Why Have Climate-Change Activists Pitted Life Against Art?
A Gustav Klimt sprayed with an oily substance on November 15.
Photo: Austria LastGen/AP
On October 14, climate activists Phoebe Plummer, 21, and Anna Holland, 20, shocked the world by tomato soup splashes on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. Wearing JUST STOP OIL T-shirts, they then stuck to the photo. One of them asked, “Which is worth more, art or life?”
Plummer later explained that they were driven by a “feeling of fear” caused by global warming. They were desperate that humanity was not doing enough to anticipate its worst effects and decided to try “media action to get people talking”. They spoke. Activists around the world have recently engaged in similar actions, throwing mashed potatoes and other substances at works by Vermeer, Klimt, Botticelli, da Vinci, Monet, Goya, Constable, Warhol and Charles Ray. , or sticking to it.
The answer to their question — art or life? — is clear: life, of course. But activists nonetheless left behind questions that remain unexamined, including why art, of all things, has been pitted against life in the debate over Earth’s habitability. Why these specific works of art? Why did the acts against them provoke such a visceral reaction from those who opposed and supported the stunts? And what happens to activism when it looks like performance – when it looks like something like art itself?
Activists understand that this art has a powerful hold on the collective imagination. We were taught that these paintings have magical value and should not be touched by human hands, let alone disrespected with tomato soup. That’s why these acts broke through the usual noise telling us to compost, eat less meat, conserve, avoid plastic, go electric and everything in between. They have something transgressive that makes them much more efficient than sticking to a coal factory.
In this sensationalized way, activists have cracked a code. Their subversions are political transfigurations of objects consecrated in the name of a greater good. They pose a challenge: if you gasp, if you’re livid with rage, if you’re denouncing these kids on Twitter, why aren’t you also upset about what’s happening to the climate? Are you so blind, so bourgeois, that you are more offended by an attack on certain paintings than an attack on humanity as a whole? What is worth the most?
The works were perfectly chosen. Van Gogh, Klimt, Monet, Vermeer, Constable and da Vinci – these are part of the hallowed canon of art, the asset class trophy paintings. It is art that sells for obscene prices at auction. The activists’ suggestion is that this art is one of the many coins of our corrupt kingdom, a highly liquid investment for the plutocrats and petro-state dictators who have driven the world to the brink of disaster. Not to mention that the types of major cultural institutions where these events have been staged have often benefited from the generous patronage of the oil industry.
The effect of the attacks would have been different if a different art had been chosen. If protesters had dunked a Jeff Koons or a Damien Hirst with soup, the crowds would have cheered. If they had tackled art in biennials, it wouldn’t have worked because the general public already considers most contemporary art to be worthless and decadent. If they had sprayed a Kara Walker or a Kerry James Marshall, the act would have been called racist.
Tellingly, activists have targeted works protected by glass. Indeed, they insist that they have no intention of damaging the art. Their transgression, in truth, is superficial because if they have really destroyed the Mona Lisa, it would be extremely difficult to defend them. Life may be worth more than art, but that does not mean that art – that repository of ideals, truths and beauty – should be unnecessarily harmed for a cause that is not in the first place. that tangentially linked to art.
Attacking the art for whatever the cause, be it political, religious or otherwise, has a long and mixed history. In 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson slashed Velázquez’s name Rokeby Venus, saying, “I tried to destroy the image of the most beautiful woman in mythological history…to get justice for womanhood…until the public stopped endorsing human destruction.” Richardson is now hailed as a pioneer. In 1974, Tony Shafrazi, gallery owner of Keith Haring, spray painted Picasso Guernica to protest the release of the lieutenant who oversaw the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. I remember thinking, All right, man; stop the war. But I still boycotted his gallery for years.
When I asked people in the art world what they thought of the climate protests, the answers were often divided by generation. Old people didn’t like them. Neither did young people, but they sympathized with the underlying message. As an older person, I’ve found that just discussing the issue makes someone feel complacent and guilty. “These protesters believe, with all their soul, that we are destroying the planet,” artist Nicholas Cueva wrote to me in an email. “If that’s true, why is a painting more important than entire coastlines? Why is an old piece of canvas smeared with colors worth more than the lives of billions of people in the countries of the South? »
If art in the past had to defend itself against accusations of being sacrilegious or offensive or reactionary, it now finds itself in the common position of being accused of frivolity. Activists have chosen a target that is significant enough for people to elicit a response, but not so significant that one can give a full-throated defense without looking like a gassy aesthete. Most of us are forced to embrace the paradox, critique and understand these acts at the same time. Meanwhile, activists and their advocates live in a world of certainty: they are so sure that their cause is more important than those old pieces of canvas that have been important to people for a long, long time.
It’s ironic that these attacks on art haven’t generated much commentary on the real outcomes we face – the difference, for example, between living in a world that has limited warming to two degrees Celsius or 1, 5. (Compare that with Nan Goldin and her gang of hackers, who focused their attacks on OxyContin and institutional corruption and actually brought about real change.) Plummer, the activist, told NPR, “For the first time, I felt some hope that something could be done to secure me a future.But as these splatter acts became more familiar and turned into caricatures, the discussion centered on the act of protest itself; really, it becomes a lot less about climate and more about art. Thanks to people like Andreas Malm, we know the moral case for blowing up a pipeline. But activists, despite the startling images that they created, have yet to advocate for tainted paints.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Plummer and Holland’s protest included in upcoming lists of the ten best works of art of 2022. It’s a form of performance art, but its message is confusing and unconvincing. Sacrifice is meant to be difficult, but climate protesters seek to place art under this archaic blade of pain while signaling that the blade will never fall. They want to have it both ways, express their emotions and never give up. Plummer says, “We have no time to waste. But what are these protesters doing now if not wasting time? Let’s not pretend that debating the ethics or effectiveness of degrading art forces anyone to sacrifice anything, let alone save the planet.