In recent weeks, one classic painting after another has been doused with soup, and activists have regularly attached themselves to paintings, frames or elsewhere in museums. Usually it’s about climate activism, but the cause of these actions stems from wokism. Criminologist Bart Collard argues that wokists are better off making woke art themselves than having existing art removed or destroyed.
Art can be hurtful
Art has several functions and consequences. It can radiate beauty, make it imitate something as realistically as possible, to convey a feeling or an idea about the artist, it can tell a story – whether historical or not – and it can make you think. Art can also hurt. The hurt may have been the artist’s intention, but it doesn’t have to be. As Coen de Jong writes in his new book Wakeland, art that was once valued is now seen as sexist, homophobic or racist.
Art perceived as offensive may include cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad or paintings depicting expressions of slavery. Although such art usually no longer leads to criminal investigations, Gregorius Nekschot was arrested in 2008 for drawing a Muhammad cartoon.
Nowadays, art that is perceived as offensive is regularly removed or moved to another location. At Leiden University, a painting depicting four smoking men – the executive board from the 1970s – was removed because a female PhD candidate believed that such an all-male lecture sends the wrong signal.
In November 2022, the management was removed The welcome gathering, British Museum of International Medicine, to temporarily close the museum. The collection consists of ‘one million objects, books and works of art related to medicine worldwide’. The museum considers its own collection to be discriminatory. According to the board, non-white people or people with physical disabilities are “represented as exotic, marginalized and exploited, or even completely overlooked.” A painting showing a white doctor, supported by Jesus, helping a dark-skinned child is now seen as a “racist stereotype”.
Offended by nudity
Pictures of naked people often suffer too. In April 2022, an order was given to remove a statue of a naked breastfeeding woman from the Martini Hospital in Groningen. In November 2022, it was decided that paintings of topless women should be removed from the town hall in Purmerend. After a storm of criticism, that decision was reversed.
That the cultural value of art is valued less than addressing contemporary issues becomes even more evident when it comes to climate activism. As RTL Nieuws writes: ‘One canvas after another is attacked by activists.’
Peach tree in bloom van Gogh fell victim to a can of tomato soup as the depicted landscape would change due to climate change. His work Sunflowers was also topped with soup. Such daubing often does not lead to damage because there is a glass plate in front of the painting, but unfortunately it sometimes does.
Sometimes, however, it goes even further than graffiti. An activist poked his head at it Girl with a pearl earring by Johannes Vermeer, after which soup was also thrown over. His motivation? He asked onlookers: “How does it feel to see something beautiful being destroyed before your eyes?” In his eyes, this is what is happening to the world right now. For the activist, it was a justification for the potential destruction of cultural heritage.
The museum association’s director points out that you regularly cause damage to the old picture frames. Moreover, a painting ‘after such an action from the frame [moet] be taken, and with all the actions you take with such a painting, you cause harm.’
Through art, the artist can rebel against society. The artist can denounce problems, can rebel and can make people think and talk about something. But why is there so much activism against or about art? Why has the art world become a battleground for wokism?
At first, art can be experienced as hurtful. This is often the case with classical art. Are there only white people in a painting? Get rid of it. Are there only men in the painting? Also gone. Are other peoples portrayed as primitive, poor or less developed? Away! This makes the art world extremely susceptible to vigilante activism.
A safe language for art
But secondly, this sector also contributes to this itself. As Coen de Jong states in Wokeland, in 2021 the sector has prepared a guide entitled Values for a new language. A safe, inclusive and accessible language for everyone in the arts and culture sector. De Jong: ‘The guidance warns against wounds and stereotypes and against practices such as misogyny, other things and pinkwashingwhich is apparently widespread in the national world of art and culture.’
The current actions in the art world must not look like iconoclasms or book burnings. The art sector must therefore defend itself against acts of wokism. Wokists can make woke art themselves instead of destroying existing art or having it removed. But radical activism cannot be tolerated by the arts sector.
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