In October, the environmental group Just Stop Oil staged a number of nonviolent direct actions across London. The most visible of these actions was the throwing of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery. This action has been highly controversial and has attracted a number of criticisms, both from those who are usually critical of this kind of environmental activism as well as from people who tend to be sympathetic with the cause, and in some cases the methods chosen by these groups, including some who are themselves part of the environmental movement. There were two main kinds of criticism made. First, some felt that the painting was the wrong target for such a protest, often reacting angrily out of fear that that painting had been damaged, which was soon revealed not to be the case. Second, many argued that this kind of action is to be criticised for strategic reasons as it does attract attention, but it mainly alienates people from the cause.
The wrong target: a story of value
Let us start with the first question: can renowned paintings be the right target for these kinds of direct action? After the protest, many people argued that it made no sense to attack the painting as van Gogh is in no way responsible for, or related to, the climate crisis, and activists would have done better to target those who are actually responsible for the climate crisis, like oil companies (which they did in other actions). It should be clear that the point of this action had nothing to do with blame. Just Stop Oil activist Phoebe Plummer explained the reasons behind this choice during the action, asking to those present: “What is worth more – art or life? Is it worth more than food, more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?” Attacking such an iconic painting, which so many consider as having inestimable value, was meant to invite a reflection on what we do, and should, value. The target of the protest was not at all accidental, or only instrumental in attracting attention, but rather entirely integral to its aim. The sacrality that is ascribed to such works of art was essential for the communicative intention of the action. The idea was precisely to play on the initial reaction of shock and even outrage of those who would witness the scene and intuitively react to the possibility of the painting been damaged. The aim was to make people reflect on their views on what we should value as well the ways in which these judgments are reflected in the actions of government, businesses and individuals in the face of the climate crisis. Upon reflection, the message cleverly played on the inconsistencies in our (collective) value judgements and reactions, raising the following question: how could we be so outraged by this, when we (collectively) do not seem to care much when it comes to the destruction of the planet and the suffering and dying of its people? The point made was not an either or between the value of art and that of human and animal life, suggesting that one needs to choose between them, but rather to invite people to reflect on what is the appropriate value that we should place on the protection of the planet, fellow human beings and animals.
What works, what doesn’t
The second criticism that the action attracted, especially from those who are generally sympathetic with environmental causes and activism, is that it was likely to alienate people. Some worried that the message required too much explanation and would not reach people whose negative gut reaction would overshadow it. Others expressed worries that spectacle is now becoming central to activism, but these actions are not the most effective if the aim is to build a movement. Assessing the success of these kinds of strategy in reaching these different aims is far from being easy and there might well be some truth to some of these claims. However, an important point is that it is not necessarily among the aims of environmental groups such as Just Stop Oil or Extinction Rebellion to be popular among the public. One of their main aims is to bring attention on the climate crisis and what can be done in response to it, sparking a national conversation on these issues. For this reason, a situation in which people say that they agree with the ends of these groups, but not their methods, as many more do these days than just a few years ago, might already be regarded as a victory for these groups. In support this, there seems to be some empirical evidence suggesting that disagreeing with, and even strongly disliking, protesters does not necessarily affect one’s support of the cause in question. Of course, this does not settle the question of whether the growing support for the environmental cause in the UK and elsewhere is the direct result of the work of these movements rather than other being caused by other factors. However, it is undeniable that the action of these groups has been among the main catalysts of the public discussion on the climate crisis.
On the (in)civility of protest
While this action did not involve any violence against people or lasting damage to the work of art, it did represent an affront to many people’s sense of what is an appropriate and acceptable method of protest, which goes beyond worries about the effectiveness of the strategy. The question of what the boundaries of acceptable protest and dissent are is an old and complex issue for protesters and philosophers alike to which I cannot do justice here. However, while thinking about the Just Stop Oil action against the Sunflowers painting, I was reminded of what is probably the most notable example of direct action against paintings, at least in UK history: the various attacks against important artworks, including the Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez, carried out by the suffragettes in 1913-1914. These actions were importantly different to that carried out this October, in that they often did involve significant damage to the paintings. They were of course widely denounced at the time, and the question remains open whether these actions were justified. Today, the suffragette movement is among the most revered social and political movements, celebrated not only by contemporary feminists but considered part of the common heritage of our societies, as the right to vote for women is generally seen as one of the fundamental steps towards a more just, equal and democratic society. Such celebration in mainstream discourse often comes with an exercise of selective memory, in which the most radical, controversial and in some cases violent aspects of these movements are forgotten or ignored. Only time will tell whether this will also be the fate of the environmental movement of the early 21st century.