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On Thursday, Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” became the latest artwork to be targeted by climate activists when a protester tried to glue his bald head to the piece. The painting, which hangs in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, did not appear to be harmed.
It followed a string of similar protests this year: In May, a demonstrator at the Louvre smeared cake onto the glass protecting the Mona Lisa. In October, activists in London tossed canned tomato soup onto the glass protecting van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” prompting a heated debate that became known, perhaps inevitably, as #soupgate. And, on Sunday, protesters in Potsdam, Germany, chucked mashed potatoes onto Monet’s “Grainstacks.”
A few days ago, the rapper Lil Nas X weighed in, posting a photoshopped picture of himself throwing “Sunflowers” at one of Andy Warhol’s tomato soup prints. The caption read, “i will avenge u mr van gogh.”
When I was reporting for an article this week about the controversy over these tactics, an expert in social movements at Boston University told me one measure of any protest action’s success is whether it builds a coalition or alienates people. The volume of outrage the actions generated suggested they had left most people infuriated and dismayed. (That includes Times readers. See the “Readers Picks” tab in the our report on the soup attack.)
But a recent poll in Britain, where the van Gogh painting was attacked, might tell a different story.
Some 66 percent of respondents said they supported nonviolent civil disobedience to protect nature. While the survey didn’t explicitly mention throwing food, it was taken just days after the van Gogh got splashed. My first question was whether those surveyed skewed younger, since younger generations are especially, understandably, worried about the climate crisis. Yet slightly more than half of respondents were over age 45, meaning that quite a few older people said they were on board with nonviolent civil disobedience, too.
For my article, I interviewed a former AIDS activist who said the most potent forms of direct action tended to have clear connections with their targets, be they oil refineries, nuclear sites or government offices. The activists behind the soup and potato incidents told me that they felt they’d exhausted all such measures, including blocking roads to oil depots, to little effect.
“When Phoebe and I threw the soup over ‘Sunflowers,’ the main emotion that people felt, after the initial shock, was one of protection and defensiveness for such a beautiful depiction of life,” Anna Holland, one of the soup-throwers, wrote in an email. “We are asking that people feel that same protection for life itself: for real sunflowers, real people, real lives — not just the depiction of these things.”
Now, she added, “people are talking not just about what Phoebe and I did, but why we did it, which is the most important question to be asking.”
On the other side, of course, there are growing concerns about what this means for priceless art, and for museums and their security measures. Targeting, and potentially ruining, some of the most treasured creations of humankind, critics say, is an utterly misguided way of highlighting climate threats to humankind. The art critic Jerry Saltz called the protests imperious and self-righteous in a Twitter post and said they reminded him of the Taliban. “The art world needs to stand up to this,” he wrote.
While the protesters said they first ensured that the artworks were protected by glass, there are fears about copycats who might go further. In the Netherlands, the Vermeer protesters were wearing shirts with the words Just Stop Oil, but a spokeswoman for the group said they were unaffiliated with the organization.
So far in the food attacks, none of the paintings have been harmed, but at least one frame has been damaged. In July, during another protest, Just Stop Oil activists caused “disruption” to the varnish on John Constable’s painting “The Hay Wain,” which has since been repaired.
Further actions are sure to follow. On Friday, Just Stop Oil posted its own poll asking respondents what should be the focus of the group’s next protests. Targeting “great artwork” was among the options getting the fewest votes.
Are they vandalism, unnecessary and off-putting? Or is any attention good attention if it gets people talking? Are you outraged? If so, by what? We’d like to know what you think.
Tell us in this form! We’ll share responses in a future newsletter.
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Jonathan Wolfe, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.
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