Beloved masterpieces worldwide have been the target of climate protests since the end of July. Climate activists from around the world have flocked to art museums containing internationally renowned paintings to establish a permanent connection with them—but not in the way that you think. Pasting their hands to the frames and protective glass and even handcuffing themselves to the railings of chapels, climate coalitions are demonstrating the motive of resisting further fossil fuel contracts in Europe. At the surface, the movement raises questions and concerns regarding the safety of the activists and, of course, the targeted paintings. How effective is this multifaceted protest? How does targeting historical artworks impact the sustainability movement overall?
Commencement and Momentum
The group Just Stop Oil (JSO) started the initial painting pastings. Founded in February 2022, the climate activist organization describes itself as “a coalition of groups working together to ensure the Government commits to halting new fossil fuel licensing and production,” per their website. They have supporters internationally that have made efforts to mitigate the expansion of fossil fuel contracts in the United Kingdom. But the fossil fuel resistance movement is not central to one location; it expands globally. Other coalitions looked to JSO for inspiration and replicated the protests in their countries.
Italian climate activist coalition Ultima Generazione, which translates to “Last Generation,” picked up after JSO’s demonstrations gained traction. Founded in 2021, the group shares similarities to the goals of JSO, their name alone highlighting that the next few years are crucial to improve the state of our carbon emissions. While the tactics are different from the likings of JSO, the concern of harm being brought to the artwork remains the same. Most of their demonstrations took place at art museums in Italy but notably took things a step further, with a few supporters handcuffing themselves to the railings of chapels and sculptures in the Vatican.
Artworks directly targeted by climate activist groups have faced minimal damage. However, some frames were deformed to the point that they will not return to the public eye until their casing is back in mint condition. London’s Courtauld Gallery removed Vincent van Gogh’s Peach Trees in Blossom from exhibitions without a definitive re-release date. Of all works to have notable damage to the frame, it is that of a historically and internationally renowned artist. John Constable's The Hay Wain suffered minor damage to the frame and the paint’s varnish after protestors used the glue to cover the work and attach the protestors.
It’s relatively common to see spray paint on the wall where targeted paintings once rested. It’s another way the activist groups ensure their messages do not become as disposable as the attitude towards nonrenewable energy. "We have no time left, to say that we do is a lie. We must halt all new oil and gas right now; we will stop disrupting art institutions as soon as the government makes a meaningful statement to do so," JSO activist Lucy Porter, 47, said. In addition, the incorporation of spray paint alone communicates a sense of prognostication, as the activists could have done more significant damage to the paintings when presented with the opportunity.
Ultima Generazione took out the middleman in Piazza Erimitani by handcuffing themselves to the railings of the Scrovengi Chapel on August 21. Fortunately, this strategy was less invasive to the building as it is the best-preserved work by Giotto ever. His craft in the chapel is considered one of his most influential pieces that revolutionized the Italian art landscape. The chapel, built in 1305, was the only piece of architecture targeted in the demonstrations. While the dynamic tactics changed the tone of the movement, the demands remained stagnant. “Allow us to admire starry skies and the splendid works of art and human ingenuity such as the Scrovegni Chapel for a long time. Allow us and the next generations to be witnesses of our history,” Ultima Generazione said. No damages to the structure have been reported.
Just Stop Oil released a statement on July 4 that 22 of their supporters have been arrested since their pilot demonstration. However, JSO stated that they and their supporters are “prepared to lose their freedom to make this demand.”
Five people were arrested after pasting their hands to a copy of Leonardo Di Vinci’s The Last Supper dating back over 500 years ago. The three men and two women not only caused damage to the frame but also vandalized the surrounding wall, spray painting “No New Oil” under the work.
Two people were arrested after covering up John Constable's The Hay Wain and pasting themselves to the piece in the process. JSO selected the work for its reflection on the horrid outcomes that could come with unhindered regulation and restriction of the fossil fuel industry. According to the activist group, the act of covering the work in paper symbolizes how the "reimagined version carries a nightmare scene that demonstrates how oil will destroy our countryside." The protestors involved have been charged over damages to the painting’s frame and varnish but have pled not guilty.
The argument made by JSO in a statement is that they are trying to “resist the destruction of humanity.” But how strong is this claim if they risk the safety of centuries-old masterpieces? These climate activists are likely targeting art pieces to elevate their message to the art landscape. By operating this way, their messages become artistically emotional, and they hope the demonstrations will spark the masses through outrage to support their cause.
Another point to consider is the funding of these operations. According to the Observer, Both JSO and Ultima Generazione are funded by the Climate Emergency Fund, whose mission is to “provide a safe and legal means for donors to support disruptive protest that wakes up the public and puts intense pressure on lawmakers.” While the DEF does not condone violent social action taken toward people, these tactics dance across the boundaries that violate the sanctity of world-renowned artwork dating back to the 14th century. They are not violent toward people but are incredibly invasive to artifacts of both art and human history.
Regardless of how people respond to the demonstrations, the public eye continues to be fixated on them, wondering where they will appear next and what pieces will be involved. However, many are watching not with admiration but anxiety, their eyes glued to the news, fearing that a Van Gogh piece or a mural in a chapel will be defaced and become a casualty of unhindered outrage. What used to be a vessel for creative expression could now become a medium for strategic activism. Anxieties surrounding the safety of these masterpieces facilitated criticisms of the demonstrations, potentially tainting the sustainability movement as a whole.
Outrage sparked as a response to the movement, which was the initial goal. Regardless of individual opinions about using art as a setting and medium for protest, people are talking about this, and that’s what these coalitions want. While climate activism is vital for the continued sustainability of the human race, I do not believe that historical markers of artistic expression should fall victim to protests. Art and historical artifacts are destroyed all the time, and more efforts should be put towards preservation rather than compromising the quality of these masterpieces. Climate preservation is essential for the continued sustainability of the human race, but the same reverence for nature should also be given to the artwork.
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This is the second piece of our series titled Art and Activism. The Center for Artistic Activism says, “Social change doesn’t just happen, it happens because people decide to make a change.” As the two facets of social action become more intertwined, this series aims to analyze current events, investigate them through an artistic lens, and highlight artists who use collective action as inspiration for their masterpieces. You can look forward to seeing more from this column in the future.
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