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Beauty Drenched in Tomato Soup

On Friday, two girls threw soup all over Van Gogh's "Sunflowers," saying human lives are worth more than art. Yet art is worth something, too.

I see that a couple of girls, in a fit of brazen stupidity, and knowing that no guard was going to yank them by the wrists and haul them off to the cops, threw tomato soup onto the canvas of Van Gogh’s painting, “Sunflowers.” This happened in the National Gallery in London.

The girls belong to a group called “Just Stop Oil.” How England is suddenly to replace oil and gasoline with some other source of power, especially for cars and trucks, nobody can really say. Why England should even attempt to do so, with cataclysmic consequences for her economy and people’s ordinary way of life, when meteorology is still in its infancy and when a warmer climate, if indeed we have one and we are largely responsible for it, would seem to increase the extent of arable land in the vast land masses of the north, nobody bothers to ask.

The girls say that human life is more important than art. Sure, no question of that. It is also more important than your career, your bank account, your ambitions, your convenience, your comfort, your self-determination, and even your happiness. In general, a warmer climate is good for human flourishing, overall, and, especially if people did not use air-conditioning—as nobody did when my parents were young—that warmer climate would cause people to burn a lot less fuel at home. I suspect that the result would be more like a hill of sand than a runaway train. The higher you make the hill of sand, the more resistant it becomes to growing even higher; the stalling factors are built into the system.

The curators say that the painting was not harmed, because it was protected by glass. I hope that is right. I don’t see any glass in the video. And tomato soup is acidic. If it did get to the canvas, it would cause considerable damage.

But it occurs to me that a human being with a normal mind—a human being with a strong sense of decency, of what is fit and what is not—would never do such a thing. There are other ways, even, of making a spectacle of yourself for a cause.

Perhaps there is an inverse relationship here. The girls are not experts in agronomy, meteorology, industry, physical chemistry, astrophysics, geology, archaeology, and economics all together. If they were, they would not be tempted to engage in such a stunt. Very often, the less you know about a thing, or the more you know about one narrow feature of a thing at the expense of all the others, the more likely you are to go quite mad.

Yet if we take a second look at the scene, and we ask whether we have been doing comparable things to great works of art and human culture, we may begin to feel a little uneasy. To do what those girls did, you have to have something missing: a sense of wonder, a humility before so beautiful a human accomplishment, a moral directive to honor and protect such works and the habits of mind that make them possible. I suppose that as long as we are human, even the worst acid bath of scorn and pride and ingratitude cannot purge out of us every last trace of wonder, humility, and honor. Still, we can go a long way in vandalism and destruction.

We in the Church have, in recent times, a disappointingly uneven record in this regard. When, in a dream, St. Francis was called to repair Christ’s Church, he in his charming way took it literally, at first, and that is one reason why his father wanted to disown him. For Francis was taking money from the till to buy building materials. We know that Christ meant more than that. But the instinct was correct nevertheless.

Human souls are more important than are the buildings where we worship. But the art is important, if for no other reason than that those same human souls are fortified by it, directed toward what is beyond them.

I understand that we are in bad times, and often there isn’t the money to keep every church open. Yet, at all costs, those that are most beautiful, those that express most powerfully the human longing for God, and the love of God, should be protected.

We should no more say of a beautiful church that it is “just a building” than we should say of Van Gogh’s work that it is “just a picture” or “just some oil on a canvas.” Why, we should be even more careful of the church, because of its long history of being a sacred place, and the generations of human memory and devotion suggested in the wear upon its wood and stone.

And then I come to what we teach in our schools. At Magdalen College, we honor those who have bequeathed to us works of incomparable wisdom and beauty. We read Homer, not despite our being Catholic, but more because we are—because, to quote Terence, nothing human can be alien to us. And we read not with scorn, but with gratitude. We do not throw tomato soup—or liquids more corrosive and vile—at Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Faulkner, whomever we are reading. Nor do we do what is, in the end, just as bad, which is what happens at most places, even at most schools that have “Catholic” somewhere in their advertisements. That would be to take Van Gogh off the wall and stash him in an attic, to be forgotten.

“Cervantes?” says the graduate in education at Our Lady of Dilution College. “Who’s Cervantes?” Says the choir director at Saint Hipster—actually, Saint Replacement Hipster—“Victoria? I didn’t know she wrote music!” And he returns to the same five or six slovenly songs sung everywhere in the English-speaking churches, with furry mold growing on them.

Because we want man to flourish, we preach the Word of God. We honor his art. And we take care, avoiding political frenzy, to promote the common good, regardless of madmen in their haste, their narrow vision, and their strange insensibility to everything else.

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