I never used to consider myself an art person. I don’t draw; I don’t paint. I’m not even that good at graphic design. But, after spending five transformative months studying in Europe, I came to appreciate art — the detail, the story, the emotion behind every brush stroke and chiseled crevice.
I cried when I saw Michelangelo’s Pietà for the first time, resting near the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica, surrounded by fervent silence. That is why I was appalled when I first watched the video of a man disguised as an elderly woman throwing cake at the “Mona Lisa,” Leonardo Da Vinci’s most famous painting. The dissident shouted at his fellow Louvre visitors to “think of the earth.” That was May, the beginning of an active protest season full of similar affronts to famous artworks.
In July, climate activists in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery — perhaps the most gorgeous building I’ve ever wandered through — glued their hands to the glass covering of Sandro Botticelli’s “Primavera.” Around that same time, members of Just Stop Oil, an environmental activist group based in the United Kingdom, spray painted around and/or glued their hands to artworks in Glasgow, London and Manchester, including Vincent van Gogh’s “Peach Trees in Blossom” and a copy of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.”
The group has dramatically resurfaced in the past two months, with members throwing soup on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and “The Sower” and mashed potatoes on Claude Monet’s “Les Meules.” They show no signs of stopping.
None of the paintings targeted by Just Stop Oil have been permanently damaged, and Phoebe Plummer, a protestor who tossed soup at “Sunflowers,” stated in a viral video that the group would not have used such messy methods if they didn’t know the artwork was guarded by glass.
I respect that logic. In their post-protest tweet, Just Stop Oil wrote, “Is art worth more than life? More than food? More than justice?” I respect those questions and the necessary conversation on climate change they were meant to generate. I respect Just Stop Oil’s commitment to drawing attention, but I cannot ignore the flaw in their method of doing so.
Although a key component of their message is the importance of art — if art were not important then stating that life is even more so would lack significant meaning — I do not believe that component is being properly communicated. After Just Stop Oil’s unique protests go viral, many individuals (perhaps the majority) don’t read comprehensive articles or visit Just Stop Oil’s website to learn the organization’s reasoning behind their actions. They watch the videos, share them with friends and talk about them with coworkers. And they’re talking about what they see: environmental activists disrespecting and temporarily defacing art.
A 2020 study on extreme protests and their effects on public support, published in “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” found that extreme protest actions, including vandalism, often reduce support for social movements’ fundamental positions. I am afraid Just Stop Oil’s protests will follow this trend and people will begin associating Van Gogh’s iconic “Sunflowers,” symbols of gratitude, tarnished by soup with the protestors who threw the soup and the movement they represent. Just Stop Oil’s intention won’t matter; public support will likely fall.
I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I journeyed through the artist’s tragic life by studying his work up close, and I was moved by his passion for the common man and the peace of nature.
Just as I cannot ignore the flaw in Just Stop Oil’s method of communication, I cannot ignore the disrespect they’ve shown toward artists such as Van Gogh, who said: “A good picture is equivalent to a good deed.”
Many of the artistic masterminds whose works have been recently blemished created to inspire, to get people thinking, to make a statement, to commit a good deed. That may be what these climate change protestors believe they are doing, but I cannot support those who, by trying to stop harmful destruction, mimic that destruction and disrespect beneficial creations such as “Sunflowers.”