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Paul Vallely: Ruining art is the wrong way to protest

15 March 2024

Paul Vallely is unsettled by a pro-Palestine activist destroying a painting

X/Palestine Action

I WENT down a rabbit hole last weekend. After hearing that a pro-Palestine protester had slashed Philip de László’s portrait of Lord Balfour at Trinity College, Cambridge, I went online to check the news websites. There was almost nothing to be found. So, I resorted to social media.

A group, Palestine Action, had shared a video on Instagram and X/Twitter showing a woman (right) spraying red paint over the portrait and then slashing the canvas repeatedly with a blade. Online, many people defended the act: how could anyone worry about a mere painting, compared with the deaths of a staggering number of children in Gaza?

Over the past five months, I have spoken up repeatedly for Israel’s right to defend itself, but I have roundly criticised the disproportionately devastating bombardment of innocent civilians. So, what was it about the protest which unsettled me?

Social media sent me down a number of blind alleys. Defenders of the protest condemned Balfour — and his support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, which “paved the way for ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinians over half a century. And yet, as I have pointed out before (3 November, 2023), the history of the Holy Land takes on different hues depending on the year you take as a starting point.

Then there was the question of the artistic merit of the painting. It was not one of de László’s finest, tweeted a cultural historian, who posted a selection of more striking portraits by the Hungarian artist.

The majority of social-media users, however, pondered what punishment should fit the crime. Those with a rudimentary knowledge of the law pointed out that carrying a knife in public carries a possible sentence of four years in prison and an unlimited fine.

Others favoured a more poetic justice: lock the protester in a cell until she can repaint it. Give her 110 years — the age of the artefact she destroyed. Give her a one-way ticket to Gaza — or even Iran, suggested someone with a shakier sense of geography.

Others, disproportionately, wanted public shaming: head shaved on the spot; a few days in the pillory; bring back tarring and feathering. Several, more violently, suggested: Do to her what she did to the painting. Spray her face and slash-for-slash in the same places. Others took a more Islamophobic turn: Cut off the hands used to commit the crime.

Most intriguing was the observation that she wore a Mulberry Cara backpack, which retails new at £995. That set us off on yet another digression. Why are all these activists posh kids with entitled, luxury beliefs? Sadly, she will just be told not to be a naughty girl and sent home to mummy and daddy. The judge will say that a prison term could damage her nice middle-class career prospects.

Finally, I came across what I was looking for. Destruction of art was a spiritual attack on society, one person said. There was something evil about the physical destruction of a work of art, said another. Like burning a book, it’s a kind of sacrilege. All this was heavily overstated, but, somewhere, buried inside all the hyperbole, I discovered why I feel so uneasy about this kind of protest.

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