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Last Friday morning, my social media feeds alerted me to a climate protest that had happened in London: Two activists had apparently thrown tomato soup on a Vincent Van Gogh painting at the National Gallery.
That’s cool, I thought — something to shock people into thinking about the political nature of the climate crisis as they go about their days.
I soon learned that this was not the common response.
Over the next hours and days, I watched, read, and scrolled past countless takes and memes deriding the action as hollow performance that not only failed to help the climate movement, but actually set it back (because, you know, Vincent Van Gogh himself isn’t fracking holes in the ground and coating seals in oil, so why attack him?).
But the action was ultimately successful in raising global awareness for a local campaign against fossil fuels. And if you look a little deeper, you can see that it was a well-planned critique of the status quo.
The two activists — Phoebe Plummer, 21, and Anna Holland, 20 — work with the direct action organization Just Stop Oil, which has a simple mission: get the UK government to stop all new oil and gas infrastructure.
Just Stop Oil is using a variety of tactics to put pressure on the government, which has been accelerating oil and gas licenses in recent months, in defiance of commitments made to achieve net zero emissions and the International Energy Agency’s warning to stop approving fossil fuel infrastructure. This wasn’t the first such action the group took at an art museum, but it has clearly garnered the most attention (and the most vitriolic response).
“What is worth more, art or life?” Plummer said immediately after the stunt, according to a video filming the action. “Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”
Plummer continued: “The cost of living crisis is part of the cost of oil crisis. Fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families — they can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup. Meanwhile, crops are failing. Millions of people are dying in monsoons, wildfires, and severe droughts. We cannot afford new oil and gas. It’s going to take everything we know and love. We will look back and mourn all we have lost unless we act immediately.”
Plummer eloquently summed up the stakes and urgency of the climate crisis. But it’s not those moving words that gained media coverage and dominated the attention economy; it’s the two cans of Heinz soup — not Campbell’s (sorry, Warhol) — that did the trick.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Van Gogh’s art — the mesmerizing aliveness of his scenes, the gloopy textures and riot of colors — but “Sunflowers” didn’t sustain damage. Its glass case, which the activists knew was protecting the painting before they executed the stunt, was cleaned and it’s now back on display. You can be sure that more eyeballs will see it than ever before and its $84.1 million valuation will skyrocket even further.
I believe that the fine art world — typified by the Art Basel circuit, Christie's auctions, and the short-lived NFT craze — can often represent the excesses that are fueling the climate crisis, stripping the planet of resources, polluting ecosystems, and driving the sixth mass extinction. Some critics argue that modern art collection allows for a speculative asset bubble where the ultra-wealthy can park their money, evade taxes, and, in some cases, mask the controversial means through which they attain wealth. Yachts, private jets, and mansions (which turbocharge the carbon footprints of these buyers) are often furnished with framed replicas of lauded pieces by art world darlings.
And who’s more esteemed than Van Gogh? Choosing an artist with broad name recognition was a smart way to get a message out there.
“Sunflowers” was open to the public, it’s true, but this just means that it was accessible — unlike a luxury yacht — as a forum for democratic dissent, which happen to be vanishing amid laws designed to criminalize protest.
I encourage you to watch the action. Plummer and Holland move with a determined efficiency, prying open the cans, splashing the canvas’ protective shield, and then applying glue to their hands so that they could anchor themselves to the wall to prevent security from immediately dragging them out. Once in place, Plummer, aware of the megaphone effect of social media, speaks with fury, despair, and resolve, indicting a status quo that’s barreling toward environmental catastrophe.
Last summer, the UK experienced a devastating heat wave that killed more than 1,000 people. Now, climate impacts and fossil fuel wars are driving up food prices and the cost of living. Without meaningful government action to alleviate poverty and transition to renewable energy, these crises will intensify. And to make matters worse, the UK government has been focusing on fossil fuel approvals and tax cuts for the wealthy.
Globally, massive wealth imbalances — the richest 1% have captured more than 20 times the wealth of the bottom 50% since 1995 — have led to massive power imbalances both within and between countries. These power imbalances, in turn, have caused an impasse when it comes to climate action.
Even though we’ve known that fossil fuels drive the climate crisis for more than a century, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, and efforts to fund a just transition have been stifled. Now the impacts of climate change are being felt more acutely — from extreme heat waves and forest fires to proliferating droughts and sea level rise — and fossil fuel exploration and production continues to increase.
The Just Stop Oil protesters want to end this disconnect by forcing governments to take immediate action to curb the climate and biodiversity crisis and protect communities. First and foremost by ending fossil fuel infrastructure.
“I think we need to reach that point where it's shocking that our government is proposing more fossil fuels,” Emma Brown, an organizer with Just Stop Oil, said in an interview. “We need to reach a point where that is as shocking as a bit of soup on some glass.”
For decades, environmental activists have put their bodies on the line to block oil pipelines, halt environmentally harmful activities, and sabotage industrial facilities. They’ve marched in the streets, disrupted conferences, knocked on endless doors, and even lit themselves on fire.
Getting arrested in a museum is another thread in this movement.
I don’t get why you’re protesting at _______. Why don’t you go protest at the oil companies / Parliament / banks / media corporations / _______?— Robert Painter (@painter_rob) October 15, 2022
Here’s a dozen we made earlier. A small selection from the past 4 years.
Even if your initial reaction was to discredit the protest as misguided, think of it within this broader tapestry of action and how it brings more attention to Just Stop Oil than months of more disruptive actions, especially as world leaders head to COP27, the United Nations Climate Conference, in November.
If it helps, imagine they’re throwing cold water on a person sleepwalking off a cliff. Startled awake, the person might, at first, be angry at the intrusion. But take a second to gather yourself, and notice the closeness of the edge.