Soup and Sunflowers: Climate Activists Throw Tomato Soup on Van Gogh Painting

On Friday 14th October 2022, two activists wearing “Just Stop Oil” T shirts threw tins of tomato soup over Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” painting in London’s National Gallery. Both perpetrators were arrested and the painting which had been encased in glass, went back on display 6 hours later.

So what was the reason behind it? The phrase, “What is worth more? art or life?” was shouted by one protestor. The protest centred around what is worth more to people: materialism, human endeavours or our planet. “Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice?” the protester continued.

Banking on outrage culture to generate media attention certainly worked, but as Dana Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, points out “to what end?” The point was proven that the public and media in fact do seem to care more about the potential damage to the art rather than environmental atrocities, however, was throwing soup effective activism?

Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice?

–Phoebe Plummer, 21 year old ‘Just Stop Oil’ activist

Another question you may have on your mind is why Van Gogh and why this painting? Art as with all industries driven by consumerism is guilty of being indifferent to the impact on our climate however, Van Gogh painted this piece in 1888 when economic systems around art looked entirely different. He would have had no knowledge of modern ideas like ‘global warming’ and aimed merely to bring joy with his art, reflected in his lack of success in his own time. One idea about why this painting was chosen is that it is oil based, providing a strong metaphor for the ‘Big Oil’ companies the protestors aimed to take down. However, this is just another example of the inexplicable nature of the demonstration given, Van Gogh was thought to use natural materials like poppyseed oil. The clear and evocative image they tried to conjure ended up more as an impressionist piece. Perhaps the answer is that aside from the scale of outrage in correspondence to such a famous painting being calculated, little else was. But is doing something, is creating outrage, better than complacency?

The cost-of-living crisis is part of the cost of oil crisis. Fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup.

–Phoebe Plummer, 21 year old ‘Just Stop Oil’ activist

A new element is brought to the table when we consider this quote from 21-year-old Phoebe Plummer and 20-year-old Anna Holland the activists themselves. “The cost-of-living crisis is part of the cost of oil crisis. Fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup.” It appears that the two were hoping to capitalise from discontent caused by the cost of living by using soup as their weapon of choice. However, this serves only to further muddy the waters because what appeared to be a slightly discombobulated environmental protest is then confused by entering forcibly into an entirely different debate. Oil companies cannot be said to be the only or even the worst perpetrators in the cost-of-living crisis and by deviating from their focus, the protestors may have further alienated themselves from public sympathy by appearing out of touch. Highlighting the fact that some people don’t have access to basic needs such as food and then wasting food is rather counterintuitive.

The National Gallery later confirmed that only the frame had been slightly damaged and that the protesters had been arrested. This raises the question of whether this activism was effective as it provoked media attention but rather for their controversial actions rather than objectives.


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