Commentary Magazine


Paris Art Woes

An old saying in Europe goes that British people “take their pleasures sadly”; an update might add that the French take theirs violently. On the night of October 6, known locally as the “Nuit Blanche” (Sleepless Night) Festival, during which musical and artistic events are presented all night long, five vandals broke into the Musée d’Orsay (Paris’s treasure trove of 19th century art) and punched a four-inch hole in an 1874 canvas by the Impressionist Claude Monet, Le Pont d’Argenteuil. Security cameras captured images of five visibly drunk Parisian teenagers forcing open a door to the museum just before midnight. After smoking cigarettes and urinating on the museum’s floor, they were scared away by the rather belated sound of an alarm. Patrick Bloche, a deputy in France’s National Assembly, reasonably inquired whether the embattled Minister of Culture Christine Albanel intends to wait until a four-inch tear is also made in the Mona Lisa, before having the locks on national museums double-checked.

The damage to the Monet painting (showing idyllic boats on the Seine River in a happier time) is less dramatic than a near-tragic episode during Paris’s “Nuit Blanche” in 2002, when the city’s openly gay mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, was stabbed in the abdomen in the City Hall in the early hours of the morning. The assailant, who almost killed the mayor, claimed to be a “devout Muslim” who “does not like politicians and in particular does not like homosexuals.”

Even when such Parisian denizens of the night are not doing their worst, one wonders whether the level of urban violence in today’s Paris is really conducive to institutionalized all-night hilarity. Even in plain daylight, the French cannot be trusted with their cultural treasures. On November 16, a verdict will be handed down in the much-publicized trial of Rindy Sam, a Frenchwoman who identifies herself as an artist. Last July, Ms. Sam kissed a painting by American modernist Cy Twombly, which resides in a special collection at Avignon’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Ms. Sam smeared the white canvas with lipstick. Since her oral tribute, museum technicians have been unable to remove the lipstick stain from the canvas, previously valued at $2.8 million. Ms. Sam has explained that all she did was offer a kiss as a “gesture of love.” The museum and the collector who retains ownership of the painting are not endeared, demanding compensation to the tune of over 30,000 and 2 million euros respectively. Additionally, a prosecutor wants to fine Ms. Sam 4,500 euros for her action. Only Twombly himself, who lives in Lexington, Virginia and Italy, has kept his compensation demand to the scale of a state fair kissing booth, asking for just a single euro as “symbolic” reparation.

Since its arts collections are the mainspring of France’s tourism-based economy, and one of the main reasons why foreign visitors bother to put up with Parisian nastiness, it behooves the country to act vigorously to prevent these kinds of absurdities.