First it was cake smeared on the Mona Lisa in Paris, then tomato soup splattered across a van Gogh in London, and then, on Sunday, liquefied mashed potatoes hurled at a Monet in a museum in Potsdam.
What these actions shared, aside from involving priceless art and carbs, was the intentions of the protesters behind them. Desperate to end complacency about the climate crisis and to pressure governments to stop the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, they said they had resorted to such high profile tactics because little else has worked.
None of the paintings were harmed, as all were encased in protective glass. But the actions went viral and set off an international storm of outrage and debate. Were the activists misguided attention-seekers who harmed the climate movement’s legitimacy while doing nothing to help the Earth? Or did they force a spotlight onto everything at risk if significant climate action isn’t taken fast?
It’s unclear whether throwing food at artwork, which follows a long line of guerrilla protest tactics, was a success.
For the climate activists, the protests amounted to wins, insofar as they nabbed far more attention than anything they’d undertaken yet. Despite decades of lobbying, petitions, marches and civil disobedience, planet-heating fossil fuel emissions are at an all-time high, and the window to avert further climate catastrophe is closing.
“We tried sitting in the roads, we tried blocking oil terminals, and we got virtually zero press coverage, yet the thing that gets the most press is chucking some tomato soup on a piece of glass covering a masterpiece,” said Mel Carrington, a spokeswoman for Just Stop Oil, the group behind the Oct. 14 soup attack on van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London. After tossing the soup, the two Just Stop Oil activists glued their hands to the wall. “What is worth more, art or life?” asked one, Phoebe Plummer, 21.
Ms. Carrington said the act was intended to elicit a visceral reaction, to force people to emotionally experience the potential loss of a masterpiece. “When you think about it, this is what we face with climate collapse,” she said. “The loss of everything we love.”
What’s your reaction to the recent climate protests targeting famous artworks? Are these actions necessary to end complacency about the climate crisis? Or are they acts of vandalism — destructive, misdirected and counterproductive? How should we decide what are acceptable and effective forms of protest, dissent and activism?
Phoebe Plummer, one of the Just Stop Oil soup throwers, asked museumgoers whether they were “more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people.” How would you respond? Is that an illuminating question? Or a false moral choice? Are famous artworks appropriate targets for activists? What if the artworks are harmed in the process?
Mel Carrington, a spokeswoman for Just Stop Oil, said, “We tried sitting in the roads, we tried blocking oil terminals, and we got virtually zero press coverage, yet the thing that gets the most press is chucking some tomato soup on a piece of glass covering a masterpiece.” Are the climate activists justified in resorting to high-profile tactics because they believe that little else has worked? Or are there better ways to effect change?
Ms. Buckley asks: “Were the activists misguided attention-seekers who harmed the climate movement’s legitimacy while doing nothing to help the Earth? Or did they force a spotlight onto everything at risk if significant climate action isn’t taken fast?” Which description do you think is more accurate? What impact do you think the Just Stop Oil protests will have, good or bad? Do they help or hurt the activists’ cause?
Ms. Buckley writes that art has been targeted by protesters before, citing suffragists’ attacks on artworks a century ago. She also describes how activist groups like ACT UP, Greenpeace and PETA have used high-profile disruptive actions in the past to raise awareness and press for change. Many of these groups are now lauded, but their tactics were often excoriated at the time. What can we learn from the history of activism? How can these lessons help us understand the protests of today?
How concerned are you about climate change? Do you think enough is being done to stop it? Have you ever participated in a climate protest or climate activism? If so, why? How effective do you think it was? What do you think should be done to address climate change?