I recently took my kids to see the “Van Gogh in America” exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) as part of a homeschool group. The exhibit features 74 paintings and drawings brought together from all over the world so that Detroiters could experience the masterful works of one of the world’s most famous artists.
Museums always have a lot of rules and regulations but on this occasion I was paying particular attention to our group’s guide as she explained the prohibitions. In my mind was the October 14, 2022 incident in London involving climate protesters that threw tomato soup on one of Van Gogh’s famous sunflower paintings. Will there be a copycat in Detroit? I hope not. Art has long been the target of attacks and there have been copycat protests since even the relatively recent incident in London, including an attack on one of Van Gogh’s “Sower” paintings. The DIA made a reasonable effort to prevent such incidents from occurring in this exhibit by banning large bags and outerwear, food and drink, allowing searches of smaller purses, etc. Ultimately however, where there is a will there is a way. If one were so inclined, any one of the paintings on exhibit could be the next to suffer the wrath of a misguided and/or disturbed individual.
Apologists for the vandals in London may note that the sunflower painting they attacked was behind glass at the time and did not suffer any damage aside from minor damage to the frame. It is their message that matters, these people say, and the attention they drew to their cause is worth the minor damage and disruption to the exhibit.
So what of their message? The protesters were from a group called Just Stop Oil. Upon desecrating the painting and gluing their hands to the wall, the protesters proclaimed, “What is worth more? Art or life? Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice?” Aside from their message being a logical false choice, it is also morally problematic, resulting in an injustice in itself as well as being a poor method to win over sympathetic followers. It was not their message that mattered so much as it was their means of conveying it.
Attacking an unrelated and innocent person or object of reverence in order to gain attention to a preferred cause is selfish and unvirtuous (like American flag/anthem protests). Most of us instinctively shun such behavior. This is in line with the position that morality or immorality is found in the act, not the ends the act hopes to achieve. The ends does not justify the means. This particular case is ironic since their means will certainly hurt their ends (assuming they are genuine and do not have an ulterior motive). For when they ask, “What is worth more, life or art?” they are being redundant; our art reflects our feelings of value concerning the beautiful and the sublime. If these protesters wish to devalue the inherent worth of art to that of a means to an end, they will ultimately devalue the inherent worth we give to the beautiful and sublime in the world around us. Since they claim to be activists for the natural world (and against abusing the Earth for our selfish purposes) this should be the last thing they want if they wish to preserve it since nature is a prime source for the beautiful and the sublime. Both are particularly reflected in Van Gogh’s art.
As I walked through the exhibit looking at the paintings and drawings, I was reminded of one of Immanuel Kant’s early works called Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764). Kant was a much different person than Van Gogh, and I am different from both of them, as anyone reading this is undoubtedly different from us all. But what connects us (aside from our moral worth and duties) is our likely feelings (the subjective finer feelings) that we feel when we experience beautiful and sublime things. Kant says,
“Finer feeling….is chiefly of two kinds: the feeling of the sublime and that of the beautiful. The stirring of each is pleasant, but in different ways. The sight of a mountain whose snow-covered peak rises above the clouds, the description of a raging storm, or Milton’s portrayal of the infernal kingdom, arouse enjoyment but with horror; on the other hand, the sight of flower-strewn meadows, valleys with winding brooks and covered with grazing flocks, the description of Elysium, or Homer’s portrayal of the girdle of Venus, also occasion a pleasant sensation but one that is joyous and smiling. In order that the former impression could occur to us in due strength, we must have a feeling of the sublime, and in order to enjoy the latter well, a feeling of the beautiful. Tall oaks and lonely shadows in a sacred grove are sublime; flower beds, low hedges and trees trimmed in figures are beautiful. Night is sublime, day is beautiful. Temperaments that possess a feeling for the sublime are drawn gradually, by the quiet stillness of a summer evening as the shimmering light of the stars breaks through the brown shadows for night and the lonely moon rises into view, into high feelings of friendship, of disdain for the world, of eternity. The shining day stimulates busy fervor and a feeling of gaiety. The sublime moves, the beautiful charms.”
This is not unlike a walk through a good art exhibit like that of Van Gogh in America. Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888) and The Sower (1888) are sublime. Square Saint Pierre, Paris (1887) and Terrace in the Luxembourg Garden (1886) are beautiful. Preferences on art style, subject, etc. may vary, but the underlying quality that is sublime or beautiful shines through. The willful destruction or disrespect of this can rightly be considered ugly and immoral.
Kant says, “The various feelings of enjoyment or of displeasure rest not so much upon the nature of the external things that arouse them as upon each person’s own disposition to be moved by these to pleasure or pain.” Works of art move us towards such a pleasure and therefore attacks against them rightly disgust us. Regarding human conduct and character, Kant considers the moral attributes of true virtue alone to be sublime. The sublime virtuous man is able to subdue his passions through principles. Standing in the gallery looking at Van Gogh’s Wounded Veteran (around 1882-83) for example, even if one were to personally find the piece unappealing, it would be appalling to see a malcontent anti-war protester smearing blood all over it in a protest against what they may somehow interpret as a glorification of war. There are countless examples of how this may occur and as many targets, in all instances it is wrong.
What are we to do? We certainly ought not hide all art away to protect it. We could move people back further behind ropes or we could put all art behind protective glass. Some of this may be prudent in certain circumstances but the real answer is to keep teaching our children the value of art and inform them of the price we pay for devaluing it. We must shun the action of misguided souls that would use art and our reverent symbols as targets for their selfish purposes (shun the action, but don’t hate the man). Most importantly, we must teach our children to value our traditions and culture rooted in the classical notions of virtue. Petty attacks for attention are futile if the audience is primed against the maxim of such acts. There is certainly nothing wrong with protest or even civil disobedience when it is warranted and properly conducted against injustice. And the actions of the passionate sometimes seem crazy to calmer people (Van Gogh himself in his time, for example, who we now appreciate). But with virtue the passion they feel can be directed into vehicles for positive change without unjustly targeting the innocent or grotesquely destroying the beautiful that inspires us. This, history will view in itself as sublime.