A Letter to Protect Sunflowers

A Letter to Protect Sunflowers

Una carta para proteger los girasoles

Adriana Díaz Enciso

Dear Anna and Phoebe,

A few weeks ago, a friend and I went to the National Gallery in London to see a picture. Only the one, very specific, about which I’ll talk later. We were disconcerted by the conspicuous reinforcement of security at the entrance. At first we didn’t connect it with you. Only hours later did I put two and two together: entering the National Gallery to see a work of art and being welcomed by bothersome security measures is a direct consequence of your throwing a can of tomato soup to a Vincent van Gogh picture, from his sunflowers’ series, in the name of the defence of the planet.

It’s a sad result, by now already reproduced in other museums, in a world which seems to be turning sadder itself every day (and more guarded), prey of continuous disquiet, and I fear it has nothing to do with what you were after.

There are some who claim, after your action last October, that most of its condemnation comes from conservative right-wing people. This tendentious falsity doesn’t contribute much to debate. For example, I am one of those who felt colossal rage (and sadness too, to go back to this letter’s leitmotiv) after your attack. I’m not, and have never been, conservative or “right-wing”. None of my many friends (to a great extent authors and artists) who were equally furious is. In fact, both them and myself share with you the alarm, at moments despair, before the conclusive and atrocious reality of the climate emergency. I agree with you in thinking that civil disobedience has become a last, necessary resort in the face of the deaf ears of those in power, among whom we often find the real criminals. I also agree with you in thinking that the UK’s government, in its irresponsible indifference to the climate emergency, in its corruption, its lies and its disastrous handling of the financial crisis that is harming the lives of millions of people, is a delinquent government that must be forced to be responsible for its actions and act effectively for the common good.

However, your attack (for that’s what it was) on Van Gogh’s painting, and the subsequent assaults on other artworks in various museums across the world, either from Just Stop Oil members, like yourselves, or those of other organisations, infuriates and depresses me. I want to understand. And if I do, it’s because dialogue is necessary; because we need to learn to listen to each other in this fragmented and inexpressibly wounded world that is on the verge of collapse. I have read some of your interviews, and have also heard you talk in some videos. I have no doubt that you take your activism seriously. You expound with eloquence the disastrous panorama we’re all caught in, that is vertiginously becoming the annihilation of future. I respect you, as well as the general principles behind Just Stop Oil, and those of Extinction Rebellion, an organisation that, if I understand well, you abandoned in disappointment, even though it also works on a principle of civil disobedience, and their actions are not lacking in imagination and courage. XR has achieved results. Perhaps less than we would wish, and not consistent with our haste, but our impatience does not justify in any way this incoherent and desperate turn against art. I must say that I do not support all of XR’s actions; I find, for instance, the recent action of its Animal Rebellion offshoot, shedding milk in supermarkets, deplorable, but in this letter, I will concentrate on the attacks against art at the hands of activists like you.

You tell us that there’s been no damage done to the works targeted for your aggressions (as far as I’m aware while I write this, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, at the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague; Constable’s The Hay Wain, also at the London National Gallery; Monet’s Haystacks in Berlin; two works by Goya (or their frames, rather) at the Museo del Prado; Picasso’s Massacre in Korea at the Melbourne Museum; La Gioconda at the Louvre in May, and just a few days ago Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life in Vienna).  But I cannot think you ignore there is a risk not only of damage, but of your example becoming a catalyst for more radical activists who may decide to actually destroy the artworks. The enumeration of works attacked during this deplorable spate that turns art in the unjustified object of your justified rage, in a gesture that would suggest impotence, is already too long. To adduce in your defence that there was no harm done to the actual work is an argument of doubtful naivete. You are all activists. It is inconceivable that you ignore that your actions are symbolically charged, when the impact of civil disobedience has its foundation on the handling of symbols and their dramatic potential.

Let us please be honest, and consistent. If you throw a can of soup, a gallon of mashed potatoes, a piece of cake or a jet of oil at a painting, it doesn’t matter if it “only damaged the frame”, or the protective glass: you are, symbolically and without the shadow of a doubt, attacking art. Not the governments of the world, not the companies producing fossil fuels, not the capitalist system that tries to legitimise the limitless exploitation of natural resources, indifferent to its human cost and to the catastrophe already unleashed on the planet, but art.

Why have these actions started at the National Gallery spread like wildfire throughout the world? An argument that you have used in several interviews is that these attacks, and in particular yours against Van Gogh’s sunflowers, have caused a stir and people are talking at last about the ecologic emergency. In this you are mistaken. Indeed, many people all over the world are talking about your attack and those that have followed, but not in direct connection with your cause, but as an arbitrary, clumsy, and disgraceful attack: a shooting against the wrong target. What your actions have achieved is to turn attention away from the ecologic emergency, taking the discussion elsewhere. Such actions, therefore, from activism’s point of view, are a failure, and from a simply human point of view, they are a lamentable mistake, a step backward, and the intensifying of the chaos and noise which, at the present time, stupefy us all.

Anna, you have reminded us that, in their time, the suffragists stabbed artworks. I will ask you if that—sheer imitation—justifies by itself the current attacks. Our debt to the suffragists is beyond words, but to adopt unthinkingly the tactics of the resistance movements of the past only because “they did it too” leaves us in the terrain of mere impulse, far from understanding, and therefore, from the full responsibility for our actions.

When you argue, together with other activists, that you want to direct attention to the seriousness of the climate crisis, you claim that artworks are more protected than the planet, and end up brandishing against an abstract “you” your accusation: that we are more horrified by the possible destruction of a work of art than by that of the planet and human beings. The tone used by the Hague activists (in a bizarre action involving a man trying to glue his head to the Girl with a Pearl Earring while his companion bathed him in tomato soup, the latter an esoteric gesture that I couldn’t penetrate) was frankly menacing, mimicking the language involved in the kidnapping of human beings used as hostages: how does it feel, they asked, to see a beautiful object about to be destroyed before your very eyes? As for those who attacked Monet’s picture in Berlin, in directly accusatory hysteria, they repeated the slogan, “that painting will be worth nothing when we have to fight for food”. The boy who attacked da Vinci’s Gioconda at the Louvre shouted, with overwhelming lack of logics: “Think of the Earth! All artists tell you to think about the earth. That is why I did it!” The recriminations from you all to museums and galleries visitors stems from mere assumptions. How do you prove the accuracy of the equation according to which art matters more than human life to those people who appreciate it? Hasn’t it crossed your mind that some of the museum’s visitors may be, or have been, activists too? What do you know about their struggles, about their stance and their actions (or lack thereof) in regard to the destruction of the planet? When did art become human life’s antithesis? (And here I was, thinking it was one of its highest manifestations.) Why suddenly art and those of us who appreciate it have become the enemy?

You insist on saying that, on the wake of your actions, the world is “at last” talking about the climate emergency. That is a tremendous distortion of reality. It is tragic and deplorable that we have started to talk so late about the most urgent of all themes, on which our future is balanced, but now it is much talked about, in public and in private, way before you started this spate of attacks on artworks. Not only that victory cannot be conferred to you; as I have already said, all you are achieving is to deflect attention and undermine your struggle.

About that struggle you talk eloquently and with composure, but you also display naivete, confusion and no little arrogance—surely a result of the latter. For instance, Anna, in a recent interview in Frieze, you say what we all know: that Vincent van Gogh lived and died in poverty, and that his painting is beautiful. You also say that if Van Gogh were alive now, in the UK, under this government, he would probably be one of the many who will have to choose this winter between food or heating, and there is logic in your guess. But then you say that you’d “like to think that Van Gogh would have been one of those people who knows we need to step up into civil disobedience and non-violent direct action.” Wait a moment: did you say non-violent? Do you really think that an artist can find an aggression against their work non-violent? And aren’t you going a step too far, without any sort of foundations, on assuming that van Gogh would be “one of yours”? That is putting too many words in his mouth and adds insult to injury. You attack a dead artist, who cannot defend himself, and, to top it all, declare that he surely would side with you for attacking him.

You evidently don’t know this, but artists in whatever discipline have always known that aggressions against art are one of the most sonorous and atrocious signs of the persecution of freedom. Attempting against one of the finest fruits of the human spirit in the name of an ideology, an idea, a morality—no matter which—is and has always been a weapon of tyranny. Is it possible that the members of Just Stop Oil and the other organisations that have charged against artworks ignore this elemental truth? I cannot help wondering whether you are interested in art at all; if you visit galleries and museums to contemplate the fruit of the work of men and women who have devoted their lives to create something of immense value that belongs to us all—a value that is not quantitative, and which goes beyond the narrow confines of our political and social juncture, and even that of its creators. I wonder if you care about the beauty that can be created purely out of this fallible and fragile matter that is human nature.

You perhaps hadn’t even been born when the Taliban destroyed the Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2001, but I remember well, and I suggest you think of the meaning of that atrocity; of why, in fact, it is an atrocity, and of its colossal and lugubrious symbolic magnitude. The Taliban’s justification was that the gigantic sculptures, around 1500 years old, were anti-Islamic idols—the same reason why they forbid music (just imagine!). From a stance of supposed moral superiority, they attack art because the world is not like they want it to be, and on doing so, they go on adding bricks to the horrendous museum that exhibits in the form of craters, gaps, absences, the attempts at annihilation of the human spirit. You will say that you didn’t destroy van Gogh’s painting, but the message you’re giving is abundantly clear: art is the vein that you are now mining, equally putting on the cloak of moral superiority. You are intensifying your campaign there where there is no enemy, and I believe that this can only be done by people who care little or nothing about the arts.

When, I wonder (in dismay), will you start to really destroy artworks? When, to burn books? Because the paper comes from trees, perhaps? Hasn’t it ever crossed your mind that a world where the value of art is negated, sacrificed to an ideology, is a world not worth living in, even if we manage to save it from the climate catastrophe?

The problem here is that you, just as the other activists attacking artworks, are confusing and opposing dissimilar categories of reality. Your reductionist postulates are also exclusively materialistic. You are attacking, symbolically, works of art as if these were the façade of Shell, of a Barclays’ branch or Downing Street’s gate; as if they were objects, signifiers of the oppressor and the tyrant. But a work of art is not a mere object, as poet John Milton (have you read him?) has already warned, regarding books, in his Aeropagitica, a controversial defence of freedom of expression presented to the English Parliament in 1644. It is worth quoting extensively, because there Milton gives superb expression to the value and nature of intellectual work (and, by extension, the work of art), which should be inviolable:

For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. [. . .] And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. [. . .]  We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man, preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre; whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life.

You say that, when the planet is destroyed, those paintings that you have attacked will be worth nothing; before your arrest at the National Gallery, Phoebe, you asked, rhetorically: “Is art worth more than life? More than food? More than justice?” Meanwhile, the activists who struck Constable’s piece last summer, after acknowledging that art is “important”, were also asking the audience rhetorical questions: “When there’s no food, what use is art? When there’s no water, what use is art? And when millions of people are in pain and suffering, what use then is art?” And this is where you are mistaken in a colossal manner, again, because of your erroneous attempt at including in a same equation elements that belong to dissimilar categories. To start with, art, being invaluable, has, in principle, no “use”. To this subtle paradox we should add an enlightening reality: our world will be extinguished eventually, with or without a climate catastrophe. As creatures with a consciousness, blessed or cursed, depending on your view, with this knowledge, the task in our fleeting existence is to learn to live in that precarious balance between treasuring being and letting it go. There is no doubt that our fundamental duty is to protect the only home we have, which belongs not only to the human race, but to all forms of life. Hence the value of what you and many other activists are doing: protesting, turning to civil disobedience if necessary. It is the concern of all of us to care for that which has a value for life—and that includes, categorically, humanity’s cultural patrimony, something that you perhaps have not considered. The moment will come, in thousands of millions of years, when even the sun, our sun, will be extinguished. Do you believe that this fact detracts from the value of human toil? Because if we hold such a perspective, then your protests, which are a human action and the complex product of an also complex culture, don’t make any sense either. We had better then, in our rage, slam life shut, and just set fire to it all.

But we happen to be human, whether we like it or not. This is what we are. Not only mortal, as everything is mortal, but beings aware of that mortality and, luckily, of much more than that, and despite, or rather because of, that awareness, we move instinctively towards life. And life is creation; we are creation, as well as the reflection of that utterly mysterious impulse. We are, needless to say, pathetically fallible; we can be monstrous, but we also have within us the capacity to question the world we live in, to have glimpses of reality that raise us above the limits of our very humanity and integrate us to the portent of the universe we are part of. We have also the gift to penetrate in fleeting, yet powerful moments, the essence of our own human heart. Hence art, in its double dynamics of creation and contemplation (“appreciation” is too weak a term here). And though those moments are ephemeral, and then we’re back again those fragile, flawed and often blind creatures, the work of art remains as testimony of that exceptional perception; it is another small miracle that accompanies us in the bittersweet adventure of our humanity. All the great artists who have devoted their life to seeking those glimpses of truth have said it before: a society without art is impoverished, brutal and barely human.

It is wrong to think that art keeps us company only through idleness and fair weather. History gives us endless examples of art as a beacon even in moments of individual or collective devastation; indeed, it gives us solace, but also depth. It reminds us of our belonging to what is human and to creation, and as it allows us insights of that profound mystery, it strengthens and ennobles us.

Unfortunately, this is something that many people do not know, and believe me: to wander about the world like a living dead, without any knowledge of the greatness of the human heart and intellect, our senses blunted by the ever shriller and more disjointed uproar of our global society is not disconnected in any way from the fact that we treat our planet like we do; as if it were nothing but the repository of our rubbish and a mere resource—an object—to exploit. The same blunt and split vision is responsible for the contempt for artworks. When we lose our sensitivity to art, we are also losing our soul, spirit, or however you want to call it, and there is no political movement, however noble its initial causes may be, that can justify such a loss. Art is not utilitarian, and therefore it cannot be used in order to illustrate a cause. Art stands up by itself on a different ground altogether, there where we try to make the ineffable intelligible. To contemplate a work of art means to be part of that attempt, doubtless heroic, to elucidate what it means to be human. Are you going to attack those of us who keep on seeking that connection amid a brutal society, sick with noise, that stumbles around aimlessly and with no meaning? Well, let me tell you that you have no right.

I don ‘t ignore the fact that, in our times, art has become so commercialised that hardly anyone understands what it is anymore, even if they have it before their eyes, and even quite a few of the organisations that should be its guardians share the blame. It exasperates me, when I go to a museum or a gallery, to see the hordes of people sweeping past the works on show, like zombies, wielding their mobile phones, taking their pictures, and passing them by without stopping for a second to really see them, and I’ve often wanted to hold one of these persons by the arm and tell them, “Stop! Stop for a moment and look at it!” Because when that person looks at the work’s photo in their mobile phone (if they remember to) or show it to someone else at a café to demonstrate that they’ve been in such and such museum (though they shouldn’t bother, because it would have sufficed to look for the said work in that sinister repository of everything that is internet), the experience will have been irremediably lost. The work will be nothing more than an image on a screen, among the billions of images on a screen that bury and brutalise us every day.

I am prey to the same fury (or sadness, depending on the day) when I’m on a train and see the vast majority of people engrossed, again, in the screens of their execrable mobile phones, without seeing the scenery outside, without noticing the beauty of the day: a vision and a moment that they will never get back. Both the visitors to museums and the travellers who choose a machine’s mediation over experience treat the arts, the landscape, the entire world, as mere objects, “data”. Such depersonalisation is followed by indifference, neglect, and then destruction.

Activism that includes artworks in this category of data and objects that only matter insofar as they can be used to serve its interests, however laudable these may be, does not have the authority to lecture others or establish the hierarchies of a lofty morality, because it lacks depth. To take works of art as hostage to their interests is a vile action that places you on the wrong side of history, and since not only do I sympathise with your cause, but do share the conviction that it is the most urgent cause that concerns us all, I find thinking that you haven’t realised this exceedingly alarming.

Let us imagine for a moment that the scene is inverted. What if we lived in a world in which there was no climate crisis, but we faced instead the imminent threat of the destruction of the whole of humanity’s artistic patrimony? Would that situation justify that art’s defenders threatened with destroying “something beautiful”, such as a tree, or with setting a forest on fire, to call attention to their cause? It would be absurd and contradictory, wouldn’t it? Well then, what you have done isn’t less so. Both nature and art are essential to our experience of being in the world and to our full realisation of that experience. Attacking the one to defend the other is a way of attacking life—from that to threatening human lives, the step is much shorter than you may think. That is why I’m writing this letter; because I believe that, despite your evident sincerity and passion, you’re disregarding the relevance of art, and, in your despair, are not thinking about this with due seriousness.

But that’s enough arguments, which may sound to you like mere theory, an abstraction. Allow me, rather, to tell you about the picture that my friend and I went to see that day at the National Gallery. It’s The Vision of Saint Eustace, by the Quattrocento Italian artist Antonio di Puccio Pisano, better known as Pisanello. We don’t know much about his life, beyond the fact that he was an itinerant artist who travelled from court to court. We do know that he was an assistant of the renowned Gentile da Fabriano, who had a huge influence on his own refinement. Pisanello, in his apprentice capacity, and later as the lauded master who influenced others, reminds us that art is a labour of continuity that doesn’t belong to a sole individual.

His work was highly praised by his contemporaries, and diverse courts and families renowned for their patronage vied for his services. Some of his works haven’t survived, but luckily we still have some examples of his exquisite vision. In the 19th Century his famous Saint George and the Princess of Trebizond was damaged through damp; it was restored caringly,  and I hope that you agree that the effort was worthwhile. The influence of Oriental styles can be perceived in Pisanello’s work, as well as the continuity of his masters’ work, and a vivid imagination which is only, uniquely his own.

His life was not spared from the effects of history, politics, war; his political alliances during the 1438 war between Filippo Maria Visconti, the Duke of Milan, and Venice, meant exile from his homeland, the confiscation of his possessions, and penury. His fame has been affected by the volubility pertaining to everything human, and after his death he was all but forgotten for a long while. He is now considered one of the great masters of his period’s Gothic art.

The Vision of Saint Eustace is a picture of modest dimensions. It occupies a discreet space in one of the National Gallery’s rooms for Medieval art: you must look for it. It was painted around the mid-15th Century, though we don’t know the exact date, and it illustrates the mythical vision of the saint, as it is told in the Golden Legend, a collection of hagiographies that was very popular in the late Middle Ages. We see Saint Eustace, who had been a Roman pagan general called Placidus (Plakidas in Greek), in the moment of his conversion to Christianity, on a day that he goes hunting and is confronted by a stag that shows a crucifix between its antlers. According to the legend, he also hears a divine voice that announces his future martyrdom. Years later he would be executed by emperor Hadrian for refusing to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods. He’s first thrown, along with his family, to the lions, but rather than attacking him, the beasts lie at his feet. Hadrian then sentences the family to the torture method known as the brazen bull. In it, the victim was introduced in the hollow interior of a bull made of bronze; a fire was kindled under the animal, it heated up the metal, and the victim was roasted to death. Eustace is the patron saint of hunters, firefighters, victims of torture, and one of Madrid’s patrons too.

There is no need to be Christian (or to support hunting, I haste to clarify, before animal defence activists think of throwing raw meat around the National Gallery’s Medieval rooms) to appreciate this extraordinary painting. In fact, there’s no need even for Saint Eustace to have ever existed. There’s no irrefutable proof of his historical reality, and his legend is likely to have grown as the conjunction of many others, coming from lands far apart from each other. All we need is to see the picture—to stand before it and enter that miniature universe of symbols, its narrative articulated through aesthetic exquisiteness, visual composition, line, colour, and even the paint texture.

No reproduction (and let’s not even mention the picture’s photos on a mobile phone) can offer a substitute to the experience of seeing it face to face. Saint Eustace is portrayed with a splendid golden raiment and blue turban, characteristic of Pisanello’s exuberant style. Even the horse (and the Italian artist had a predilection for these animals) display the most sumptuous trappings. From the moment we stand before the painting, we enter a charmed world, and everything else disappears. Our attention is immediately drawn to the dignified bearing of the man, who looks here rather young, with something between innocence and gravity in his face, awed by the supernatural vision, and to the harmony and splendour of his attire. His attitude compels us to follow his gaze, and then we notice the stag, noble and dignified too, standing firmly in a shadier area in the landscape, though the crucifix between its antlers stands out in a faint light.

The more we look, we realise that many other creatures people this scene, apart from its protagonists (Eustace, the stag, the crucified Christ): a whole animal realm fills the picture with life, illustrating not only the hunting theme, but the love that, in the legend, the animals feel for the saint, and—this is essential—the artist’s unquestionable delight in painting them. By the pack of dogs at the bottom there is a delicious scene: the somewhat gawky hound chasing an agile hare that will probably manage to escape. And there’s more, much more: look for the bear, the other deer, the infinity of birds of all species. The picture has darkened with time, which makes the task to find the creatures harder, but it’s a most gratifying search. In any case, that the forest is dark is intentional, as dark all forests must be: sites of initiation, where gates to other worlds are opened, and visions and mysteries are revealed. Contemplating this picture means finding infinite dimensions in that darkness. We get a glimpse of a kind of path among the different gradations of colour.

The afternoon I’ve been talking about, my friend and I stood for a long while in front of The Vision of Saint Eustace, virtually inside that magnificent world, in itself complete, that Pisanello created over 500 years ago. It speaks to us, as it has spoken to countless other persons, and it will go on doing so for as long as it can be preserved. I hope you will agree that this is a small miracle. I didn’t want to leave; I wanted to take the painting home with me (but I’m sure I would have fared far worse than you, had I done so!). On a moment when I felt fatigued, sad and, like a great deal of us humans in the planet nowadays, overwhelmed by the endless chain of misfortunes that threaten us collectively and those already here, that afternoon, facing a work of enormous beauty that is still scandalously alive though the man who created it died centuries ago, was balm for my spirit. And no—it’s not escapism. Our relationship with artistic creation makes us strong because it awakes the echo of a common humanity that stretches mysteriously across time and all geographies; the faculty that makes us curious, capable of aesthetic pleasure and of an instinctive reaction to different forms of harmony. In short, it awakens our imagination. At the same time, this interaction broadens our perspective, as it allows us to recognise that common faculty in the most dissimilar works, from the farthest provenance, in an immediate manner which is the exact opposite of the premeditated reaction dictated by the straitjackets of our ideological constructions. Such a recognition is like an electric discharge that helps us breathe, makes us free even if for a fleeting moment, and through this release helps us go back to the pain of the world as at least slightly better human beings. Why? Because we are a bit freer, precisely, and freedom, though its attainment is arduous and often harrowing (something that all artists know well), is contagious.

This is why art matters, and to commit violence against it, even if it’s “only” symbolically (an “only” as equivocal as it is disastrous, inasmuch as the language of art implies the capacity of symbolic insight), is an assault on our humanity. To understand it, however, we need to consider the artwork with the disposition it demands. In his Biographia Literaria, poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge quotes Plotinus, who is considered the founder of Neoplatonism, in this regard: our eye must be prepared to see; it ought to become similar to the object we contemplate, so that it can respond to its virtue intuitively. If, instead, we believe that the act of seeing a work of art is merely mechanic; if we consider that work as a mere product or object suitable for any utilitarian end dictated by our whim, we will never learn to appreciate art or ascertain its value. The loss resulting from such narrow-mindedness is brutal, and it’s not qualitatively at variance with the loss of our planet’s delicate natural balance from which we all are suffering now, the consequence of a collective blindness that has made us consider nature in purely utilitarian terms.

Our planet is wounded. The harm it has suffered at the hands of humans is to a great measure irreversible; the lives of countless species has been extinguished or is under threat; this threat hovers above humanity itself as a species, and it has already cost the lives of countless people as well. The loss is inexpressible, as you so well know.

I think that here it may be useful to compare the possible extinction of our planet as we know it, during the relatively minimal period comprised in human history, with the diagnosis of a fatal disease for someone we love. When this happens, we do everything in our power to find a cure, and throughout that process, we accompany that person. We accompany them even if the disease makes progress; even if our efforts fail. We do everything to save those who are ill even if we know that it might not be possible, and willing to accompany the dying as well. The same can be applied to the earth. Indeed, we must try to save our planet through any means we can find, and even if we know that our attempts might be futile. We cannot spare any effort, but throughout our very struggle, we must accompany the world, even if it’s about to die, which implies as well to accompany ourselves, because we humans are part of nature. And, in addition to the aesthetic pleasure it gives us, offering that company is what art does for us.

I understand that your trial for your action at the National Gallery will take place in mid-December, and I most sincerely wish you the best. I hope you won’t take it as an insult if I mention how young you are. We all make mistakes when we’re twenty-something. The truth is that we all make mistakes all the time, but the mistakes of youth often obey an idealism, rebelliousness, passion, and desire to change the world that we should never lose, but that often evaporate, if we let it happen, as reality wearies us with its incessant chain of pain, frustrations and questions that don’t seem to have an answer.

I’ve read that, for now, you’re forbidden to enter galleries or museums. I hope with all my heart that it won’t be for life; that would be to snatch away from you at a very early age an inalienable human right: the appreciation of art. Of course, I understand the prohibition. The matter is complicated, but I hope that a sensible balance can be found.

In my view, the ideal “punishment” would be to invite you, and other activists who have attacked artworks, to a visit to the National Gallery to contemplate a couple of selected works, under the guide of people who know and love them, perhaps artists themselves. Perhaps such an encounter would help you see art in a different way—not as an instrument, and not as a hostage in political strife, but for what it is in and by itself—while you keep alive your struggle, that concerns us all, to save the planet.

I even think I’ll write to the director with this suggestion. I’m probably being naïve, but it would make me very happy if both him and you find it worth considering.

Very best wishes.


Adriana Díaz-Enciso es poeta, narradora y traductora. Ha publicado las novelas La sedPuente del cieloOdio y Ciudad doliente de Dios, inspirada en los Poemas proféticos de William Blake; los libros de relatos Cuentos de fantasmas y otras mentiras y Con tu corazón y otros cuentos, y seis libros de poesía. Su más reciente publicación, Flint (una elegía y diario de sueños, escrita en inglés) puede encontrarse aquí.


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