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Climate activists arrested for attack on Degas sculpture at US National Gallery

Timothy Martin (L) and Joanna Smith (R) have been arrested for an attack on a Degas sculpture at the National Gallery of Art. —AFP

Two individuals involved in climate activism were apprehended by authorities on Friday in connection with an assault on a sculpture created by renowned French artist Edgar Degas at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, as stated by US officials.

The suspects, identified as Timothy Martin, aged 53, and Joanna Smith, also 53, surrendered to law enforcement agencies in North Carolina and Washington, respectively, according to the US Attorney’s Office.

The US Attorney’s statement outlined that Martin and Smith are facing charges of conspiracy to commit an offence against the United States and causing damage to an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. Specifically, they were indicted for smearing paint on the Plexiglas case and base of Degas’ masterpiece “La petite danseuse de quatorze ans” (“Little Dancer, Age Fourteen”).

The assault, which took place in April, was claimed by a group known as “Declare Emergency.” The US Attorney highlighted that this group has previously staged disruptive activities such as blocking roadways in the Washington area to raise awareness about climate-related concerns.

As a result of the attack, the artwork sustained approximately $2,400 worth of damage, leading to its removal from public display for a period of 10 days. If convicted, Martin and Smith could face up to five years of imprisonment for each offence and a maximum fine of $250,000.

Instances of environmental activists resorting to similar actions to draw attention to the issue of global warming have been observed mainly in Europe. Notable incidents include activists glueing their hands to a painting by Goya in Madrid, pouring tomato soup on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in London, and smearing mashed potatoes on a masterpiece by Claude Monet in Potsdam, near Berlin.

The motive behind such attacks on artistic pieces is to generate increased public awareness about the urgency of combating climate change. While activists may view these acts as a form of protest, they often spark debates regarding the appropriateness of targeting cultural treasures to convey their message. The incident involving the Degas sculpture underscores the ongoing tension between environmental activism and the preservation of cultural heritage.

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