First Attack On Artwork in the United States At National Gallery In Washington


In a rapidly breaking story, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC commented on the first paint attack on a work of art in the United States. Unlike the incidents organized of Just Stop Oil or Letzte Generation, the two protestors did not appear to identify themselves as affiliated with a specific group. Rather, they targeted Biden’s administration explicitly demanding the president declare a climate emergency.

The story was broken today, April 27th, around 1pm EST by the Washington Post, citing the work in question as “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” by Edgar Degas, in the West Building, in the third gallery on the ground floor, accessioned in 1999. The artwork is a sculpture, not in a frame, so any damage would be to the case and pedestal, with ample space between that and the work of art. By 8:27pm EST, the 1:20 minute clip had more than 656,100 views.

A male-presenting person who identified himself as someone with a job and a female-presenting person with an elegant chignon smacked hard on the case to make a dramatic statement, smearing the black and white paint from large spots.

“I’m sorry,” the man said apologetically, as he continued to clap the paint.

The pair sat down; the woman’s hands were blood red with paint in a theatrical gesture that evoked a murder.

“The earth is beautiful,” she said, arms outstretched, “And we’re destroying it with climate change. We need our leaders to take serious action, and tell us the truth about what is happening with the climate.”

“We are adults,” the man said in the cropped clip, “We should be at home working. I have a job that requires health and safety, but I can’t do my job unless I have a government that does their job of looking out for the health and safety of our children.”

A guard slowly approached and pulled him away from his seated spot, while another jumped in front of the camera to push a growing crowd back.

“Back up, back up,” another guard said firmly.

“Our job is to project our planet, and our first job is to protect our children, and future children!” The woman cried above the mounting chaos.

They were escorted away, paint containers still resting beneath the pedestal.

The artwork description on the museum’s website explains that the piece in question was controversial for two reasons: the first was its subject matter, a defiant so-called “opera rat” of low class and youth, an apt metaphor for the adults’ pleas to heed the needs of forthcoming children and generations, and an homage to the suffragette movements that followed within the subsequent century (who have galvanized Just Stop Oil’s movement in London). The other is its media, described as “pigmented beeswax, clay, metal armature, rope, paintbrushes, human hair, silk and linen ribbon, cotton faille bodice, cotton and silk tutu, linen slippers, on wooden base.”

Unlike many of Degas’ bronze works, this is a surprisingly sustainable choice. Perhaps the protestors appreciated how much of the work came from everyday life, and how the things that grow from the earth, such as cotton and beeswax, are vulnerable to crop failures today.

Within hours of the attack, the museum’s director, Kaywin Feldman, made a comment posted on Twitter as well, acknowledging the protective plexiglass case and explaining it would be assessed for potential damage. Feldman said the protestors have been detained and “our team is safe”.

“We unequivocally denounce this behavior and will continue to share information as it becomes available,” Feldman concluded.

Three hours later, the NGA announced on Instagram that the entire third gallery was closed for the FBI to further pursue the “active investigation.”

A comment from Just Stop Oil in London is pending. This incident may be the first in the United States, but it is part of a loud and growing movement in Europe where continuous protests at museums in England, Austria, Italy, and the Netherlands are unified in the demand that humanity protect the planet as carefully as we protect art.

Museums and governments have responded differently to these incidents, with varying degrees of penalties and fines. The British government has been particularly harsh on Phoebe Plummer, who splattered the protective glass of Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh at the National Gallery alongside Anna Holland, claiming Plummer caused more than £5000 in damage and therefore faces a long prison sentence.

What the United States’ penalties will be remains to be seen.

The protestors have since been confirmed to be affiliated with Declare Emergency, and the woman identified as Joanna Smith.

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