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

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

Authorities on Friday arrested two people involved in climate activism in connection with an attack on a statue of renowned French artist Edgar Degas at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, US officials said.

The suspects, identified as Timothy Martin, age 53, and Joanna Smith, 53, surrendered to law enforcement in North Carolina and Washington, respectively, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Martin and Smith face charges of conspiracy to commit crimes against the United States and damaging an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, the U.S. attorney’s statement said. In particular, they were accused of smearing the Plexiglas case and the paint on the base of Degas’ masterpiece “La petite danseuse de quatorze ans” (“The Little Dancer, Age Fourteen”).

A group called “Declare the Emergency” claimed responsibility for the attack in April. The U.S. attorney highlighted that the group has previously conducted disruptive activities such as blocking streets in the Washington area to raise awareness of climate concerns.

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

Similar actions by environmental activists to draw attention to the problem of global warming have been seen mainly in Europe. Notable incidents include workers gluing their hands to a Goya painting in Madrid, pouring tomato soup over Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in London, and applying mashed potatoes to a Claude Monet masterpiece in Potsdam near Berlin.

Such attacks on artworks aim to raise public awareness of the urgency of tackling climate change. While activists may see these actions as a form of protest, they often spark debate about the appropriateness of targeting cultural treasures to get their message across. The incident involving the Degas statue illustrates the ongoing tension between environmental activism and cultural heritage conservation.

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