Falco Nagenman/Unsplash

The vandalism of Van Gogh’s art

Earlier this month, climate change activists held a protest in the National Gallery, in which they threw tomato soup over Van Gogh’s paintings. The two women from the Just Stop Oil group, also stuck their hands to the wall below the painting with superglue – after being removed, they were charged with criminal damage and aggravated trespass. The painting was untouched due to a protective glass front, but the gallery confirmed minor damage to the frame.
The action is the latest in a recent series of protests – as well as sitting on roads and blocking oil refineries, campaigners glued themselves to the famous Abbey Road crossing, climbed the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, and sprayed a London Aston Martin showroom with orange paint. This time around, there’s also been a focus on protesting using art. As well as the Sunflowers protest, campaigners smeared the Madame Tussauds waxwork of King Charles III with chocolate cake, while similar protesters in Germany threw mashed potato over Monet’s Les Meules. Elsewhere, the group painted a slogan beneath Leonardo’s The Last Supper and glued themselves to the frame.

People are more concerned with art than environmental damage

As ever, the protests have led to a debate about whether these protests will be successful. Frankly, it depends on how you define success. If it’s a question of raising awareness about the issue of climate change, the protest has worked – people are talking about it, and I’m here writing an article about it. The protesters who threw soup at Sunflowers stressed that they wouldn’t have done it if the painting wasn’t protected and that the fact that people are more concerned with art than environmental damage and loss of life is something the protest hopes to highlight. At the Vermeer protest, as people shouted at the protesters, their response was simple: where is the similar outrage about the destruction of the planet?
In an interview, the climate and humanitarian campaigner Sir Bob Geldof said: “The climate activists are 1,000% right! And 1,000% I support them. It’s offensive to destroy Van Gogh’s genius. That achieves nothing. But it was clever to throw it on the glass knowing it wouldn’t be destroyed. That’s just annoying. And annoying is quite good. I was driving to Hyde Park when the Extinction Rebellion people blocked it and I was fucking furious. But I wasn’t railing against them. I was thinking ‘If I was 18, would I be there?’ and the answer is yes. Annoying people into policy change may not work. Does that mean I’m against their passion? Their anger? Their bravery? No. Would I put up with it? They’re not killing anyone. Climate change will.”

Van Gogh’s work celebrates nature

There has been a mixed reaction, of course. Even as Just Stop Oil activists claim they’re gathering increased support, they acknowledge that people are questioning their methods. Of particular note are the artistic targets the group has selected – Van Gogh’s work celebrates the beauty of nature and the environment, so it seems an odd choice to deface. There is a logic to attacking a waxwork of the monarch, as the figurehead of a nation the group thinks is not doing enough to move away from oil, but it ignores the fact that King Charles III has been a climate activist for decades, speaking on the issue long before it was in common parlance.
Despite the group’s intentions to start a conversation about the value of human life, that’s not how this is being covered – we’re talking about soup and art, so outside of the already sympathetic, it’s arguable that the message is being lost. An anonymous witness to the Sunflowers protest noted: “They may be trying to get people to think about the issues but all they end up doing is getting people really annoyed and angry. The typical unthinking individual who doesn’t think about the big issues of the planet is not the kind of person who walks around the National Gallery.” Yet, for the group, getting attention is what matters most at the moment, with the protesters aiming to speak to as wide an audience as possible: “We are in a climate catastrophe and all you are afraid of is tomato soup or mashed potatoes on a painting,” shouted Mirjam Herrmann after splattering Les Meules. “When will you finally listen and stop business as usual?


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