Day 65: Decapitation & Destruction – Art Has A Bad Day

originally published March 5, 2012

Today we’ll be looking at what happens when art gets an unwanted makeover. The Wiki-spear of destiny impaled this gem of an article for me today: Decapitation of a Statue of Margaret Thatcher.

Paul Kelleher wandered into the Guildhall Art Gallery in central London one sunny Wednesday in July of 2002, armed with a cricket bat and a metal rope. He located the 8-foot marble statue of his former Prime Minister, and proceeded to remove its head. A few minutes later, the police arrived to find Kelleher awaiting capture. When asked why he did it, he didn’t throw out a political statement or a condemnation of Thatcher’s policies. He simply said, “I think it looks better like that.”

At his trial, Kelleher claimed the act was a statement of artistic expression, his “right to interact with this broken world.” The jury somehow couldn’t argue with this. They failed to come up with a verdict; he was retried a few months later, and sentenced to three months in jail.

Over to Sweden, where (as usual) things get weird. The Museum of Antiquities in Stockholm hosted an installation by artist Dror Feiler, called Snow White And The Madness of Truth. This was a small pool of blood-red water, with a tiny boat carrying a portrait of a Palestinian suicide bomber. The artist claims that the piece was meant to “call attention to how weak people left alone can be capable of horrible things.” Strong artistic statement, no?

Not according to Israeli ambassador to Sweden Zvi Mazel. This distinguished diplomat was visiting the museum, and decided that the piece of art was anti-Semitic. Then, after adjusting his tie in front of a television news crew, he tipped one of the large spotlights beside the pool into the water, causing a short circuit.

Mazel told the Swedish media that it was a spontaneous act of anger, but then went on Israeli TV and told them he had been planning the vandalism before he’d even seen the installation. Some people just don’t get high art.

Then again, the destruction of a piece of art seems to be a valid expression of a political statement among some people. Take Mary Richardson, a British suffragette who was championing women’s rights almost a hundred years ago. On March 10, 1914, she wandered into London’s National Gallery and found the painting with the largest puddle of man-drool in front of it, Diego Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus.

Richardson introduced Venus to her meat cleaver, leaving seven distinct slashes on the painting. She was protesting the arrest of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, or, if we are to believe a 1952 interview with Richardson, she just didn’t like the way guys gaped at it all day long.

Either way, this didn’t do wonders for the movement, as the press jumped all over Richardson and phrased their articles to depict her as a murderer, not a vandal. They described the “cruel wound in the neck” of the painted figure, and she was branded ‘Slasher Mary’. She was tossed in the joint for six months.

Then we have the Portland Vase. Dating back to between 30 and 20 BC, this vase was excavated near Rome in 1582. It hung around Italy for a couple of centuries, then jetted over to the British Museum in London. On February 7, 1845, some jackass named William Lloyd decided he wasn’t a fan. He picked up a nearby sculpture and threw it at the vase, shattering both it and the glass case around it.

Lloyd was charged with Willful Damage. Good, they nailed the bastard. Except that they totally didn’t. Lloyd’s lawyer pointed out a slight error in the wording of the Willful Damage Act that limited its application to the destruction of objects worth no more than five pounds. Because the vase was so valuable, the charge wouldn’t apply, so instead Lloyd was convicted for destruction of the glass case around the artwork.

So for the act of annihilating a nearly 2000-year-old piece of Roman art, William Lloyd was sentenced to pay a fine of three pounds, or spend two months in prison for breaking some glass. Was it a Christian conspiracy? It may not seem so at first, but the twist here is that Lloyd’s real name was William Mulcahy.


The Brits did their best to put the puzzle back together, but they wound up with thirty-seven pieces left over. The fragments were thrown in a box and forgotten until 1948. They tried to restore it once again, and still had 34 pieces left. A more recent attempt was made in 1989, and after almost 150 years, Bill Mulcahy’s act of assholery has finally been erased.

Of course, the more popular a piece of art, the more likely it is to be vandalized. No one knows this better than ol’ Mona.

No, I mean the Mona Lisa. The Louvre in Paris was shut down for a week in the summer of 1911 when its most famous resident disappeared. Pablo Picasso was brought in for questioning, but it turns out it was museum employee Vincenzo Peruggia who simply left work one way with the painting stashed under his coat.

In 1956, some unknown schmuck doused the lower part of the painting in acid. Later that year, a Bolivian named Ugo threw a rock at her, damaging a piece of the pigment near her left elbow, which had to be repainted. The Louvre wised up and encased the Mona Lisa in bullet-proof glass, which successfully thwarted a red paint attack in 1974 and a 2009 tossing of a souvenir teacup at the artwork.

Why so much hate? Peruggia, the thief, had felt the painting should be hanging in Italy, where it was created. The teacup lady was just pissed off at having been denied French citizenship. The rest of the vandals’ reasons aren’t published, suggesting that they just wanted to flip an expensive middle finger at the world.

Art is often created as a statement, and its destruction is quite often carried out for the same purpose. Street artist Banksy has seen a number of his pieces defaced or erased outright, often at the request of the local city councils. I suppose one could argue that the destruction of a piece of art is an act of art in itself, but I don’t buy it. It’s a cop-out, a lazy attempt at expression. If you have something to say, and you want to use existing art as your canvas, do the smart thing. Recreate it out of Lego.

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