Thought for the Day - Abdal Hakim Murad
Last Sunday, two paintings by the French artist Poussin were vandalised at the National Gallery. Apparently a 57-year old visitor sprayed them liberally with red paint from an aerosol can, and then stood still, calmly submitting to arrest.
The motive for this act of vandalism may emerge in due course. The paintings were both of religious subjects: one depicts the Israelites adoring the golden calf, while the other shows the infant Christ being adored by the shepherds. One could well imagine a troubled religious misunderstanding being at work. A certain zealot mind might feel that to worship a human baby, believing it to encompass the entirety of God, is as idolatrous as worshipping the calf which the ever-forgetful Israelites adored while waiting for their prophet to finish his business on the mountain.
But that’s no more than speculation. More interesting to me is the ethical issue raised by this kind of latter-day iconoclasm. Artworks have become like celebrities: their magnetism and fame draw the attention of oddballs and stalkers with private and often deeply odd grievances or aspirations. Sometimes a kind of idolatry attaches to images, or people, who are regularly adored by the public, and this can produce unexpected and extreme results.
The cult status which our society attributes to great artworks, sometimes reflected in staggering and surely absurd prices at auction, would have seemed strange to many of the original artists. Still, there is a practical issue which ensues, which we need to think upon. If art is idolised, or treated as a cult object, should it be so accessible? Or should a ritual purification be required before we can approach it?
In the context of our culture, that ritual would take the form of submitting to scanning, bag-searches, and pat-downs, at the entrances to our museums. Visitors to the Poussin gallery at the Louvre in Paris have endured this for years. The checks at the Prado in Madrid are even more stringent.
The National Gallery, by contrast, lets us walk right in. It seems part of its culture as a national institution: it belongs to us all by right, and we have the right to be trusted to behave. Why should we attack what is ours anyway? If we are not quite trusted, is it any longer completely ours?
The Koran tells the story of Moses and the calf as a lesson about trust. No sooner was his back turned, than the Israelites committed an act of gross desecration. But following their repentance, Moses trusted them again; and found that they remained faithful; this time, returning to the divine presence, he was granted the tablets of the Law. This, for me, is the real meaning of the story: if a trust is violated, we should beware of being mistrustful. I hope the National Gallery, considering its options, will take note, and continue to trust us.