How Radical Leftists Are Set on Destroying Our Artistic Heritage
On Sunday, two women defaced the Mona Lisa, splattering the masterpiece with pumpkin soup as part of their campaign to reform French agriculture. Thankfully, Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting was protected behind bulletproof (and soup-proof) glass and was not damaged.
After the initial act of vandalism, the two activists stood behind the painting’s protective railing and launched into a diatribe, calling for “the integration of food into the general social security system” [English translation]. They continued speaking until Paris police arrived to arrest them. The women are part of an activist group, Riposte Alimentaire, which followed up the attack by issuing this statement on Twitter:
In France, one in three people skip meals due to lack of means. At the same time, 20% of the food produced is thrown away. Our model stigmatizes the most precarious and does not respect our fundamental right to food. [English translation]
A Larger Trend
Yesterday’s events are part of a larger campaign in which European activists have attacked historic artworks throughout Europe in the name of various causes. In October 2022, paintings by Van Gogh and Vermeer were targeted by activists hoping to raise awareness of climate change, while Monet’s famous “Grainstacks” were smeared with mashed potatoes for the same reason. Last July activists from the group “Just Stop Oil” glued their hands to the frame of John Constable’s “The Hay Wain” at London’s National Gallery. Since then the attacks have continued, including vandalism throughout the United States, most obviously with the ongoing destruction of historically significant statutes.
"Seldom in the history of art have so many masterpieces been vandalized in so little time,” observed Farah Nayeri in The New York Time last May.
It’s Not About Food
After the events at the Louvre, everyone is discussing France’s food problems. Thus, the activists were successful, given that their goal was to foreground this issue in the public discourse. I don’t want to cooperate with that. Accordingly, I will have nothing to say about the inefficiency of French agriculture. Instead I want to reflect on what I take to be the issue behind the issue: the hatred of art among much of the radical left
How the Activist Mindset Despises Art as Art
The crusade against art from the radical left is not seen only in the angry philistinism of vandals; it also has its more highbrow manifestations in the halls of respectable institutions. In universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and elsewhere, professors are now teaching that the value of liberal arts lies in the potential these disciplines have to be used for social and political ends. This mindset sees art as fodder for activism and is the other side of the coin to the mindset which sees art as fodder for destruction.
On the surface, the intellectuals who advance critical theories may seem to have little in common with the anti-intellectuals tearing down statues and smearing paintings with soup, but in both cases art is being instrumentalized for an agenda and becomes merely an adjunct to activism. In both cases, there is a hatred of art qua art.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider that The New York Times ran a glowing article in February 2021 about one Princeton professor whose enlightenment involved realizing that the classics lack intrinsic value but become useful merely as utilitarian tools for advancing social change. Or again, when Howard University decided to remove their classics department, one of the considerations raised by President Wayne Frederick was whether classical studies would provide black students a skill set they can apply to the modern world when interacting with problems like George Floyd’s death. The subtext is that the liberal arts in general, and the classics in particular, lack intrinsic value and only become valuable when converted to means for political ends.
The woke professors who are politicizing art may not be participating in the actual destruction of artworks, but they are destroying works of art indirectly through hollowing out the grounds of their significance. Once we cease believing that there is intrinsic significance to art, classic literature, and all the humanities, but believe instead that these only become valuable in what they can do for us politically, we will be less incentivised as a society to protect our heritage. As I observed in Salvo#57, "Canceling Western Civilization: Woke Fundamentalism’s Iconoclasm Is Just as Destructive as ISIS’"
Among the Woke, the great literary, visual, and musical artworks of our tradition are valued purely for their didactic function in advancing a narrow range of political concerns, including feminism, critical race theory, post-colonialism, queer theory, and so on. By treating these disciplines in this way, the Woke leave the disciplines of higher learning in place even as they pragmatize and polemicize them, hollowing out their content so that these disciplines become little more than weapons in the hands of social justice warriors. Meanwhile, scholars who insist on the older view, that the liberal arts are ends rather than simply means, risk having their careers destroyed and their reputations ruined
The activists who defaced the Mona Lisa also care little about the rich artistic heritage bequeathed to us by Renaissance masters like Leonardo da Vinci. Had the Mona Lisa not been protected behind glass, yesterday’s activists would no doubt have pulled down da Vinci’s painting and ripped it to shreds.
Before police arrived on the scene to arrest them, these women showed contempt for art when they declared, “What is more important? Art or the right to have a healthy and sustainable food system?” [English translation] This is more than merely a false dilemma, for it betokens a fundamentally wrong understanding about why art is important to us as humans. Once art becomes valuable merely for what it can do for us, its value recedes into anachronism, becoming less useful even than a sandwich. As an activist claimed when splattering Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” with tomato soup last year, “What is worth more, art or life? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” This utilitarian approach to art, if left unchecked, can only lead to all our artworks being destroyed if such destruction is seen as serving a useful political end.
Why Defend Our Artistic Heritage?
There are many reasons to defend our artistic heritage. Art humanizes us through offering a respite from the problems of the present. Art connects us to the permanent things which buffer us from whatever chaos may be raging in our own time. Moreover, meaningful art—whether paintings, symphonies, poems, novels, or beautiful architecture—links us to the past and thus grounds us in something far deeper than our contemporary political woes. But above all, art is valuable not because of what it can do for us, but simply because of what it is intrinsically since, as Robert George reminded us in Touchstone, appreciation of beauty is a basic human good.
The value of instrumental goods—things like money, status, influence, power, medicine, insurance policies—is purely as means to other ends, ends that are extrinsic to such goods. Things that are intrinsically good, by contrast, are valuable for their own sake, quite apart from and in addition to any instrumental value they might also happen to have.
The Decent Drapery of Life Rudely Torn Off
The intrinsic value of beautiful art is precisely what we are in danger of losing through the revolutionary mindset that would reduce art to mere fodder for activism, whether that mindset is reflected in the creative process (making art only to advance an activist agenda), or the destructive process (destroying art to make a statement), or the interpretive process (critical theories that interpret the liberal arts through the lens of grievance studies, post-colonialism, diversity and inclusion problems, etc.)
This revolutionary mindset is not dissimilar to the iconoclasm of the French Revolution as mobs overthrew years of tradition and cultural heritage. Thus, I think it fitting to close with a prescient quotation from the French Revolution’s greatest critic, Edmund Burke, whose words are as relevant to our time as they were for the turbulent years of the late 18th century
All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which by a bland assimilation incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded, as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion… But power, of some kind or other, will survive the shock in which manners and opinions perish; and it will find other and worse means for its support. The usurpation which, in order to subvert ancient institutions, has destroyed ancient principles will hold power by arts similar to those by which it has acquired it
- Renaissance 2.0: A Review of Nancy Pearcey's Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meanin
- Fashionable Fascists: Jordan Peterson & the Toxic Ideology of Identity Politics
- Canceling Western Civilization: Woke Fundamentalism’s Iconoclasm Is Just as Destructive as ISIS’
- Howard University Cancels Classics Department: Historic Black University Prioritizes "utilitarian schooling at the expense of soul-forming education"
- Old School Beauty: On the Ennobling Presence of a Goodly Place
- The Joys of “Useless” Books: In Defense of Leisure Reading
has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/mona-lisa-attacked