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Why the climate art protests are so powerful

How can we condemn the acts when their premise is sound and their cause is so righteous?
Image: Two protesters wearing t-shirts that read \"Just Stop Oil\" kneeling in front of the  Vincent Van Gogh's 1888 painting 'Sunflowers' after throwing Heinz Tomato soup at it, at the National Gallery in London.
Two protesters from the climate activist group, 'Just Stop Oil' who threw Heinz Tomato soup at Vincent Van Gogh's 1888 painting 'Sunflowers' at the National Gallery in London on Oct. 14 2022.Courtesy Just Stop Oil / EPA

An angry scream. A pained moan. An astonished “Oh my gosh.”

Those were the first three reactions that could be heard after two British climate activists threw tomato soup on one of Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings at the National Gallery in London in a video that went ultra-viral earlier this month.

The emotional register of those reactions — rage, sadness, shock — were a preview of what was to come. They foreshadowed the most common responses countless people on social media had to the action, during which one activist queried: “What is worth more? Art or life?”

Their fundamental premise is sound: We are sleepwalking toward disaster.

Tensions defused slightly after it emerged that the painting was covered in glass and undamaged, and that the activists said that they knew the soup wouldn’t destroy the painting. But that development didn’t do much to halt the swirl of controversy, and in the following days the act sparked a debate about whether it made sense to vandalize, even if temporarily, great works of art as a way to draw attention to impending ecological catastrophe.

Since then, climate activists have carried out similar acts again and again. German activists tossed mashed potatoes on a Monet, and a climate protester glued his head to Vermeer's “Girl With a Pearl Earring” in the Netherlands. While these acts have similarly targeted works of art with protective coverings, they have continued to evoke strong emotions of anger and shock.

Much of the discussion has focused on whether tampering with — and risking the damage of — beloved artistic artifacts does more good or harm for climate activists. Some political and climate-focused analysts have passed around studies arguing that the extremism of the acts could be effective by drawing attention to the issue and building more robust support for more moderate factions of climate activists. Others have flagged studies indicating that it could backfire by alienating potential supporters.

I can’t yet say I have a sense of whether these protests will be a net good or harm for the cause of taking greater action on climate change. I’m not convinced they count as effective activism, insofar as they seem to bother many people who are sympathetic to their cause.

But I certainly cannot condemn them, and I find them powerful for two reasons.

First, their fundamental premise is sound: We are sleepwalking toward disaster and something vexing and distressing must be done to wake us up. It’s imperative for those of us who live comfortably in the global North — and can afford, for now, to ignore climate consequences that are already taking a toll on people on the margins of society all around the world — to experience some kind of alertness-inducing discomfort. I cannot bring myself to feel anger toward activists who are causing people no harm for such a righteous cause at a time when there is nothing remotely close to a mass mobilization on behalf of building a sufficiently sustainable global economy and society.

Second, there is something brilliant going on here as a form of performance art. The actions are evocative because they act as a microcosm of the horror that awaits us. Rehearsing the destruction of what we cherish as most beautiful and most worthy of preservation is surely relevant to the question of whether we’re doing enough to deal with climate change. Because indeed, rising seas and superstorms and wildfires are going to eventually destroy so much of our world’s most magnificent cultural heritage. Simultaneously, in the anguish we experience at the specter of losing art documenting the real world, we are being graced with a more vital reminder: We must protect the natural world with the same zeal we protect beautiful art that captures it.

Next time you see one of these protests, consider setting aside questions of activist efficacy, sitting with the emotions you feel, and letting them move you to action.