Arts Electronica/ Flickr
Arts Electronica/ Flickr

The Art of Activism: The Controversial Canvas of Climate Protests

In an arguably unusual turn, and to the dismay of many, the climate activism movement has transitioned to throwing paint and food at iconic artworks of the modern world. From Just Stop Oil to Extinction Rebellion, their most dedicated followers have vandalised paintings such as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, reinforcing the distinct message, ‘there is no art on a dead planet

Although this is a controversial image, it could be argued that the message portrayed makes sense. The public cares far more about these sacred works than the detriment the planet faces – after screens and security protect all these paintings and never permanently damaged. However, is this blazon act of defacement valuable for the climate movement or is the scorning and public critiques too intense to gain actual support.

If similar human action to the climate continues these artworks, will fail to exist.


To discuss this, I would like to delve into the 2023 defacement of Monet’s The Artist’s Garden at Giverny, a beautiful image of luscious flowers and a thriving ecosystem, with a bold and visceral colour palette. Representing the Swedish activist group, Återställ Våtmarker (Restore Wetlands), the activists named Emma and Maj smeared red paint on the painting, gluing themselves to the protective glass, all while enforcing the view “gorgeous gardens like those in Monet’s painting will soon be a distant memory

Similarly to the Just Stop Oil soup defacement of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, the message is clear. If similar human action to the climate continues, these beautiful and natural scenes, as presented in these artworks, will fail to exist. I can imagine, the wider climate activist groups see these protests as an inspiring act of dedication to the cause, boldly illustrating our climate’s destruction.

However, where my understanding of this message begins to falter is when certain protests target paintings not representing these images of beautiful climates. This leads directly to the recent defacement of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa by French group Riposte Alimentaire (Food Retaliation), which held the same ideological message, but not the same imagery and meaning. As the Mona Lisa was defaced with soup, protesters stated “What is more important? Art or the right to healthy and sustainable food?”, calling for more food provisions to be made in France.

From damaging renowned paintings to wasting food supplies, the true message of climate activism is being lost in the theatrical nature of the protest


But surely, considering soup was thrown at the Mona Lisa, it could be suggested that there is some hypocrisy to this act, as the food sources that are stated to be threatened are being wasted in this act of protest. In response to this act, the public voiced their dismay, with the French Minister for Culture Rachida Dati stating “The Mona Lisa, like our heritage, belongs to future generations.”. Even museums and galleries have voiced their disdain for the nature of these protests, with The Guardian accounting for the risk that the defacement of art can cause, as protesters often underestimate the fragility of such works.

So where does this situation leave us? While these protests hold strong meaning within the climate activist movement, they are losing appeal for the cause with the wider public. From damaging renowned paintings to wasting food supplies, it seems that the true message of climate activism is being lost in the theatrical nature of the protest. It is unknown whether these types of protests will continue, but I doubt the opinions of the public will change and they will continue to condemn these acts of vandalism.


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