What motivates art vandalism in 2022?

In the wake of environmental protests at museums across the UK, Sophie Dibben examines some acts of art vandalism that have happened recently, and looks at why they specifically target art. 

art vandalism mona lisa cake

In the wake of environmental protests at museums across the UK, Sophie Dibben examines some acts of art vandalism that have happened recently, and looks at why they specifically target art. 

One hundred and seven years ago, suffragette Mary Richardson marched into London’s National portrait gallery to slash Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver. Her vandalism was in protest of a fellow suffragette’s arrest and a critique of the objectifying male gaze. She had political motivations, but the vandalism itself could be deemed an act of art. 

Eight years ago, Wlodzimierz Umaniec sauntered into London’s Tate Gallery and wrote, “A Potential Piece of Yellow” on Mark Rothko’s work, Black on Marron. Umaniec had artistic motivations – a budding artist himself – but his vandalism could be deemed as political and threatening. 

Many others have tested the muddy waters of art vandalism. Let’s explore three of them from 2022: 

Florence, Italy. 8pm, March 11th, on the eve of the pro-Ukraine rally 

art vandalism

Vaclav Pisvejcv sets fire to the black drape covering a replica of one of the most famous monuments in the world, David, by Michelangelo. The guards on duty set fire extinguishers on the piece as Pivejcv is immediately arrested. 

The Florence mayor had covered the statue as a symbolic sign of ‘mourning and pain’ for the war in Ukraine. It was a sign of solidarity from Florence to its twinned city, Kyiv, an act of reciprocation for their aid in the 1960s to the flooded Florence.

Pivejcv was a Czech resident in Florence, an amateur but ambitious artist, who had political motivations in demonstrating his support of Russia, not Ukraine. This is clear from his other attacks in the weeks leading up to his magnus opus; painting Francesco Vezzoli’s lion in Piazza Della Signoria blue and yellow (Ukraine’s flag) and writing Putin on a road sign. 

art vandalism

Even before the conflict, Pivejcv had a history of art vandalism, but the attacks have not all necessarily been politically motivated. He hit Marina Abramovic on the head with her own self-portrait in 2018. Considering himself a counter-artist, he proclaimed that his attack was ‘for his art.’ Abramović is a Serbian performance artist whose work explores the physical and emotional limits of the self, and the extremity of Abramović’s work seemed like a perfect target for Pivejcv. But even she thought he went too far. She was unimpressed and Pisvejcv’s controversial ‘art move’ turned into something of a humiliation. 

There are rumours that he is now in a mental asylum. This would be a grand shame because, among other things, I’d love to talk to him. 

Kassel, Germany. Night-time, 27th May

art vandelism documenta

Images courtesy of Documenta

An unidentified vandal breaks into an art gallery called WH22 to target an exhibition by a Palestinian collective group called Ruangrupa. 

He/she marks threatening messages with fire extinguishers and spray paints onto the walls. One message reads ‘187’, allegedly alluding to the California penal code section for murder; another, ‘PERALTA’, seems to refer to Isabel Medina Peralta, the leader of a Spanish far-right Islamophobic and violent group.

art vandelism documenta

Images courtesy of Documenta

art vandelism documenta

Images courtesy of Documenta

The exhibition was part of ‘Documenta 15′ – an exposé, moving from city to city, which occurs every four years is a hugely influential art exhibition. The whole ethos of ‘Documenta’ is multiculturalism and this year has encountered a surge of ethnic division.

The targetted Palestinian group, devastated to see their curated exhibition damaged, proclaimed that this was a “politically motivated threat….an attack on all of us.” But they will know where the attack stems from. A few months ago they were accused of antisemitism, which they deny. The allegations stem from their inclusion of artists and collectives who signed an open letter arguing that the German Parliament’s 2019 BHS resolution which reads ‘Boycott campaign of Israel as anti-Semitic’ is a “threat to artistic freedom and freedom of speech.” The attack indicates that this open letter was deemed as concrete enough evidence to prove antisemitism, consequently, the vandal fired back with death threats and hate speech.    

Paris, France. 1pm May 30th 

A 36-year-old (unnamed) man smears on red lipstick, fashions a wig and manages to find a wheelchair from a local geriatric. He flutters his eyelids at the guards, claiming wheel-chair access, enters the Louvre, and heads to the second floor. He milks the disabled card again, skipping the 15-minute queue to see the 16th-century masterpiece, grabs his Victoria Sponge and throws it at the Mona Lisa. All onlookers are aghast and reach for their phones. The security grabs the perpetrator and escorts him out of the building as the cake thrower shouts “Think of the Earth. There are people who are destroying the Earth. All artists, think of the Earth.” The Da Vinci is protected by bulletproof glass after several vandal attacks in the past, so the guards wipe off the cream and frosting from the barrier. 

If this art piece was attacked as a climate protest, then why draw attention to the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant? Of course, there is no connection between the Mona Lisa, the environment and cake. But the dessert thrower was targeting the most famous painting in the world to spread his message. If you have seen the Mona Lisa in the flesh, then you are aware of the shockingly long wait to even get a glance whilst being elbowed by all the other fans. These fans accumulate to 30,000 people per day. 

No one cancelled their flight or voted for the Green party after seeing this protest. Many people found it funny, myself included. I imagine he contributed to the ‘crazy climate activist’ stereotype which is mocked by many cynics. It’s a shame that such a critically important cause should be tainted by this madness. Once again, the attack was deemed as an act of insanity and he was placed in psychiatric care. 

art vandalism

Just Stop Oil

There’s plenty of conversation about Just Stop Oil at the moment, but it would be remiss not to mention it here. From throwing soup across Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Vermeer’s The Girl With the Pearl EarringJust Stop Oil have targeted artworks at some of the UK’s most renowned galleries. They’ve also smeared a cake in the face of the King Charles waxwork at Madame Tussauds.

Why did these people target art? 

I would love to assign each case a particular motivation. Pivejcv’s attack an active defiance against support to Ukraine, the unidentified Documenta vandal a political threat, and the unnamed cake-thrower a climate protest.

But one could argue that the art vandals are creating art themselves. Perhaps Pivejcv was performing one of his interventionist art attacks ‘for art’s sake’ on David? Perhaps the Documenta vandal in Germany was testing the limits of artistic expression just as trolls harass people in the noble cause of ‘freedom of speech’? And maybe the ultimate publicity stunt from our home-baker was to create a contemporary twist on Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake”? 

Since their motivations are ambiguous, it’s impossible to state what they have achieved, and who was the most successful art vandal. 

The Mona Lisa cake incident has certainly gained the most media attention, causing a torrent of social media posts and articles. The David and Ruangrupa attacks, on the other hand, have received minimal media attention. Even though they caused much more significant damage financially, socially and politically. The damage to David cost thousands in damage and the Kassal attack threatened the security of a Palestinian group. But the Mona Lisa just had her cake and didn’t eat it. 

Mona Lisa’s media success was inevitable. The Louvre is regarded as a culturally significant site and the Mona Lisa is the pinnacle of the Louvre. 

We know that, as art vandalism goes, the throwing of cake at the Mona Lisa is simple, funny and clickbait. The other two are complicated, ultimately sad, and require long attention spans to consider. What remains up for debate, is whether these acts of vandalism can be deemed artistic or political? Or, if they’re all a bit of both.

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