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Is Art Gallery Activism Effective?

Since 2022, environmental activist groups have added art vandalism to their activist repertoire. Food and liquids have been repeatedly hurled at famous paintings in art galleries across the world, in an attempt to force the public to confront the ongoing climate crisis. These actions pose an important question: What will be the value of art when there is no breathable air? How can we worry about such frivolous things as art when our very planet is at stake? This article, however, posits the question: How effective really is this strategy of vandalism for awareness?

There exists a long history of protests taking place in the gallery. A famous example is the slashing of Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus by Mary Richardson in 1914. Provoked by the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, she explained, “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.” Her attack on a male construction of female beauty symbolically aligned with the suffragette movement’s hope to reconfigure the position of women in society. The choice of work, the physical act of destruction, and Richardson’s motivation are all intelligently associated. Activism has long found a locus in the art gallery, and when done cleverly, can be as effective as it is outrageous.

Just Stop Oil’s attempt to damage Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh, however, seems child’s play comparatively. In October 2022, protestors came to the National Gallery in London to launch tomato soup at the artwork. Protected by glass, the painting was undamaged, and was back on display within six hours. Just Stop Oil claimed to have known the glass would make their act impermanent, and that their aim was not to damage the painting but to force people to confront the climate emergency. In a quote for The Washington Post, a representative from Just Stop Oil explained that the art gallery “cannot exist outside of the wider debate and arguments taking place in society. Ending new oil and gas is a demand that needs to be made both inside and outside the gallery.” Yet, the entirely unrelated elements of this attack — van Gogh’s Sunflowers, a can of tomato soup, the fight against fossil fuels — do not inspire confidence in Just Stop Oil’s modus operandi. Unlike Robertson, this is an entirely unconsidered attack on art.

If the actual act of protest is not meaningful, then why are environmental activist groups situating the climate crisis battle in the art gallery? It is, of course, a way of garnering media attention. The unrelatedness of the paintings being damaged, the methods, and the motivations, however, frame these groups as thoughtless. Moreover, in doing these unmindful actions for media coverage, they make themselves seem attention-seeking, which ultimately loses public support. As put by a witness of the soup toss, “They may be trying to get people to think about the issues but all they end up doing is getting people really annoyed.”

It looks as though the art gallery, as a space and institution, is being punished for a crime it didn’t commit. Gallery workers suffer the inconvenience of cleaning up after activists whose protestations are not remotely directed towards them, while the real villains of the climate crisis remain unruffled. All in all, the vandalisation of art by environmental activists is an act that holds nobody accountable, and only hurts their public image. The painting is minorly damaged, restored, and goes back on display. Onlookers only sigh in relief, glad that the pesky protestors didn’t ruin a masterpiece.

Art has historically engaged with social issues, and art galleries of the modern day have made efforts to spotlight these issues. For example, the Barbican Centre recently ran an exhibition entitled ‘Our Time on Earth’, which forced gallery visitors to confront the climate emergency and appreciate Earth’s natural beauty in tandem. If activists want to fight global warming within the art gallery, more tangible change would be made in their partnership with galleries, for the purpose of education. Outside of these efforts, they could continue to hurl soup, but perhaps throw it at the politicians who actually damn the planet with their policies.

Illustration by Bethany Morton

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