet’s Les Meules (Haystacks). This painting was also behind glass and undamaged.

These incidents have drawn backlash. Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, referred to blocking traffic and slowing emergency vehicles as “completely indefensible,” calling for new legislation to counter the protests. Op-eds have called into question the means of targeting artwork, declaring that it is unlikely to drum up support. Others have argued against the mission of Just Stop Oil altogether, claiming that increased energy prices from ending oil production will simply harm the low income individuals while also criticizing the means of protest. Some on social media have adopted the conspiratorial view that Just Stop Oil is actually funded by oil interests in order to turn the public against climate activists.

However, there seems to be an unexamined assumption built into some of these criticisms.

Namely, I am interested in exploring why one would think that protests which target art would fail to garner support. This critique is often presented baldly. So, my goal is to consider some assertions one might make in claiming that protests which target art are ineffective and misdirected.

Perhaps some find fault with these protests because they are illegal. These protests are, after all, a form of vandalism. Yet this reasoning is specious for at least two reasons. First, legal and moral judgments are distinct. Few think that burning witches at the stake was moral, despite being the result of a legal process. Second, this analysis would result in a general prohibition on civil disobedience. Civil disobedience, helpfully analyzed by Giles Howdle here, is a form of protest that involves breaking laws one perceives to be unjust, and accepting the legal consequences that follow. This tactic was commonly deployed in universally approved movements, such as the U.S. Civil Rights movement and the Indian independence movement. This suggests that illegality is not, by itself, a way to demonstrate that a protest is immoral.

Another way one might object to these methods of protest is through an appeal to the harm principle. This principle states that acts are immoral if they produce harm. However, the claim needs to be further specified.

Some permissible forms of protests like boycotts may actually intend harm, although the picture is somewhat complicated.

Nonetheless, a protest’s causing harm does not seem like a sufficient reason for condemnation. Much more compelling is the claim that innocents ought not be harmed.

But first we need to identify these innocents. Perhaps one candidate is the museums themselves. Although the paintings were unharmed, there will be some costs to repair or replace their frames. Further, additional security may be needed, incurring costs to prevent incidents in the future. However, there are two issues with grounding the objection in harm to the museums.

First, museums do not seem to be the kind of entity whose interests count morally. Second, it is possible that these protests could benefit the museums in the long run.

Perhaps now more people will visit art galleries, hoping to see works before they suffer damage or to witness the next incident. So, until we have some idea of the long-term consequences, we cannot be sure that they harm the museum.

Perhaps the victims are instead the museum guests. After all, they bought tickets to see works of art. Unfortunately, their ability to do so was hampered by the actions of the protestors. Entire sections of the museum were closed following the protests. Still, these “harms” alone do not seem sufficient to show that the protests are wrong. Protests we consider justified often inflict this sort of collateral damage. Suppose, for instance, a group protested an unjust war at a local park, and this protest forced a family to cancel their annual reunion. Although regrettable, this by itself does not seem to make the protest immoral. Perhaps something like the doctrine of double effect holds here – so long as innocents are not the direct target, third parties may be forcibly and permissibly inconvenienced by protests.

One might argue that those who had their sensibilities offended by the actions of the protestors were harmed – the harm being psychological or emotional rather than physical. What would be offensive about these protests?

Well, the protestors engaged in what we might call profane acts. By profane, I mean actions that did not demonstrate the proper sort of respect or reverence towards a deserving object. The idea here being that great works of art may deserve our respect.

So, the act of throwing food on these works, even if aimed at contributing to a greater cause, demonstrates improper disrespect towards the art itself. But note, again, that the works targeted by the protestors in this particular case were not harmed. Instead, the moral fault – if there is one – must reside in what the acts demonstrated, not their results.

Why would art deserve respect? A likely reason is that they have significant aesthetic value. L.W. Sumner describes aesthetically valuable things as those “which we find in some respect appealing or attractive or admirable.”  The aesthetic value may come both from their physical appearance, as well as their significance in the history of art. So perhaps many found these protests shocking or offensive because to throw food on these artworks – even if they are protected – is to behave in a way that is unbecoming of their value.

Yet this may be precisely what the protests are trading on.

If climate change is indeed an existential threat, with consequences that threaten human civilization, many, many valuable things will be lost if we do not act soon. These losses would certainly include at least some priceless works of art. As a result, the protestors may be making a kind of trade-off.

They are willing to engage in profane behavior in hopes that it will help preserve value in the long run – not just works of art, but the many human and non-human lives that will be lost with the worst consequences of climate change.

Certainly, these protests targeting art have indeed been shocking. But before condemning them we must take a step back and reflect on the nature of the values at stake. Do works of art like Sunflowers and Haystacks have value such that we can never engage in behavior which disrespects that value? In other words, do they pose constraints on our behavior, such that certain acts are off-limits no matter how dire the circumstances? If not, then we ought to ask ourselves when we can transgress these values. Without proper assessment, we cannot be certain whether the protestors erred in selecting their target, or whether the error was made by those who offhandedly dismiss these protests.

Destroy the ‘Mona Lisa’ for an NFT?

pixelated image of Mona Lisa painting

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

Damien Hirst is a contemporary English artist whose work is world-renowned. Recently, I had the opportunity to view a collection of his work at the Galleria Borghese in an exhibition titled “Archaeology Now.” Hirst works almost exclusively in the genre of sculpture, but recently he has been pursuing a decidedly less physical kind of art — NFTs.

NFT, which stands for “non-fungible token,” is a piece of digital property that is unique — nobody but the owner of the NFT has that exact electronic object in their possession, and it is marked as an original in a way that digitally distinguishes it from all copies made. Hirst is part of a recent project, titled The Currency, in which artists submit works of art which are then turned into NFTs. For example: a sculptor can create a physical sculpture and put it on display in a museum or an art gallery. On the other hand, that sculpture could be turned into an NFT, and the owner of that NFT would then be able to print the image of the piece wherever they like, send the image to anyone who wanted to see the piece, or possibly even 3D print an exact replica of the piece. Art in the form of NFTs allows artists to send their works all over the world. And some would say that “sending” digitized artwork is much better than loaning physical works of art — there is no limit on the number of places one may send the image to and no time spent waiting for it to get there. The idea behind The Currency is a sort of competition between what we might think of as the “received view” of art — that the physical originals have a unique value that cannot be replicated by digital copies — and an emerging view that denies a difference of value between the two (or, perhaps, sees more value in the NFTs).

For artists, art connoisseurs, or even regular art-appreciators, the idea of destroying a physical work of art might be painful to think about. So much time, money, and resources have been invested in attempting to preserve original physical copies of works like the Mona Lisa that these efforts have become intertwined with the pieces’ value. Recent examples of near destruction of great works of art are similarly met with horror, sadness, and a rush to try to preserve the pieces. Just think of the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral, or the vandalization of Michelangelo’s Pieta. Is Hirst’s project — one in which original works of art may be destroyed if clients choose to keep the NFT instead — a tragedy? While the project is unquestionably controversial, is there anything inherently wrong in destroying (the physical copy of) a work of art, so long as the NFT remains?

One argument in favor of owning NFTs over physical copies of works of art is that access to these pieces could be expanded greatly. Rather than having to travel to a museum to see a certain piece, viewers could simply download a digital copy reproduced by an NFT. This could be done, in theory, in a sensorily immersive way, such that there would be little difference between the digital experience and the in-person experience. Those who lack resources to travel, or the time to visit museums, could have access to the great works of art that they might otherwise be deprived of. This democratization of art could, in turn, boost education equity and improve education outcomes across demographics. The experience of art could be liberated from its typical exclusivity.

But there is another strong argument for answering “no” to this question, which relies on intuitions many have about what it is that is valuable about art. Philosopher Alexander Pruss pursues this question in relation to one particular form of art: music. In a blog post titled “Musical Beauty and Virtual Music” Pruss asks “where does the musical beauty lie?” He goes on:

“One day […] I expect many people will have direct brain-computer interfaces. When they ‘listen to music’, no sounds will be emitted (other than the quiet hum of computer cooling fans, say). Yet I do not think this will significantly change anything of aesthetic significance. Thus, the production of musical sounds seems accidental to the enjoyment of music.”

Pruss here argues that the way the music is produced, the technology through which the sounds are emitted, does nothing to change my experience of the music and, therefore, does nothing to change how valuable the music is. The beauty — and value — of music therefore must lie in the experience of it. Similarly, people who agree with Hirst may find themselves drawn in this direction with regards to other forms of art, like sculpture, paintings, performance art, etc. Perhaps the value of these pieces lies in what we experience when we observe them, and not in the physical manifestations themselves. Destroying the Mona Lisa, therefore, may be perfectly fine so long as the experience of seeing the Mona Lisa can be preserved. Hirst seems to have a similar idea about the value of art, saying, “I just think anything that looks good and feels good, and makes you feel good, you know, it’s good art.”

This picture of value calls to mind the famous “experience machine” thought experiment proposed by the philosopher Robert Nozick. In the fictional scenario, you are given the option of plugging into a virtual reality machine, where you will (1) forget you’re in a virtual reality, and (2) live an incredibly happy and fulfilling life, all while your body is kept alive for as long as possible. Guessing that most people would refuse to enter the experience machine, Nozick uses this thought experiment to argue that the value of good things in life goes beyond mere experience — there is value in the goods actually occurring in reality, outside of our perception of them. For example, we might think that it is better to actually have relationships with real others, than to merely believe you have relationships with real others, even if there is no difference between the experience of the real relationships and the experience of the simulation. Likewise, one might think that there is value in the original piece of physical artwork itself that goes above and beyond the viewers’ experience of it. The fact that Frida Kahlo herself put these precise, meticulous brush strokes on the canvas, for instance, may hold value that is not grounded in our experience of her work.

Further, we may wonder whether the experience of seeing original works of art in person really can be preserved in an NFT. Anyone who has been deeply affected by the experience of viewing their favorite originals face-to-face may be skeptical that NFTs can truly capture the full experience. One difficulty would be recreating the awareness of sheer size, something important to the experience of carved works like the Appennine Colossus or Landowski’s Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and to large-scale paintings like the Sistine Chapel. Such awareness requires something like a sensory comparison of your size compared to the size of the work of art — something that would likely be difficult, or perhaps even impossible, for an NFT to facilitate.

A further complicating factor is that we tend to believe that pictures of art are not themselves art. For example, if you go to the Vatican Museum to see the Sistine Chapel, and then purchase a poster print of The Creation of Adam at the gift shop, you probably do not actually believe you have taken the painting home with you. Moreover, you also likely do not believe that your poster is equally as valuable as the original painting on the roof of the ceiling. The gift shop certainly thinks there is a difference in value, as a poster of the painting costs only about as much as one admission ticket! Whence the difference in value? Does it have to do with scale? But we can easily imagine a to-scale replica of the Sistine Chapel. Is the difference in value related to the wide availability of replicas compared to the limited availability of originals? If so, NFTs would retain the single-original status of works of art, and thereby (presumably) keep their value high, giving the owners of the NFTs full rights over any reproduction of the work. Additionally, some creators have sought to solve the problem of the inherent value of the original by positing that creators and artists may decide for themselves which work is the original: the physical copy, or the NFT. Choosing to designate the NFT as the original, as one YouTuber suggests, may change our understanding such that the physical copy becomes merely a “tool” used to create the final product, the NFT.

And finally, we may question whether Hirst’s project — exchanging original physical works of art for NFTs — would work for other kinds of art beyond painting and sculpture. There are, for example, works of art specifically created by the artist to exist only for a moment. Instances of this kind of art include a recent piece by Banksy titled “Girl with Balloon” which was secretly designed to self-destruct a few hours after it sold (the destruction was only partially successful), as well as performance art such as Chris Burden’s famous “Shoot” in which his friend shoots Burden in the arm with a gun.

Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist about buying and selling art as NFTs, it is clear that the emerging technologies raising these philosophical questions will have a large impact on our view of art — what counts as art, who counts as an artist, and how we can best experience the work of those working with digital and physical mediums. May it make us more creative, and more open to appreciating the creative talent of others.

In Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, Interrogating the Aesthetics of Erasure

In the wake of numerous killings of black men and women by police, representation of black death in media and art has become a heated debate. The most recent turn in this discussion does not surround a recent killing, but a murder over six decades old. At the 2017 Whitney Biennial, a prominent art show in New York, artist Dana Schutz has faced sustained protest from artists and activists over Open Casket, a painting depicting the body of Emmett Till, a black teenager brutally murdered by two white men in 1955.

Continue reading “In Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, Interrogating the Aesthetics of Erasure”