In Europe, they used pea and tomato soup to attack Van Gogh’s works. The Brazilian, more visceral, used green and yellow to try to overthrow democracy and, moreover, leave destroyed works of art in Brasilia.
There are two movements that have grabbed the headlines in recent months. The first was made by environmental activists, who throw goo at screens to protest on behalf of the planet.
The other occurred last week, in Brasilia, when the coup plotters, in the name of faith in an expatriate Messiah, threw everything they had in hand against the works housed in the Planalto Palace, the Federal Supreme Court and the National Congress.
It is difficult to compare the high-minded protests that have swept the globe with the unchecked herd that has sought to depose a democratically elected president. But the movements have one thing in common. They have opened up the vulnerability of cultural heritage.
In December of last year, journalists from this newspaper made test visits to Brazilian museums, motivated by those activists and their tomato soup, without imagining what would happen to many of the most important works kept in the country a month later. .
The goal was to try to enter three of Brazil’s largest museums, all in São Paulo, with food stored in bags, fanny packs and backpacks. The chosen institutions were the Pinacoteca, the Museum of Art of São Paulo, Masp, and the Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of São Paulo, MAC. The bags contained, among other items, two packets of tomato sauce, a liquid chocolate drink and a glass jar with ice cream syrup.
The journey began at Masp, which houses the most important art collection in Latin America, with works by Picasso, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Renoir. There, the bags had to be opened for inspection after passing through the metal detector. Food, stored under blouses and notebooks, was not precluded.
The recommendation then went to the Pinacoteca, home to the main Brazilian art collection in the country, which houses works by Anita Malfatti, Di Cavalcanti, Portinari and Almeida Júnior. There was also a metal detector there and the reception staff asked one of the journalists to leave his backpack in the luggage room. The chocolate powder was left out, but the sauces and toppings, kept in another bag, went into the institution.
The path concluded at the MAC, which houses the most complete collection of modern art in Brazil, which includes Umberto Boccioni, Giorgio De Chirico, Tarsila do Amaral and Josef Albers. The museum does not have metal detectors and the staff did not even search reporters at the entrance.
Nobody tried to throw food at anything, obviously. It is also worth mentioning that when the reporters got very close to the proceedings, the security guards approached them discreetly. But the food, which together would cause gastritis in any sensitive stomach, passed unscathed through the security systems of three of Brazil’s most important museums.
Does this mean that the country’s museums are not prepared for an attack?
The management of the Pinacoteca replied, via e-mail, that it follows the museum safety practices adopted worldwide to “avoid and minimize any type of risk”, without specifying which practices it concerns.
Masp managers said, also by email, that they had doubled their treatments since the attacks abroad began, noting that most of their works are protected by glass or acrylic films. The institution also said it seeks to strike a balance between safeguarding the collection and keeping the museum experience “sleek, pleasant and welcoming.”
MAC was the only institution that had a spokesperson available for an interview. “I don’t see that there has been a failure in the security of the museum, after all there has been no threat movement,” said Ana Magalhães, director of the institution. “Museum security is discreet. It must be because this is a welcoming space, not one of restrictions.”
According to her, the attacks on the works of art were a distant reality in Brazil. “I have followed very little the repercussions of these incidents. I have no reason to comment because this has not yet happened in Brazilian territory,” said Magalhães, four days before the attacks on the buildings in Brasilia.
The invasion of Praça dos Três Poderes has shown that it is not really there. The coup plotters vandalized some of the country’s best-known works of art, such as the “Flag of Brazil” by Jorge Eduardo, found floating in the water that flooded the floor of the Planalto Palace, and the “Mulatas” panel by by Cavalcanti, which is worth R$ 8 million, as well as a rare watch brought to Brazil by Dom João 6º which can no longer be restored.
Out there, while many of the attacks have been similar, the consequences for activists have been different. While those who attacked Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” were sentenced to two months’ imprisonment in Holland, those who attacked Sandro Botticelli’s “A Primavera” are forbidden to return to Florence for the next three years, the Italian city where the protest took place.
Already the tomato sauce thrown into Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ painting has led British rulers to introduce a bill seeking to extend penalties for activists who cause public unrest, which has been seen by some as a undemocratic plan.
According to Marcelo Frullani, an intellectual property lawyer, the results are determined by the differences in legislation in each country. He says that there are international treaties that standardize the protection rules for museums, but it is not easy to draw a line that separates freedom of expression and the abuse of this right.
In Brazil, copyright, property and civil issues are at stake. Thiago Fattori, a criminal lawyer and master of criminal procedural law, says that, according to Brazilian law, the penalty for cases of looting what is listed as assets is imprisonment from one to three years and a fine.
The penalty can be mitigated if justice understands that the act was motivated by some social value, but it’s hard to predict what could actually happen in the courts, Fattori says. “My guess is that the sentence could even be increased. Defining what is or isn’t morally and socially relevant depends on the judge’s head.”
If the damaged work is protected by a glass film, for example, justice may still see the attack as an impossible crime. “Even if I throw tomato paste on the work, there is a shield that prevents damage. In the context of criminal law, this is considered an impossible crime, because the good is not achieved”, adds Fattori.
The Barberini Museum in Potsdam, Germany, has announced it would change its security system after a painting from Claude Monet’s ‘Haystacks’ series was attacked. At the time, the director of the institute said that international practices for the protection of works of art were not sufficient and needed to be reviewed.
Keeping museums safe, however, is a costly investment, says José Nascimento, former president of Ibram, the Brazilian Institute of Museums, a federal government agency responsible for dozens of museums and which outlines guidelines for the sector. “In addition to hiring guards, the institution bears other costs, such as the purchase of cameras and protective film.”
Films aren’t necessarily a form of protection against attacks, says the MAC director. He says that the bulkheads serve to protect the work from wear and tear caused by factors such as the passage of time and ambient temperature. Thus, it is usually not the threat of attack or the importance of a work that dictates which should be more or less protected.
In addition to security costs, attacks can increase the cost of insuring artworks, says Rita de Cássia, former president and current treasurer of the Federal Council of Museology. In practice, this can make the loan and dissemination of a painting, for example, impossible, which can create an obstacle to the democratization of access to art.
Until now, all paintings attacked by activists overseas had the extra layer of protection, glass or plexiglass, which the manifesto’s supporters use as justification to keep up the protests. By email, Just Stop Oil representatives do not clarify whether they intend to attack unprotected works. According to the group, most members are afraid of being fined or arrested.
The treasurer of the Museology Council, however, says that the activists’ argument is not valid, because “a chipped glass can allow the passage of material that will cause damage to the work or a historical frame can be broken”.
The fact is that attacks on works of art are already a reality in the country. Helder Oliveira, an art expert with experience at the Federal Revenue Service, says attacks on museums overseas have not caused serious damage to the works, but adds a caveat. “Regardless of the cost of the work, the most important thing is to remember that there is no replacement. You cannot replace a work with major damage.”
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