Sunday, January 21, 2018

Shameful acts of destruction


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Shame and chagrin. These may be the most appropriate responses to the Christmas Eve discovery that 19 prints of paintings by Trinidad and Tobago artists, mounted on the walls of the Queen's Park Oval under the 2008 "People's Canvas'' project, had been slashed by a person or persons unknown.

The shame is that of Port of Spain and its law enforcement incapacity; the chagrin applies to all of T&T who may see in such high-profile vandalism an attack on possibilities of civilisation that the country appears incapable of deterring, preventing or interdicting. That some citizens, corporate and otherwise, gave effect to high-minded promptings to display and honour otherwise unknown items of the national artistic patrimony speaks to the finer impulses being moved to make T&T be, and see itself as, a finer place.

But such efforts fight against a strong and dismal current, which views such projects as pointless and even another instance of money being wasted. That no witnesses immediately came forward to denounce the vandalism and to help identify perpetrators is a related disturbing reflection. And the fact that such acts of degrading T&T and the city surroundings, where efforts had been made to improve the liveability and attractiveness of the man-made setting, can go undetected and unpunished, calls attention to the deficiencies of law enforcement. Where are the CCTV cameras when we need them to identify and prosecute the culprits of such wanton destructiveness?

Even so, chagrin at the act must be mediated by the motives, or lack thereof, of the perpetrator. "Pure vandalism," was how art historian Geoffrey Maclean described the slashing. If so, then there was no motive beyond wanton destruction. The individual or individuals responsible could equally well have been destroying billboards or benches. In that context, the vandalism was not an attack on higher aspirations, but merely an expression of what vandalism typically is: boredom in an individual who does not have the courage or creativity to be rebellious in a more substantive way.

If, however, the person who vandalised the prints did have some purpose, it may been the negative aim of despoiling the built environment and reversing the gains of self-worth that such a display represents. The pieces of art had enhanced the otherwise dreary ordinariness of the high Oval walls, which might alternatively have been daubed by graffiti or plastered with commercial advertising messages.

But the destruction of art does not often occur in T&T—indeed, the State has more often committed such vandalism than ordinary citizens. The rarity of such acts does not reflect art appreciation, but rather an absolute indifference to such works. And that space in sensibilities is a vandalism of the spirit, which is far more pernicious.