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Like any of the other art critics you’ve talked to this week, we recoiled at the news that a visitor had attempted to savage a painting by Paul Gauguin at the National Gallery of Art. Granted, Gauguin was not anyone’s idea of a sweetheart. “Peripubescent” is the word sometimes used to describe the subjects of his portraits, who were sometimes also the victims of his sexual appetites. In another time and place, Gauguin would be forced to host his film openings outside the U.S.—or he’d be tweeting about his Tahitian tiger blood.
So maybe the woman who screamed and pried at his work was mentally disturbed—or maybe she was morally piqued. As a rule, it’s too hard to look back through art history and know the good apples from the bad ones. Which is not to excuse any gross colonial island sex crimes, but to acknowledge (with a little hand-wave-y moral relativism) that objects persist independent of and well beyond the crimes of their makers.
In any case, there are so many, many art crimes to prosecute. It’s a great thing that Gauguin’s “Two Tahitian Women” wasn’t damaged. Still, if we had to see works at National Gallery of Art defaced, we’d prefer they were these ones:
Kriston Capps: Renoirmay have been a family man, but his work shouldn’t be suffered by decent folk. “Oarsmen at Chatou” at the National Gallery is a work I’d like to see flung from its frame. The Crayola brush stroke, the rainbow scenes of wealth at rest: evil! Well, not evil, really, but definitely pukey.
Jeffry Cudlin: I would like to build a stainless steel treehouse in the branches of Roxy Paine’s “Graft,” and live up there for a week dressed as the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, pleading with tourists to climb up and “oil me.” I would do this because I am desperate for attention, enjoy playing dress-up, and am attracted to shiny objects.
John Anderson: Actually, I’ve been defacing a work of art very subtly since September last year. On the second Wednesday of every month I walk into the National Gallery’s East Wing at the exact moment it opens and casually make my way down to the Sol LeWitt, “Wall Drawing #65.” I then reach into my pocket to randomly select a colored pencil: one of the four colors on the wall—except I haven’t been a careful study. The colors in my pocket are not exact matches, but I work them in so delicately it is nearly impossible to tell that my colored pencil is not the exact same tone as the colored pencil originally on the wall. To date I have yet to work up the chutzpah to add my touch to the “Untitled” Robert Ryman painting. But I carry a baby food jar filled with white paint, and a liner brush…just in case.