A 12-year-old boy in Taiwan has punched a hole in a $1.5 million painting, which on the surface level is one of the greatest flexes of all time. Fuck art, right? Fuck art! Art is shit!
Banksy and his Dismaland might be getting all the attention at the minute, but let us instead elevate this little Taiwanese lord to the High Ruler of the Art World. Because look at him: dawdling through an art gallery, Puma T-shirt and shorts, not a care in the world, can of Fanta or similar in his hand, and then flooomp: attempts to lean his shoulder against a wall but instead trips over one of them little rope things and straight up punches a 350-year-old masterpiece in the bollocks. There's no getting up from that, especially when you are an ancient painting, unused to the peculiar human stress of being accidentally punched.
Top line is that this was an accident, and that the Paolo Porpora—on display at the Face of Leonardo: Images of a Genius exhibit in Taipei—will be ferried into the hands of expert restorers, and it'll be OK. The kid (probably the most grounded human alive, currently) will not be financially responsible, as the painting was insured. Actually, there was basically zero fallout from this incident. The moral of this story is "punching artifacts in galleries is, generally, all right."
But as the world's media focuses on the punch and the impact on the painting, we ignore the real story, which is the massive and urgent moment of despair felt by a boy on the cusp of young manhood, the unique dread that only comes with absolutely fucking up a $1.5-million work of art. For perspective: I broke a jug when I was 12 once, and I'm still not over it now. That jug was worth, at best, around $6. Magnify that feeling a quarter of a million times. That is what we're dealing with, here.
Orwell never predicted it, but one of the greatest boons of low-grade always-on CCTV monitoring is watching huge human emotions acted out through tiny physical acts when real shit happens to real people. Skip past the punch and ignore it: watch instead that instant jolt of recognition, that rarely captured moment of cinematic brilliance, unactable, the universal gesture of knowing, deep to your bones, that You Have Fucked Up:
Here are the thoughts that are going through this kid's head in the screengrab above, irrational and unstoppable, instant thoughts stemming from a massive boo-boo: Maybe if I just... hold my drink out... people will just—?
But then he realizes that doesn't make sense, so he stands and turns to see if anyone has seen—If I hold my drink out like this people will think I am just holding my drink in an unusual way and that the welt appeared there by itself—and then acceptance—Well, if anyone asks me if I punched the painting I guess I will say yes but I'm not going to just offer the information up in case I get shouted at.
And then, finally, approached and asked whether he just punched a hole in a $1.5-million painting, a sort of half-shrug, a single hand in the pocket of his shorts, desperation as two actual adults with responsibilities and moral compasses close in on him, a pincer movement of reality attacking him from all sides. "Did you just—?"
This is the most 12-year-old boy combination of poses ever performed. A literal full-body attempt to wriggle away from guilt and blame. Before he punched the painting, he was a boy. Instants after he punched the painting, he was a man, cloaked in dread and self-supplied fear. Then a woman in a tabard walks him out of the shot to, presumably, find some sort of manager-type and apologize to them for the boy punching a hole in their near-priceless belonging.
I've had moments like this, and you've had them too. I've chipped great scabs of varnish off banisters and accidentally split floorboards. I've broken decorative plates and one time I accidentally threw a football at a chandelier. And more than once, I have just stood and looked at my damage—sometimes padded it with the tips of my fingers, as though that might fix it—and then the owner of the banister or chandelier has returned and seen what I have done and gone: "Oh." And gone: "What happened there?" We both know the answer to this question. But my brain will short circuit, and I will say: "I don't know, weird isn't it?"
This is the human condition. To destroy things and then pretend that you didn't. This is how we get away with wars, and trampling on rain forests. Killing animals and fucking up the ozone layer. Guilt is a dirty feeling that human civilization is built on absolving as rapidly as possible.
And so solidarity with you, 12-year-old Taiwanese boy. If I punched a hole in a $1.5-million painting, I would also pretend I didn't do it. I would piss and fear-shit over my Puma T-shirt and shorts, undoubtedly, but I would also attempt to get away with it without getting in trouble. I would put one hand in my pocket and one hand on the fist hole and go, "Oh yeah, that." I would be marched into a back room and threatened by security and go, "I don't really know what happened, I think I saw... somebody... else... do it?" You are me and I am you, Taiwanese picture-punching boy. May the gods be merciful on your journey through life and into hell.
Follow Joel on Twitter.