“Some nut wrecked the Pietà,” a friend said in the student union. I’ve looked up the date: May 21, 1972, Pentecost Sunday. The news was delivered in words remarkably similar to those informing me of President Kennedy’s assassination, when a driver stopped at my Safety Patrol post and shouted: “Some nut in Texas shot Kennedy!” The geologist who slammed Michelangelo’s Mary with a hammer fifteen times conformed to the Hollywood vision of craziness. “I am Jesus Christ – risen from the dead,” he proclaimed.
Once the bailiwick of the insane and Marcel Duchamp, art vandalism today is a career choice. Consider the recent self-righteous assault on Huckleberry Finn. Consider Helen Pinkerton’s “Literary Theorist” (Taken in Faith: Poems, 2002):
“Abusing its otherness, its soul and wit,
He rapes the text, claiming its benefits—
And that, inscrutable, it asked for it.”
When Zbigniew Herbert visited the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Crete he experienced “a surprise of the unpleasant kind such as I had never had in any museum or in the presence of any work of art.” He continues, in the title essay of Labyrinth on the Sea (The Collected Prose 1948-1998, 2010):
“I was not then a youth thirsting for originality, which as we know is easiest to achieve if you are an iconoclast, if you scorn recognized works and don’t respect either authorities or tradition. This stance has always been alien to me—even odious, if I leave aside the short phase between my fourth and fifth year that psychologists describe as the phase of negativism. I always wanted to love, to adore, to fall to my knees and bow down before greatness, even if it overwhelms and terrifies, for what kind of greatness would it be that didn’t overwhelm and terrify.”
An iconoclast, of course, is a breaker of icons – such as the Virgin Mary. Herbert rightly diagnoses the urge as childish. One might add petulant and self-dramatizing. Rather than gazing with wonder and gratitude at great works of arts, some grow angry and contemptuous, too proud and intimidated “to love, to adore.”