Vandalism - Beautiful As A Rock In A Cop's Face
- Sticker on Kurt Cobain's guitar

The word vandalism brings many different things to mind. A young student with a scarf over her mouth and nose lobbing a bottle through a McDonalds window during an anti-globalization march. A football hooligan scraping a key along the car of a rival supporter. A drunk sixteen-year-old stealing a windscreen wiper to show to a girl he's trying to impress. A highly-organised group of anarchists liberating laboratory rats from a cosmetic testing facility. A young man spraying obscene graffiti on the metal awning of a grocery store. A graffiti artist painting a rainforest landscape on a railway siding.

There are many grey areas in the examples given above. The Webster definition singles out, in particular, hostility to the arts and literature and their monuments. Graffiti is an excellent example of the nuances that get missed when the word 'vandalism' is used in the mass media. There is a big difference between someone spraying "Fuck all pigs" on a shop window, and someone choosing the decaying sites of urban wastelands as the canvas for their art. In the second case, who is the vandal: the graffiti artist, or the city council who erases the art?

Remember: "Hostility to the arts and literature". When James Joyce's Ulysses was released for publication in Ireland, his home country, the protests reached such a fever that the book was publicly guillotined and burned. Yes, that's what I said. Ulysses is now regarded as one of the greatest modern works of literature, and rakes in mounds of tourist cash for the Irish economy each year. Who were the vandals?

Ordinary vandalism is something everyone has seen or experienced. A bag of shit thrown at your front door. A knife in your tyres. A shattered shelter at a bus stop. It's ugly, sometimes dangerous, never large-scale. Usually it's alcohol-related (to borrow an idea from Bill Hicks, have you ever seen vandalism done by pot-heads?).

Then there is extraordinary vandalism. Let's look at our Webster definition again. Let's think mass cruelty. Think large-scale destruction of art, religious artifacts, the destruction or banning of literature. Think, more widely again, the wilful destruction, above all, of culture. No single person, or small groups of people, can be responsible for these acts. In fact, most often, vandalism on this scale is performed by nation states, governments, dictators, religious idealists - large co-operative ventures involving (sometimes) thousands or millions of people, aimed at the destruction of another culture.

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban. The public book bonfires conducted by the Nazis. The incineration by the US government of the books and research of Wilhelm Reich. The decapitation of all religious and royal icons in Paris by the fanatics of the French Revolution in the birth throes of Democracy. The rape of South America by the Spanish, Portuguese and British colonists. The list is as long as your memory and your emotional stamina will last.

The Vandals were, no doubt, pretty bad. But it's time for the word vandalism to lose its associations with the random actions of disgruntled individuals within a mostly urban context, and to be defined instead with reference to the organized acts of incredible vandalism perpetrated by large human groups whose actions are granted legitimacy by virtue of their might and rhetoric.

Apparently, the first time the word "vandalism" was ever used was in a speech by Henri Grégoire, Bishop of Blois (1750-1831) to the National Convention of France. The Bishop used the word to describe the then-common act of burning public libraries.

In his Mémoires (1837, vol. 1, p. 345ff), he describes the circumstances:

"I created this word to end the matter {the library burnings} .... Curiously enough, this new term cause a literary controversy in Germany .... Respected scholars, born in the part of Germany where the Vandals had originated, claimed that the meaning I had conferred upon the word was an affront to their ancestors, who were warriors and not destroyers."

Van"dal*ism (?), n.

The spirit or conduct of the Vandals; ferocious cruelty; hostility to the arts and literature, or willful destruction or defacement of their monuments.

 

© Webster 1913.

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