In this article:
- Climate activists from Just Stop Oil recently attacked Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Art Gallery of London as part of a protest.
- It’s not the first time a famous work of art has been “attacked”. A climate change protester marched into the Louvre Museum in May and smeared cake all over the Mona Lisa’s famous face.
- While it gets attention, a seminal study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan argues that non-violent conflicts are “more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals.”
If you’ve spent some time on any social media platform lately, you may have already seen the viral videos of climate activists attacking famous works of art.
One of the more recent stunts has shocked visitors of the National Art Gallery of London. A pair of young climate activists from Just Stop Oil defaced Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting with a can of tomato soup. The climate activists also glued their hands to the wall underneath the painting but were soon arrested by the Metropolitan Police. Much to the relief of art buffs, the painting was framed and protected by glass. The damage was mostly symbolic and Sunflowers went back on display a few hours later.
The attack against one of the most recognizable paintings in the world isn’t the first of its kind. This year, many climate activists have attempted to amplify their message by vandalizing prominent art pieces.
For instance, a climate change protester marched into the Louvre Museum in May and smeared cake all over the Mona Lisa’s famous face. Unlike the people who threw soup at Van Gogh’s painting, the French man who caked Leonardo da Vinci’s work didn’t seem to be acting on any organization’s behalf. He was an individual protester who condemned the people creating destruction and yelled at museumgoers to think of the planet.
In September, another pair of protesters, this time representing the Italian organization Ultima Generazione, glued their hands to the sculpture Laocoon and His Sons at the Vatican. They hung a banner that translated to ‘no gas and no carbon’, warning passersby of the impending catastrophes singlehandedly caused by exploiting fossil fuels.
Without any explanation, these attacks seem rather out of place. Why not take the fight to the streets? Or march at the gates of oil companies, animal farms, or fast fashion houses — industries that contribute the most to the climate crisis? What message do climate activists want to send by attacking famous works of art and how does it help the planet? Let’s unpack.
Art Attacks by Climate Activists — the New Non-Peaceful Protest?
As far as activism goes, climate change protests have mostly been classified as non-violent. Even Extinction Rebellion or XR, a radical organization founded in the UK, is committed to non-violence in achieving their goals of demanding climate action from the government. And they have been considered the most radical of the climate groups still active today.
They first made news when they occupied the London offices of Greenpeace. Their initial goal was to put pressure on Greenpeace to campaign against major contributors to climate change, and gain media attention for problems that have been plaguing our planet for generations. Suffice it to say that they were successful — at least in their effort to reach the front page of the news.
Generally, though, peaceful protesting is a tactic employed by climate activist groups for several reasons. For one, people who care about the earth and its inhabitants are usually not the kinds to throw the first punch. Ideally, climate activists are pacifists, especially as war and violence exacerbate the climate crisis.
Inciting violence will also only create a negative image of the group itself. And when the need is as urgent as slowing down the effects of climate change, you’d want to have as much support as you can get. A seminal study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan argues that non-violent conflicts are “more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals.” It is then strategic for climate activism groups to stick to occupying the halls of government, calling for boycotts, taking to the streets with posters as weapons instead of guns, and using other forms of non-violent resistance to get their message across.
So when young climate activists from Just Stop Oil, a group demanding the UK government to stop new fossil fuel licensing and exploration, vandalized one of the most famous paintings in the world, many felt personally violated and confused. How can they attempt to ruin such a valuable piece of art—still largely a non-violent way of resisting climate change—for their own gain?
Climate Activists Say “Art Is Nothing Without Life”
In the viral video of the vandalism of Sunflowers, the protesters asked, “What is worth more—art or life? Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”
Listening to Phoebe Plummer cry to a roomful of people gave me chills. But watching the video after I’ve seen the response it generated, both in approval and disapproval of their action, gave me despair.
Many museumgoers were disappointed that their afternoon was ruined by a publicity stunt. There were also people who said it will ruin the museum goer’s experience in the future, as museums and galleries will put more screens and protective casings to valuable works of art. Some called the act an attack on culture worthy of imprisonment.
The public outcry to the stunt only proves the point of the climate activists. We care so much more about art that when it’s destroyed, even symbolically, we publicly condemn the people who threaten it. We call for its protection and seek justice for the act of vandalism. We ask that the vandals be put in prison for their crimes.
But when it concerns the destruction of the planet, we look the other way. We forgive industrialists and governments that have been bleeding our resources dry because the benefits extend to us, failing to recognize that the consequences will also most likely hit us first.
Just Stop Oil’s antics may have been against the law, and what many consider to be far from peaceful, but they proved an important point. Our concerns are misplaced.
The value of art is, ultimately, contextual. Sure, a piece of art, like Sunflowers or the Mona Lisa, enriches our culture and, in many ways, our lives, but it will never be able to feed, clothe, or shelter us. Our planet, on the other hand, has an inherent value. The limited natural resources it provides are essential to our survival as humans.
So, it’s heartbreaking to witness that we care more about a piece of art—that was protected by glass, by the way, and was unharmed—than we do for the planet. The climate activists from Just Stop Oil made us feel things with their actions, from amusement to anger. But isn’t that what activism of any kind is supposed to do? Protesting is meant to make us feel uncomfortable because it highlights our inaction and complicity.
When it concerns climate change, scientists and climate activists have long established that we can no longer be complacent. Not when mass extinctions, inhabitable regions, and natural catastrophes are predicted to arrive faster than expected. Vulnerable areas are already experiencing flooding, heat waves, and drought in faster and unprecedented cycles, which are resulting in fatalities, food insecurity, and displacement of communities, among other observable consequences of the climate crisis.
By creating this much online commotion, one could argue that climate activists are successful. The goal of their protest is to shift attention to their cause. Anna Holland, the other activist, later explained that they achieved their short-term goal by creating a scene in the National Gallery: to get people to ask questions.
Even if the focus right now is on the act itself instead of the message, that’s alright. Studies show that protesting can be an effective means of putting an issue on top of people’s minds. They may start by Googling ‘climate activists versus works of art’ and end up digging deeper into the climate crisis. The hope is that this will spur meaningful action. Like voting parties with vested interests in saving the planet, not profiting from it. Or becoming a climate activist yourself.
Phoebe Plummer adds, “And using such a beautiful piece of artwork was poignant because, when people saw it, they had that gut reaction of, ‘I want to protect this thing that is beautiful and valued.’ Why don’t people have that same response to the destruction the fossil fuel industry is causing to our planet and our people?”
While there are many who disapproved of their means, I could at least say that half of the responses they generated agreed with their message.
“If I was her parent I would be joining her. Did you even bother to listen to what she had to say? 1000s of people in the UK will do this winter because they have to choose between heating or eating,” one Twitter user said.
Another tweeted, “Life is nothing without art,” to which another user responded, “Art is nothing without life.”
For those angry at the VanGogh @JustStop_Oil action, here are real scientists and doctors protesting outside Shell’s offices. It will get no media coverage at all. This is how it’s almost always been for the last 35 years since NASA warned we were dangerously heating the planet
Originally tweeted by Matthew Todd 🎃👻☠️🤡🧟♂️👽 (@MrMatthewTodd) on October 16, 2022.
Another user also shared a clip of scientists peacefully protesting outside big oil companies’ headquarters, which got no media attention at all. The reality is that we’ve been conditioned to ignore climate activists unless they make a big scene or threaten something we love, like a work of art.
Climate activists and their recent attacks against famous works of art are only drawing attention to the stark realities of the climate crisis, many of which we’ve been shielded from seeing. In an uninhabitable world, art ultimately has no value — so what is the point of protecting it when we cannot ensure a world in which it will have any meaning? That’s simply the point that climate activists like Just Stop Oil members are making. Their means may be radical and may make us feel uncomfortable, but conservative action will no longer work in the face of the climate crisis.
Why not do what the Buddhist Monks do..self-immolation!