When climate activists glued themselves to the frame of a 16th-century copy of “The Last Supper” at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in July, they received a fairly sympathetic hearing. “No painting is worth more than my six-month-old nephew’s life,” said a 21-year-old protester, denouncing the British government’s support of the fossil fuel industry amid the urgent climate crisis. But when the attacks escalated — as protesters threw tomato soup at Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” mashed potatoes at “Haystacks” by Monet, and a black liquid at “Death and Life” by Gustav Klimt — the condemnations rose as well.
“Nihilistic,” the director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum called the protests. “Absolutely absurd,” said the culture minister of France. “We have been deeply shaken by their risky endangerment,” read a statement from the International Council of Museums, co-signed by some 90 others, including Matthew Teitelbaum, director of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
The protesters are targeting works that are protected behind glass — at least for now — so actual damage has been minimal. And perhaps the outrage greeting their stunts proves their point: that people care more about the threatened destruction of a painting than the actual destruction of the planet. But as the attacks wear on, and their impact diminishes, they risk devolving into cliché or even parody. Pea soup splashed on a Van Gogh in Rome? Flour dumped all over a BMW painted by Andy Warhol? Maple syrup poured on a landscape by Canadian artist Emily Carr in Vancouver? Can a “Saturday Night Live” skit be far behind?
What’s especially misguided about the protests is their binary nature. “What is worth more, art or life?” a protester asked after splashing tomato soup on the Van Gogh in October. Why choose? “It’s possible to condemn both environmental vandalism and cultural vandalism at the same time,” Mark Pasnik, chair of the Boston Art Commission, said in an interview. Pasnik is also worried about backlash to a climate cause that is too important to be “radicalized in a way that makes it easy for people to dismiss it.” Indeed, the potential damage to the issue is evident in the glee with which Fox News pundits and other oil company apologists mock the activists.
The use of shock tactics to draw attention to societal ills is hardly new. In 1914, a British suffragist, Mary Richardson, slashed “The Rokeby Venus” by Diego Velázquez at London’s National Gallery to protest the subjugation of women. The more recent toppling of Confederate monuments and statues of Christopher Columbus are in much the same tradition. But it’s a lot more effective when the targets are connected to the purported harm. When Greenpeace activists chain themselves to a Russian oil tanker to block delivery, or when protesters scatter pill bottles inside the Sackler wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to call out the museum’s ties to the family that runs OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, the association is clear. Smearing the Mona Lisa with cake icing as a way to advance a carbon-free future? Not so much.
Art is not the problem here. In fact, contemporary artists are making searingly effective works about the climate crisis, precisely using art as activism. Maya Lin’s “Ghost Forest,” a climate change memorial she erected last summer in a New York City park, is only one example. “I believe that art can help us imagine and map sustainable future scenarios, and, in doing so, give people a way to see and hope for a different future” Lin wrote in a statement about the work.
The climate activists are surely correct that the pace of reform is far too slow, as the planet burns and deadly storms intensify. But they airily dismiss the sincere efforts of millions of people working on the issue. It would be easier to respect the young provocateurs at Just Stop Oil, Last Generation, Stop Fracking Around, and the rest of the splash groups if they were to spend their time and energy on the unglamorous but essential work of political organizing around climate change: legislation, regulation, and winning hearts and minds.
Perhaps predictably, the debates sparked by the protests have not been about climate change, but about the protests themselves (this column very much included). Given how little they’ve done to engender serious discussion or recruit people to the cause, the art attacks seem less like vital acts of transgression than mere theater.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.
Read More: Throwing soup at a Van Gogh won’t save the planet