When two environmental activists threw cans of tomato soup over Vincent Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers painting at London’s National Gallery it caused widespread outrage. The soup only covered the glass frame of the painting, so no damage was done to the work, but the incident did trigger a discussion about the effectiveness of using art—or rather, destroying art—as a form of protest. The issue has since been discussed in numerous opinion pieces, live TV debates, and on social media—even musician Lil Nas X got involved with a parody Instagram post.
The activists were from a U.K.-based climate group called Just Stop Oil, which describes itself as “a coalition of groups working together to ensure that the government commits to ending all new licenses and consents for the exploration, development, and production of fossil fuels in the UK.” As well as targeting artwork, they’re known for blocking motorways, climbing infrastructure to disrupt transport, and spraying their signature orange paint over buildings.
In other countries around Europe and North America, Just Stop Oil offshoot or replica groups have also focused on pouring substances over famous works of art: in Germany, activists from Letzte Generation (Last Generation) threw mashed potato at Claude Monet’s Les Meules, and an oily black liquid over Klimt’s Life and Death; activists from Italian group Ultima Generazione (also meaning Last Generation) threw pea soup at another Van Gogh, The Sower; in Vancouver, members of Stop Fracking Around threw maple syrup over Emily Carr’s Stumps and Sky. The list goes on.
It is no coincidence that artworks continue to be the target of climate protests. Art is a reflection of our existence, it is coveted and revered, and so its destruction forces us to question our collective priorities. As the two Just Stop Oil protestors carried out the tomato soup action, they called out to the crowd, “What is worth more, art or life?” Even the soup was symbolic, with the same activists pointing out that in this current energy crisis, many families can’t even afford to heat up a can of it.
As a publicity stunt, it worked: in recent months, millions of people have become aware of Just Stop Oil, most of whom had never heard of the organization before the wave of art-related protests began.
Art is a reflection of our existence, it is coveted and revered, and so its destruction forces us to question our collective priorities.
Whilst Just Stop Oil’s cause and message are often praised, their tactics have come under fire. Following the Sunflowers action, for instance, one Twitter user posted: “What on earth has Van Gogh’s Sunflowers got to do with oil?… I’m completely behind stopping oil, but this seems mad.” Recent social science research shows they’re not alone in criticizing the group’s tactics. A study conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center into the public’s response to these art-based actions concluded that “a plurality of respondents (46%) report that these tactics decrease their support for efforts to address climate change.”
Some members of the public believe that disruptive tactics should be targeted at those in power, not everyday people. But Just Stop Oil has done this. In London, they targeted places like MI5, the Bank of England, and the News Corp headquarters, buildings that “represent the pillars that support and maintain the power of the fossil fuel economy—government, security, finance, and media.” They also targeted luxury stores like Rolex and high-end car dealerships in London’s West End. Though some were quick to praise the group’s decision to target buildings associated with wealth and power, most people and much of the press still considered the actions “vandalism.”
The idea of ‘right message, wrong method’ omits the historical truth that climate activists have been trying other tactics—and they haven’t worked.
So, perhaps it’s neither the message nor the tactics that are riling people up per se. It could be something else entirely: that these activists are delivering a difficult truth.
It doesn’t matter much to Just Stop Oil whether the public agree or disagree with their actions. Writing for Huck, Anna Holland, one of the Just Stop Oil activists responsible for the tomato soup action, states: “People don’t have to like Just Stop Oil to hear our message about the destruction we’re facing. It’s clear that people can separate the message from the messenger—supporting the cause, while objecting to the methods used in its service…We know that people can and do hate the messenger but still absorb the message. And the more people hear it and feel it, the more pressure the government will come under to act.”
After all: the idea of right message, wrong method omits the historical truth that people have been trying other tactics for as long as we’ve known about global warming—and they haven’t worked.
There’s also an important case to be made that determining the effectiveness of any climate action shouldn’t be measured on whether the public likes it or not. Rather, it should be measured on whether policy-makers and politicians take note and make change. Not only does the Annenberg Public Policy Center study fail to take this into account, but its survey base is politically and socially specific: American. In the U.S., climate is politicized to a much higher degree than in the U.K. and Europe. The obsession with whether this action “turns people against the cause” requires a body politic that has not yet made up its mind about whether they believe the reality of climate change. Whilst the climate denial movement is widespread in the U.S., most of the world’s population doesn’t doubt the existence of climate change. They disagree over whether or not to do anything meaningful about it.
Not all criticism levied against climate activists is inaccurate or misdirected. Sometimes the cause doesn’t justify the means. For example: Extinction Rebellion, the civil disobedience mass movement that became a household name in 2019 by bringing London and other cities to a standstill, has received endless but often substantiated criticism. However, the kind of vitriol and condemnation of Just Stop Oil’s art-centric actions is flimsy at best. In many ways, these commentaries often reinforce Just Stop Oil’s key point: art is considered valuable and worthy of protection and preservation—just like human life and the future of our planet.
Sure, this kind of action might not be for everyone. But, for those throwing criticism at Just Stop Oil and other similar groups, it’s worth asking: what are you doing to take action against climate collapse?