An Elderly Man Spray-Painted a Miriam Cahn Painting at a Paris Museum as It Touches Off a Heated Cultural Debate

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A controversial painting by the artist Miriam Cahn was vandalized yesterday, May 7, at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo. 

Around 3:30 pm, a museum visitor removed a can of purple spray paint hidden in a medicine bottle and defaced the Swiss artist’s canvas. In a statement to Agence France-Presse, the Palais de Tokyo described the vandal as an “elderly man” who acted independently. He was apprehended by security agents and removed from the premises by police. 

The museum now plans to file a complaint for the “degradation of property and obstruction of freedom of expression.” 

Miriam Cahn, fuck abstraction! (2007-2022). 3009 CAH/P 3029. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Jocelyn Wolff and Meyer Riegger Berlin/Karlsruhe. Photo by Francois Doury.

Miriam Cahn, fuck abstraction! (2007-2022) . Courtesy the artist, Galerie Jocelyn Wolff and Meyer Riegger Berlin/Karlsruhe. Photo by Francois Doury.

Cahn’s artwork, titled fuck abstraction! , has been the subject of a heated cultural row in France since her retrospective, “ Ma Pensée Serielle ” (“My Serial Thought”), opened at the museum in February. 

The painting depicts a faceless man receiving fellatio from a smaller, kneeling figure whose hands are tied behind their back. Right-wing critics have claimed the scene depicts the sexual abuse of a child, but Cahn has maintained that it was created in response to reports of murder and rape committed by Russian soldiers upon their invasion of the Ukrainian city of Bucha last year. 

Despite its defacement, the institution plans to keep Cahn’s painting on view until the close of the show next week. 

“We regret the extreme consequences of this controversy,” said Palais de Tokyo president Guillaume Désanges in a statement. 

“In agreement with the artist,” he added, the museum “will continue to present the painting and the exhibition…with the traces of degradation until the scheduled end of the [exhibition], May 14.” 

En ce 8 mai, où nous célébrons la victoire de la liberté, je condamne l’acte de vandalisme commis hier au Palais de Tokyo. S’en prendre à une œuvre, c’est attenter à nos valeurs. En France, l’art est toujours libre et le respect de la création culturelle, garanti.

— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) May 8, 2023

Following the incident, photos of Cahn’s canvas covered in spray paint quickly circulated online as social media users alternately defended the artist’s message and praised the act of vandalism meant to distort it.

Cahn’s painting has been mired in French news cycles for the last two months. In March, a group of six conservative organizations led by the Association Juristes Pour L’Enfance (Lawyers for Childhood) filed a lawsuit against the Palais de Tokyo. They alleged that, by showing the artwork, the museum violated the French law against exhibiting pornographic representations of minors. 

But an administrative judge promptly threw out the case , ruling that Cahn’s painting refers to crimes committed in Bucha, Ukraine, and “cannot be understood outside of its context.”

Four of the plaintiffs subsequently appealed the decision in Frances’s Council of State, but that case, too, was dismissed . 

The debate around Cahn’s painting, fueled largely by far-right media personalities on TV and online, has drawn statements from some of France’s most prominent government officials, including culture minister Rima Abdul Malak and President Emmanuel Macron.

“To attack a work is to attack our values,” Macron wrote on Twitter after the spray paint attack. “In France, art is always free and respect for cultural creation is guaranteed.” 

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