July 13, 2016

Wednesday, July 13, 2016 - ,, No comments

“What light through yonder window breaks?” The Case of Corey Menafee and a stained glass window at Yale University

In history as today, vandalism is an act imbued with meaning and the gap between how heritage professionals react to deliberate damage of artworks and the perceptions of the agents of these changes and the groups they represent presents interesting food for thought.  

On June 13, 2016 a cafeteria worker, Corey Menafee, took a broomstick and smashed a historic stained glass window depicting two slaves picking cotton at Yale University's Calhoun College residence hall.  Confessing to the crime, he was arrested shortly thereafter.

Existing US criminal law does not distinguish art vandalism from vandalism in general and typically classifies the deliberate destruction of artwork under the general category of criminal mischief.  In Connecticut the offence falls under the state’s General Statutes § 53a-115a.  This law addresses persons who acted "with intent to cause damage to tangible property of another and having no reasonable ground to believe that such person has a right to do so, such person damages tangible property of another in an amount exceeding one thousand five hundred dollars."

As a result of his actions, Menafee was charged with first-degree criminal mischief, which is a felony, as well as second-degree reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor.  For his actions, under Connecticut law, Manafee faces up to five years in prison on the felony charge and up to two years of incarceration on the misdemeanor offense.  

Menafee apologised for his actions and subsequently resigned. 

The residence hall's namesake, John C. Calhoun, is significant in that he was a well known 19th century American statesman and political theorist from South Carolina who served as Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.  Calhoun was an outspoken supporter of slavery as well as an 1804 graduate of Yale University.  For years students concerned staffers alike have advocated against the name and imagery of the building, saying that it takes a heavy toll on all persons of color who live and work within the historic building. 

But despite the illegality of his actions, students, alumni and members of the New Haven community chose instead to rally around Menafee.  Taking to social media, they voiced their support for his actions and created a petition calling for all charges to be dropped. Other supporters established a GoFundMe account, set up to help him raise money for his defence.

Based on the sensativity of the issue, Yale University released a statement that it would not advocate for Menafee to be prosecuted and would not seek restitution for the loss of the stained glass artwork. 

Additionally, the destruction to the historic window led to a new review by Yale’s Committee on Art in Public Places of other historic windows in answer to petition created for the Yale administration which stated that artwork such as the window “conveys disrespect toward black perspectives, and serves a barrier toward racial inclusiveness.” 

On Tuesday July 12th Yale issued the following statement:

“After the window was broken in June, the Committee recommended that it and some other windows be removed from Calhoun, conserved for future study and a possible contextual exhibition, and replaced temporarily with tinted glass. An artist specializing in stained glass will be commissioned to design new windows, with input from the Yale community, including students, on what should replace them.”

Acts of violence against art such as these explore and challenge society’s ideas of what constitutes “civil disobedience” or “vandalism”.  It also exemplifies why we occasionally deem some crimes against art, such as the deliberate damage to symbolical art which records painful pasts, as acceptable, while other destruction is opposed as negative.

In today’s conflict-filled world, where war is no longer about conquering territory but about changing the perceptions of those under your control ancient statues and historic sites are mutilated or smashed because they are seen as pagan idols. In the past, deliberate attacks against statues depicting Saddam, Stalin and Lenin underscored the end of dictatorial regimes. Each of these examples show how society's interpretation the destruction of art can be a political symbol, and as such, as a weapon for change.  Each shows that art vandalism can be interpreted as positive or negative depending on the eyes of the beholder.

The broken window at Yale reminds us that context authorship and intention of the vandal often play an important role in how society perceives, interprets, accepts, rejects or adjudicates an criminal act deeming one as backward, another as revolutionary, or in the case of Yale's stained class, perhaps a wrong that long since needs to be righted.  It probes the concept of when art destruction is acceptable and when it isn't and forces us to rethink the ways that we interact with art and react to its power to shock or subdue.

By Lynda Albertson


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