Faced with an obstinate Government boasting a string of broken promises, the women in the vanguard of the fight for the right to vote resorted to desperate, headline-grabbing incidents in the early 1910s; everything from choreographed window-smashing to arson to bombings became key components in the Suffragette arsenal, yet the increasingly militant elements of this period specialising in spectacular stunts invariably encouraged some part-timers for whom the issue was a convenient cause to hang their dilettante ‘radicalism’ on. That’s not necessarily something unique, of course; all crusades tend to attract the amateur agitator and anarchist when legitimate democratic means stall. Take Mary Richardson, a twisted fire-starter whose commitment to one cause was swiftly supplanted by another; once her stint as a suburban guerrilla ended, she moved on to champagne socialism and then fascism, specifically Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, whose organisation she ended up fronting the female section of. But if Mary Richardson remains remembered for anything, it is an act of vandalism undertaken in the name of suffrage – that of defacing The Rokeby Venus by Velázquez in 1914 as it hung in the National Gallery.
A rare nude produced during the era of the Inquisition, The Rokeby Venus is a portrait of the Goddess of love in a sublimely sensual pose of relaxation, seen from behind. Mary Richardson attacked the painting with a meat cleaver in a frenzy reported in the press at the time as though she’d attacked an actual woman, though the damage done was considerably restricted by the glass separating the canvas from the public. An action that was successfully neutralised due to the diligence of the National Gallery’s chief restorer, the stunt nevertheless resulted in a six-month prison sentence for the culprit and laid the foundations for every ‘activist’ assault on a work of art thereafter, legitimising the gesture in the process. Perhaps echoing the activism of a century ago, climate change protestors on Monday decided to make their own point re an iconic artwork by attacking one of the most recognisable British paintings of the 19th century, John Constable’s The Hay Wain, in the same venue Mary Richardson formulated the template in 1914.
The Hay Wain has been a magnet for protestors of one form or another before, however; a decade ago, a Fathers 4 Justice member stuck a photo onto the canvas, though the painting was not permanently damaged. This time round, a group calling themselves Just Stop Oil mirrored the middle-class luxury of having time on one’s hands characteristic of some of the more bourgeois Suffragettes by honing in on the painting and gluing themselves to the frame whilst attaching images of prominent polluters of the atmosphere such as aeroplanes to the canvas itself. Even the latter act has a stale obviousness about it. Terry Gilliam beat them to it by half-a-century, applying his manic creativity to the picture in one of his Python animations that saw the bucolic tranquillity of the serene scene rudely interrupted by industrial progress. Then again, unlike the protestors, Gilliam has more in common with Constable, being an artist himself, and one who immediately knows what inspired mischief he can inflict upon an image. Even Banksy has applied similar tactics to famous works of art without resorting to damaging the originals; but one wouldn’t expect ingenious intervention from philistines who can only destroy rather than create, which is a hallmark of contemporary ‘activism’.
The action provoked an evacuation of the National Gallery section housing The Hay Wain as the apparent leader of the group – who goes by the name of…er…Eben – announced ‘Art is important. It should be held by future generations to see, but when there is no food, what use is art? When there is no water, what use is art? When billions of people are in pain are suffering, what use then is art?’ Not much use, granted; but then, neither is a cheap stunt enacted by narcissistic doom-mongers incapable of making a point through artistic means and thus reduced to the defecation of genius that says more about their own absence of creative inspiration than it does the cause they profess to be promoting. Over the weekend, five members of the same organisation also disrupted the British Grand Prix, invading the Silverstone racetrack during the opening lap; they sat down on the tarmac and no doubt instilled the hope in spectators that the race would continue with the protestors seen as point-scoring obstacles to be mowed-down ala Roger Corman’s futuristic flick from the 70s, ‘Death Race 2000’. Whatever the outcome, the issues that spawn such activism will never be resolved by actions that alienate art-lovers, sports-goers and members of the general public alike. Interrupting art and entertainment in the name of a cause is something that only ever has a counterproductive effect on those it aims to ‘educate’.
Meanwhile, in other news…having controversially illuminated Wimbledon with his antagonistic form of gamesmanship, Australian tennis-player Nick Kyrgios is reported to have been summoned for an appearance in a different kind of court next month. The quarter-finalist has been scheduled to face Canberra magistrates in August in relation to a charge of common assault on a former girlfriend last year. Naturally, the spectre of Amber Heard and her Oscar-winning performance as a professional victim hangs over any allegations of domestic abuse made against a celebrity ex, though the timing of this story has come at a moment when bad behaviour on the part of male figures in a position of influence is once again headline news.
As with Alex Salmond, any rumour of how power in male hands can be manifested as a sexual weapon naturally provides the MeToo narrative with ammunition. The former Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood is currently confronted by a slew of accusations regarding his sexual misconduct towards women whilst presenting a show on the station for the best part of 20 years from the early 90s to the early 2010s. Personally, I always found the Ali G-like ‘street’ patois of the son of the Bishop of Peterborough a bit toe-curling during his stint on the airwaves, though recent revelations come as far more embarrassing to the Beeb than Westwood’s waffle on his long-running rap show. After all, the BBC are still attempting to portray their dirty old men employees as strictly belonging to a generation most prevalent back in the 1970s. Westwood was supposed to be the ‘cool’ alternative to the bomber jacket-wearing old guard that used to be naff fixtures on the Radio 1 Roadshow.
Half-a-dozen allegations against Westwood were grouped together and made public for the first time in a BBC3 documentary and whilst the veteran DJ (he’s 64) has refuted the allegations, it’s now emerged the BBC had received these complaints whilst previously denying all knowledge of them. BBC DG Tim Davie – who was in control of the Corporation’s radio output whilst Westwood was still on Radio 1 – had claimed he’d seen no evidence of complaints following the broadcast of the programme publicising them, though if the allegations were known internally at the Beeb, the situation has parallels with Downing Street, where a civil servant has come out and stated Boris Johnson had received advance warning of Tory MP Chris Pincher before his appointment as Deputy Chief Whip, a job Pincher quit last week.
With a surname reminiscent of a ‘Carry On’ character, Pincher’s peccadilloes leaned towards gentlemen rather than ladies – he’s accused of groping a couple of guys at the Carlton Club; but if Boris knew and still gave Pincher the job, don’t expect our PM to admit it. Mind you, does anyone expect Boris to exhibit honesty when it comes to what he did or didn’t know about anything anymore? I doubt it.
© The Editor