The Art Of Protest: Cultural Objects And Criminal Damage

Published date25 January 2023
Subject MatterMedia, Telecoms, IT, Entertainment, Criminal Law, Music and the Arts, Crime
Law FirmWithers LLP
AuthorMr Sarah Barker, Natalie Sherborn and Briony Cartmell

Throughout history artists have often been the maverick voices in society, pushing at boundaries and spearheading social change. However, artworks are currently the target of protesters seeking publicity. What has been going on, and what are some of the consequences of targeting artworks in the furtherance of a cause?

Art and protest in the news

On 14 October 2022, two demonstrators threw soup at Van Gogh's work 'Sunflowers' and glued themselves to the walls of the National Gallery. They did this under the auspices of Just Stop Oil, an activist organisation concerned with halting British fossil fuel licenses. The pair have been released on bail pending their trial, set for 22 July 2024. A condition of bail includes a restriction from having glue or paint in their possession in a public place.

This case is one example of the recent proliferation of attacks on art in the name of protest. It has been reported that Alex De Koning, a Just Stop Oil activist, indicated that the group may start slashing paintings to further their cause. As De Koning notes, this is not a new phenomenon; the group references the suffragettes who 'violently slashed paintings in order to get their messages across.' In 1914, Mary Richardson slashed Velazquez's painting The Rokeby Venus in response to the arrest of fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, an act for which she was imprisoned for the maximum sentence then of six months.

De Koning's statements contrast with some protesters attempting to adopt a more considered approach by consulting conservators to try and avoid harm to works. It has been reported that the demonstrators who glued themselves to Constable's work The Hay Wain at the National Gallery maintain they were advised by an 'art expert' that low tack tape and small amounts of glue would not cause damage to the frame. In that case, such efforts to fall within the ambit of the law did not assist the protesters, and they were ordered in December 2022 to pay '1,081 in restoration costs.

How is the criminal justice system responding?

Practitioners in the criminal justice system have been grappling with how to apply the current law in a changing political and societal landscape. Proceedings for criminal damage relating to protest have seen attempts to run novel legal arguments to try and justify demonstrators' actions. On 7 June 2020, a statue of Edward Colston was memorably toppled into Bristol Harbour, with four individuals acquitted of criminal damage on 5 January 2022. At...

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