Friday, protesters from Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers fourth version (don’t worry, the painting itself is fine) before gluing themselves to the wall. This was ostensibly a protest against climate change, but it’s left a lot of people with a lot of feelings.
Some are angry at the choice of painting. After all, Van Gogh was poor, mentally ill, a lover of nature, and unappreciated during his lifetime. If there’s an artist likely to align with environmentalism, it’s him.
I’m not here to debate the relative merits of attacking a priceless cultural artifact. The most effective protests are ones that shock and inconvenience us, forcing us to notice things we haven’t considered before. In that respect, this kind of action can be effective. The road to any kind of progress was never paved with politeness and respectability.
The fact is, though, that you have a very limited window of time to convey your message with that kind of action. Once you’ve thrown the soup and whipped out the glue, security is already on their way. You have at best a few minutes to convey why you’re there, what you’re doing, and why people should care. There is no room for confusion. Your window is limited, and your shit needs to be extremely together.
That’s where this ultimately falls apart. At first, I even wondered if it was intentional performance art intended to critique the movement.
It’d be charitable to say that the call to action was a bit muddled. The world should stop allowing new drilling for oil, but also fuel prices should be cheaper so people can heat up soup in the winter. British Petroleum raises fuel prices so they can donate to museums, which leaves people cold and hungry. Since this is theoretically an environmental protest, I’m assuming that the intended message wasn’t supposed to be “BP needs to stop donating to museums and make oil more accessible.” I figure that this wa intended to convey that we need decentralized grids made up of renewables, but there are several layers of abstraction between that message and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers doused in tomato soup.
It also invokes the idea that life is more valuable than art. This is true, but art is also our only record of some extinct species. Life is also a nebulous concept — “life,” in general, will continue. The planet will recover. Human life will not, but that’s always been our fate. The only thing that will outlast us and hold any echo of us, whether our species is taken out by climate change, an asteroid, or simply by evolving into a genetically distinct descendant, is the artifacts we leave behind. Maybe another species will come along to see it, maybe it won’t. In either case, a piece of artwork is a perplexing vehicle ‘for the message the protesters seemed to be trying to convey.
There’s also something very “pink ribbon” about it. I don’t know that there’s anyone in the world who isn’t aware of climate change and the need to switch away from fossil fuels. Hell, even the companies that profit from it know they need to try to cleanse their reputations. That’s one benefit of this protest, though — it did draw attention to the fact that many museums are funded by oil companies (in this case, British Petroleum) in an attempt to make themselves look bett-
Still, maybe some oil heirs are sincere in their desire to divest from the industry that gave them their money. Ideally, nobody would accept “blood money” funding from something that’s actively destroying the envi-
Ever since “The Merge,” Ethereum touts itself as an environmentally friendly form of cryptocurrency. While this did reduce this specific crypto currency’s energy consumption by 99.9%, it should be noted that its prior consumption was roughly equivalent to the entire country of Chile (which consumes about 73 billion kWh per year). This change is a positive development in the world of crypto, and more currencies should adopt it, but .1% of that is still massive. It’s touted as being good for the environment, but this is a bit misguided — it’s just less of a massive energy sink when compared to its competitors.
This isn’t to suggest that individuals or organizations have to pass some kind of ideological purity test in order to make a statement, but it’s important to remember that they aren’t exempt from scrutiny just because they’re saying something that you agree with. No one is immune to propaganda, and this kind of thing is literally why greenwashing persists. Know who’s cutting the checks.
The whole thing is especially baffling when you consider this that the National Gallery is just a few minutes’ walk away from a British Petroleum office. There’s already a problem with pushing the responsibility for climate change onto individuals rather than the big businesses that contribute the most. Big business, especially oil companies and the fishing industry, love the fact that people focus on making incremental lifestyle changes. While the rest of us squabble about who is and isn’t allowed to use a plastic straw, they get away with (often literal) murder.
It’s no secret that many individuals found the soup-throwing upsetting, but what impact has it had on the key players driving climate change? Why is this action directed at the public? Even if every person at the museum left and wrote angry letters to BP, is boycotting BP’s product something that public infrastructure will actually allow them to do?
There was also concern that one of the protesters flashed what appeared to be a white supremacy hand gesture as she was led away. I haven’t seen the photos or video of this, so I can’t speak to its veracity. It makes me wonder if it was genuinely a white power signal, or if she was trying to make the “OK” hand gesture because a thumb up doesn’t really work in cuffs. (The “OK” hand gesture is now listed as a hate symbol, but this is entirely because a bunch of dipshits on 4chan back in 2017 tried to convince the internet that it was.) Assuming that the accusation of racism is correct, the use of any kind of white supremacist gesture in this context is kind of baffling. Women of color are the group that’s the most negatively impacted by climate change. I guess a white supremacist might want to contribute to the oppression of other people by discrediting the environmental movement? They’re strange concepts to link together in the context of some soup-throwing, I tell you what.
So, here’s an environmental protest, but one that’s funded by oil money and crypto donations. A protest that wants to end the use of oil, but also wants fuel to be cheaper and more accessible. An action that targeted a representational artwork of nature, by an impoverished, mentally ill artist, instead of any of the British Petroleum corporate offices a few minutes’ walk away. One that, like so many actions before it, seems to push the responsibility for climate action on individuals instead of corporate entities.
In the end, I feel bad for these kids. I remember having intense, unfocused passions that I dedicated to causes I strongly believed in (but weren’t always well thought-out). If this was their idea, I hope they can learn and do better in the future. If someone put them up to this, I hope that person is held responsible.
As an artist and environmentalist, it all leaves me with one question: What was the actual end game here?