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Defacing or Dissenting: Understanding the Urgency Driving Drastic Climate Change Protests

When Andy Warhol created a work of art out of Campbell’s soup cans, it was to challenge the standards of an art scene that only recognised conventionally beautiful things as art. That was probably the last time soup enjoyed such a prominent limelight in the art world. But lately, soup has entered the sphere quite literally and violently as part of a different kind of rebellion - one that aims to challenge the lethargy around addressing climate change.

Just Stop Oil is an organisation working to curb the issuing of licenses for the development and production of fossil fuels. And the incident where activists, Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, threw cans of tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s Fifteen Sunflowers at London’s National Gallery recently blew up on social media and news channels.

As shocking as this was to connoisseurs and lovers of art, it initiated worldwide discussions about climate change like never before. While public marches, posters, documentaries and protest art have contributed their fair share to the fight, never have they made an impact of this magnitude. Where art activism failed, activism ‘on art’ seems to be what was needed to get the world listening - and now talking about it.

Alongside the protests by Just Stop Oil, organisations like Extinction Rebellion, Germany’s Letzte Generation and Italy’s Ultima Generazione are also contributing to the resistance. And it’s interesting to note that several of the artworks targeted for these protests had significant relevance to the cause.

Image Credit: Mika Baumesiter on Unsplash

When the two Letzte Generation protesters glued themselves to the supportive rails of a dinosaur display, their message to the onlookers was that we are also moving towards extinction, but we hold our fate in our own hands, unlike the dinosaurs.

In another incident, two protesters glued their hands to Raphael’s Sistine Madonna at the Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden. This work was chosen to draw parallels between humanity’s collective concern about the climate crisis and Jesus and Mary’s fear of the future depicted in the painting.

A group of protestors also pasted a printed illustration of the apocalyptic future they foresee over John Constable’s painting The Hay Wainwhich is one of the most popular paintings in London’s National Gallery.

Most of the criticism that these protests received is related to the suspected damage caused to priceless works of art while addressing seemingly unrelated problems. However, these bold demonstrations earn a certain level of justification owing to two reasons.

There are several art students - young members of the society who would be highly invested in protecting visual arts - actively participating in these protests. One activist, Jessica Agar, a 21-year-old art student from Hereford has said that there is no place for her to follow her calling as an artist in a world which has no future.

Phoebe Plummer, the activist who threw tomato soup over Van Gogh’s painting, also clarified that they would have never considered doing this without ensuring that the paintings were protected by glass. While addressing the media she also highlighted how the UK was issuing 100 new fossil fuel licenses and the problems of subsidising fossil fuels more than renewable energy sources. This leads to the second reason that validates the audacity of these protests.

It can be noted that only art galleries and museums were targeted by the activities. The deliberate choice of staging their demonstrations in these elite institutions makes a clear statement against certain classist and capitalistic associations that can be linked back to these organisations.

Photo Credit: Li An Lim on Unsplash

An article published by the Art Not Oil Coalition has revealed the staggering number of cultural institutions operating on funding and partnerships with big oil companies. Several major exhibitions at The British Museum are sponsored by BP, a multinational oil and gas company. BP also features in the list of funders for events and projects undertaken by The Royal Opera House. The Science Museum’s permanent exhibit on climate science is also ironically funded by Shell, another corporate oil giant.

The involvement of these fossil fuel industries in the development of the visual arts seems paradoxical as most of these galleries and museums are founded on beliefs of sustainability, protection of cultural heritage and conservation of the environment. Mel Evans, artist and activist, described this phenomenon as ‘art-washing’ - a PR stunt where oil companies invest in sponsorship of the arts to draw attention away from the environmental destruction they are causing.

The capitalistic agendas of these organisations have always been detrimental to the interests of the working class. This was addressed by Phoebe Plummer when she explained how the rising cost of living is linked to the oil crisis which has made fuel inaccessible to a wide margin of society.

There was a pressing need to discuss these problems and the shock value of these protests definitely garnered media attention and got the public talking. Speaking about their approach, Phoebe Plummer said, “I recognise that this looks like a slightly ridiculous action. I agree, it is ridiculous. But we are not asking the question, ‘Should we be throwing soup on paintings?’ What we are doing is getting the conversation going so we can ask the questions that matter”

These protests want to wake up a world that was sleeping on an imminent environmental crisis. They want to reveal how deeply the organisations responsible have infiltrated into institutional spaces of art, science and education. And they have undeniably managed to get the world talking about it. Just like Warhol’s experiments with soup opened the eyes of the art world to a whole different spectrum of beauty, maybe the art world’s latest entanglements with soup would be successful in gradually creating the change they aspired to initiate.

Akhila Thomas

Lead Image Credit: Callum Shaw on Unsplash


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