Art and Activism: Gone Too Far

Police escort JSO activist from the National Gallery

Recap

A few weeks ago, I discussed the targeting of famous artworks and how famous artworks have been the source of climate protests since July, ranging from paintings to entire chapels. People have been making a lasting connection with these pieces by gluing and handcuffing themselves to frames, protective glass, and railings.

 

I ended my last piece knowing this would be a developing story, understanding that the next protest would be in the near future. The demonstrations started to fade into the background, leaving the world with more questions than answers about Just Stop Oil (JSO) and its goal of reducing incoming oil contracts in Great Britain. However, I did not expect a can of Heinz tomato soup and a second Van Gogh work to be involved. In this piece, I will discuss a few updates regarding JSO’s tactics and some information about their funding which could shed light on the intentions of the protests as a whole.

What Just Happened

Before lunchtime on October 14, the activists took to room 43 of London’s National Gallery and threw a can of tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. They stuck their hands to the wall underneath the painting. The national gallery said in a statement that the stunt did not harm the piece but suffered “some minor damage to the frame.”

 

The activists were arrested but pleaded not guilty to causing damage to the frame. District judge Tan Ikram released the soup group on bail with the conditions of not entering museums or galleries and not having adhesives in a public place. The pair of protestors knew the work was protected with glass when throwing the food onto it. While charges have been pressed on protestors in the past, these claims bring to light the destruction caused by the invasive canvas connections.

Van Gogh
Van Gogh's ‘Sunflowers’ displayed at the National Gallery

Public Response to the Event

Just Stop Oil
JSO image courtesy of Artnews

The demonstration exploded on social media, with videos and reels circulating multiple platforms minutes later. Within these posts came a public response to the behavior of the protestors and the movement as a whole. “In what possible way did they think this would bring attention to their cause?” Instagram user @nickgantz12 said. “Sure, you just got our attention, but none of it is positive. Now we will associate your “activism” with destruction and ignorance. Good job.” Another user pointed out the contradictions of wasting food in a demonstration highlighting climate-caused food scarcity. “They could have at least used a bisque,” Instagram user @mikegary187  said. While sometimes humor is a healthy way to navigate a situation, it brings to light where the shortcomings in these demonstrations are. The biggest question that came up was: what’s the point?

What People Don't Know About the Protests

In my last piece, I talked about how these protests can occur. JSO and Ultima Generazione are funded by the Climate Emergency Fund (CEF), whose mission is to “provide a safe and legal means for donors to support disruptive protests that wakes up the public and puts intense pressure on lawmakers.” However, one of the biggest funders of the CEF is Aileen Getty, the granddaughter of the founder of Getty Oil. The heiress of the fossil fuel fortune was the founding philanthropist of CEF, who funded movements like these, whose public response was not collective action but collective outrage. We don’t have enough information to understand Getty’s intent, but we know that she has done this in the past two protests who received similar responses from the general public. Her influence on the CEF and other movements like these have been discussed as turf grass movements. Astroturf movements are demonstrations conducted to appear on the side of a protest but are designed to undermine the cause as a whole.

Police escort a JSO activist away from the National Gallery in London
Image courtesy of CNN
My Take

My take on the protest is not different from most. The Van Gogh vandals proved these demonstrations were growing more invasive and intrusive. Their passion for collective action is being exploited for corporate gain, shifting the narrative away from oil contracts and toward the safety of historical masterpieces. This was a moment in the protests designed with the intent to reignite outrage of the climate change movement. The protestors used the famous work to highlight food scarcity and poverty caused by climate change when they besmeared  the Sunflowers painting with soup. However, the action’s message becomes as muddied as the painting when you think about how that can of soup could have been donated to a hungry family instead of wasted in a turf grass demonstration. Van Gogh’s name and talent were used as a vessel for the outrage to get the movement back into headlines, though it is ironic that yet another oil painting was targeted.

 

However, it breaks my heart to see the raw emotion in collective action exploited to undermine the climate change movement. While the demonstrations generated a discussion about the problems with new oil contracts, most conversations focused on the people’s recklessness and hypotheticals about the destruction of fine art. The climate change movement faces enough backlash and controversy by simply existing; it will not benefit from slanderous headlines about compromised artworks. As these demonstrations continue, security will tighten, and museums may become less accessible in the future. All the while, oil contacts will continue to be signed. Who is winning here?

JSO activists after splashing tomato soup on Van Gogh
Image courtesy of photographer Rich Felgate
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