John Constable’s The Hay Wain vandalism opens up a debate on how to protest

The Hay Wain

Free people are at liberty to protest, to make statements in support of a legitimate cause, to be able generate materials that express their unhappiness and to be able to hold people in power – be it an organisational level or way up to the world leaders and governments – to account.

“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence,” said Leonardo da Vinci, expressing the need for humans, as a species, to stand up for what they believe in, so long as it falls within the parameters of decency.

The power of protest is only too evident as of late, with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians taking to the streets of the country to express their discontent at President Mohammed Morsi’s apparent stranglehold on power.

Equally, from another vantage point, the former NSA and CIA employee turned whistleblower Edward Snowden has been engaged in his own form of remonstration, delivered through the leaking of sensitive documents, a decision which he made in good conscience but has left him stateless.

As both of these examples demonstrate, when we protest, the divide between what is justifiable and what constitutes a step too far is more often than not difficult to gauge. In Mr Snowden’s case, many journalists and intellectuals in favour of transparency have declared their support for the analyst, while many politicians in the US consider him to have engaged in espionage.

How then do we approach the damage incurred by John Constable’s masterpiece The Hay Wain, which was vandalised by a member of the quasi-lobbying and protest group Fathers4Justice?

The painting, which hangs in the National Gallery in London, was attacked by Paul Douglas Manning, who glued the image of his young boy to the 1821 landscape painting. It had the word ‘help’ written across it. He had recently lost a child custody appeal.

“We have reached a tipping point in the campaign,” a spokesman for the group said in an statement that also revealed its intentions to abandon its five-year “attempted engagement with the political establishment”.

“For every 1,000 families destroyed each week in the family courts, fathers should respond in kind with peaceful non violent direct action, by either writing ‘help’ or placing pictures of their children in significant places where they are visible to the world,” the official went on to say.

“We can no longer stem the tide of desperation and anger of fathers who have had their families destroyed and their hopes betrayed by a government that promised equal parenting but only delivered desperation.”

While the despondency of such individuals is understandable, and the right to protest upheld, there is a considerable amount of confusion as to how to effectively articulate the feeling that they have been consistently let down by the rule of law.

Fathers4Justice’s argument that it is following in the footsteps of the suffragettes is confused. An attack on a work of art that is abstract from a political and social disagreement is unhelpful and likely to have the opposite effect as to what was intended.

It certainly raises the group’s profile, provides them with ample media coverage, but divides the public much more than it unites them. The vandalism, which luckily has left no lasting damage to the iconic work, elicits not so much anger but mystification.

Constable’s work, in particular, is abstract from the debate and therefore, while its deliberate damage caused a stir, it seems utterly irresponsible. After all, art is a conduit through which humans engage with the world, make sense of it and reinvent it.

Art can be used as an effective tool for protest, which is something the group may want to ruminate over. To desecrate any work is to hold siege to one’s own sense of liberty and justice.

All that said, when you are at a loss, the machinations of government doing everything to make your existence harder, to estrange you from your child in this instance, the crime of vandalism is nothing compared to the affronts faced by many dads.

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