Vandalism as Protest: Francisco Goya, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and other artists whose works have been damaged

The recent act of vandalism against Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” where activists doused it with soup, has ignited a new wave of debates about the methods of activism and their repercussions.

The recent act of vandalism against Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” where activists doused it with soup, has ignited a new wave of debates about the methods of activism and their repercussions.

The recent act of vandalism against Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” where activists doused it with soup, has ignited a new wave of debates about the methods of activism and their repercussions.

This incident is just one of many where iconic artworks became tools of protest. But what were the consequences for the activists themselves, and did they achieve their goals? Let’s examine a few examples and analyze their outcomes.

Analysis and Consequences of Incidents

“Portrait of the Duke of Wellington” — Francisco Goya (1974): Kempston Banfield, concerned about pension cuts, damaged the painting with a knife. The artwork was successfully restored. Banfield was convicted and served four years in prison. Public attention was drawn to the pension issue, but no immediate policy changes followed his act.

Kempston Banfield, concerned about pension cuts, damaged the painting with a knife. The artwork was successfully restored. Banfield was convicted and served four years in prison. Public attention was drawn to the pension issue, but no immediate policy changes followed his act.

“Pietà” — Michelangelo (2000): Laszlo Toth, claiming to be Christ, struck the sculpture with a hammer. The sculpture was restored but suffered irreversible damage. Toth was committed to a psychiatric hospital. The protest had no clearly articulated goals and did not lead to societal changes.

Laszlo Toth, claiming to be Christ, struck the sculpture with a hammer. The sculpture was restored but suffered irreversible damage. Toth was committed to a psychiatric hospital.

“Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan” — Ilya Repin (2018): A man attacked the painting, claiming it distorted Russian history. (As a historian, I fully agree with him; the painting bears no relation to reality, and its very existence proves that history can be rewritten by anyone as they see fit, while the uneducated public believes anything scandalous presented to them). The painting was restored after serious damage. The assailant was arrested and sentenced. The act drew attention to the interpretation of historical art but did not lead to significant changes in public perception or policy.

A man attacked the painting, claiming it distorted Russian history. (As a historian, I fully agree with him; the painting bears no relation to reality, and its very existence proves that history can be rewritten by anyone as they see fit, while the uneducated public believes anything scandalous presented to them).

“Virgin of the Rocks” — Leonardo da Vinci (2019): Extinction Rebellion activists doused the painting, demanding action against climate change. The painting was unharmed, thanks to protective glass. The activists were arrested, but the details of their trial are unknown. The act drew attention to the climate crisis but did not lead to immediate policy changes.

Extinction Rebellion activists doused the painting, demanding action against climate change. The painting was unharmed, thanks to protective glass. The activists were arrested, but the details of their trial are unknown.

Statues in the US and Europe (2020): As part of the Black Lives Matter protests, statues of historical figures were damaged. Some statues were restored, others removed or relocated. Many protesters were arrested, but the overall picture of consequences varies. The protests led to a broad public dialogue about racism, colonialism, and historical representation, and in some cases, to political changes, but it’s unclear if the damage to the statues was fruitful.

A statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston was decapitated
The statue of merchant slave owner Robert Milligan was covered by Black Lives Matter activists in London

“Mirror Labyrinth” — Yayoi Kusama (2021): The installation was defaced with black paint by activists protesting against the use of coal and oil. The installation was damaged but restored. The activists were arrested and charged with vandalism. The act drew attention to the ecological damage caused by oil and coal but did not lead to immediate changes. This raises several questions: firstly, how could Yayoi Kusama and her works harm the planet, and what connection does this particular artist have to the promotion of coal and oil usage?

The second question — how effective are protests of this nature? Do oil and coal magnates keep track of news from the art world? Imagine this scenario: an assistant rushes into the education minister’s office, dispersing a crowd, to report a catastrophe about a layman upset by Repin’s distortion of historical facts! What would happen to the already beleaguered public servant after such behavior?

And now, on the other side of the scale, consider the real punishments given to the participants of these actions. If the result is not worth the effort, why damage beautiful creations? What wrong has art done to deserve this?

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