Why would someone attack a painting? Last week in Washington DC, a visitor to the National Gallery’s “Gauguin: Maker of Myth” exhibition took hold of the frame of the post impressionist’s artist’s Two Tahitian Women, then began to pound her fist against the plexiglas protecting the painting.
A by-stander tackled the woman, enabling museum officers to step in. The woman, later identified as Susan Burns, a 53-year-old from Arlington, VA, was told her rights, then asked by an investigator why she had attacked the painting. She responded:
I feel that Gauguin is evil. He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it’s very homosexual. I am trying to remove it. I think it should be burned. I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you.
She is currently being held without bail as she awaits a hearing regarding her mental health. According to the Huffington Post, Burns served six months in jail following a 2006 assault and battery conviction after she attacked a police officer. Two years prior, she was convicted of misdemeanor trespassing. The Washington Post reported that Sharon Weathers Burns’ attorney, declined to comment when approached on Monday.
The painting by Paul Gauguin Two Tahitian Women shows two women standing side by side. One has both breasts exposed, and the other is showing one. A statement by the National Gallery has confirmed that the painting was not damaged; it returned to the exhibit following thorough inspection on Monday.
Violence against art at museums is uncommon, but it still occurs. According to ArtLyst, a man took a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta in 1972, shouting, “I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.” In 1975, a school teacher out of a job slashed Rembrandt’s The Night Watch with a bread knife some dozen times, decreeing, “I have been sent by the Lord! I have been forced to do this by forces out of this Earth!”
The Washington Post also cites several acts of vandalism against art: in 1974 a man ripped a painting from its mounting at the National Gallery and smashed a Renaissance-era folding chair into 30 pieces; between 1978 and 1979, also in DC, 25 paintings were damaged by a sharp instrument, including pieces by Henri Matisse and Pierre-Auguste Renoir; in 1998, two Matisse paintings were vandalized with a pencil at the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
Neither article mention the exact motivations for the damage in these cases. We’re disenchanted by the violently homophobic nature of the attack in DC, however. Bad for the children? We fail to see how censorship and violence are better than the freedom of artistic expression.