A great tragedy occurred this week in the art world. I know that sounds facetious, but I’m being 100%, drop-dead serious. On February 8th, a 28-year-old woman walked into the Louvre Museum in Lens, France (confusingly not the Louvre) and graffiti’d the phrase “AE911″ the bottom of Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. (You might recognize it from the cover of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida.) I could talk for ages about how this important this beautiful painting is, how it says tremendous things about French nationalism and its gorgeous Romantic characteristics. I could talk about how “AE911”–a reference, apparently, to “Architects and Engineers for 9/11,” a conspiracy group–is completely irrelevant to the core principles of Liberty Leading the People. But right now I’m more interested in the intersection between art and mental illness, and how we talk about these things.
Every article about the Delacroix graffiti scandal immediately emphasizes two things: one, that the painting will be pretty easily repaired (which is a relief); and two, that the woman had mental health problems. As someone who is pretty open about her mental illness (OCD/GAD, holla!), I think it’s imperative to discuss proper education about mental illness. But I also think that’s a pretty simplistic, even harmful way of looking at how these sorts of events happen.
Quite simply, it further stigmatizes mental illness. It implies that the mentally ill are ticking time bombs waiting to be set off, simply waiting to be triggered before they walk into a museum and deface a beautiful, beloved piece of art. A blogger I really like, Josh Macedo (otherwise known as Tumblr user confusedtree), wrote a response post-Sandy Hook that I think is applicable to this situation.
I know you guys think you’re contributing to a positive and accepting discourse by saying one of the ways we can learn from this horrific event is to provide better care for people with mental illnesses but what you are doing is implicitly adding an “or else…” to the end of that sentence and that’s very hurtful to a lot of people, some of whom I bet you care about.
After the Dark Knight Rises shooting, I was (jokingly) asked by adults (adults!) if I was going to shoot up a movie theatre, after I told them about my mental illness. Education about mental illness is important, and providing care for people with mental illnesses is crucial, but I think the way we talk about this care shows a lot about our attitude.
Ultimately, the damage done to this painting is both horrific and fixable. But I also think it should serve as another catalyst for important discussions about mental health and care thereof. Of course, a necessary part of this conversation is how these issues actually, you know, affect people with mental illnesses. They – we – need to be a part of the conversation.
- Amalia Vavala, Arts Blogger