A splash of soup on a priceless painting can make a powerful statement about a critical issue. Or it can obscure the statement, and just make a big mess.
On Friday, two young protesters with the group Just Stop Oil – which seeks to halt new fossil-fuel licensing and production – hurled the contents of two cans of Heinz tomato soup over Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery of Art in London.
“What is worth more, art or life?” said one protester, after the pair glued themselves to the wall, the soup dripping down from the painting behind them like blood from humanity’s hands.
“Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”
I’m going with the planet and people. But this is not an either/or situation. And this was the wrong target.
Van Gogh’s oil painting, made in Arles, France, in 1888, is a masterpiece of colour and composition. It also has a hell of a story behind it. It was originally made by Van Gogh in a burst of optimism to decorate his guest room for Paul Gauguin. The fellow post-impressionist was travelling to Arles to stay with Van Gogh, at the behest of the Dutch painter’s brother, Theo.
“It really does kind of burn off the wall, doesn’t it?” the National Gallery’s special projects curator Colin Wiggins says to a group of students in a video posted on the museum’s website. He calls the painting “dazzling,” one that touches people’s hearts.
“Vincent communicates. He communicates to people who aren’t interested in art.”
He also points out that most of the flowers are dead. The painting mostly depicts the seed-heads, with just a few petals remaining. It’s really a perfect symbol for the climate movement, not against it.
But according to a Just Stop Oil spokesperson, the painting was not chosen for any symbolic reason, but simply because it is iconic and the group wanted to generate publicity. Which it certainly did.
The group had also checked in advance that the painting would not be damaged by the soup. And indeed the artwork, protected by glass, was not harmed, other than minor damage to the frame. It is now back on display. So, phew.
I am completely sympathetic with the protesters’ cause. These young people are desperate, and they should be. We all should be. The situation is desperate.
Across the pond and on the other side of the continent from London, I am writing this from smoky British Columbia, where it hasn’t rained in forever; where in mid-October, the air actually smells like smoke, where we are living under an air-quality advisory, and where high temperature records are falling faster than the autumn leaves.
I have given a lot of thought to the role of art in the climate crisis. This gallery protest was not meant as a call to arms for artists specifically. That’s something to consider, though, because art can be a powerful tool for change.
An artist I once interviewed about this called the climate emergency a ”Debbie Downer topic” – and it is! But it needs to be addressed. We are fiddling while Rome burns, I fear, and future generations will judge us for it.
Still, the issue needs to be addressed in a way that doesn’t overshadow the point.
So much of the response generated by this London protest was highly critical – not of Big Oil, but of Just Stop Oil’s tactics, and by extension, the environmental movement as a whole.
Among the sentiments I have seen: What did Van Gogh ever do to hurt the climate? Why target an artist to make this point? Why take aim at a beautiful work of art?
But the protesters managed to get people talking, you might argue. True – but what are people talking about? Has this led to meaningful conversation about the climate catastrophe? Or just a bunch of finger-pointing at these Gen-Z activists who are being painted as having no respect for fine art and the institutions that preserve it?
I acknowledge that I may be proving myself wrong by even writing about this, giving oxygen to the painting protest. But there has to be a better way. I just wish I knew what it was.
Here’s what I do know: hopelessness isn’t going to get us anywhere. Nor is indiscriminate vandalism. We can and should be fuelled by anger, but we need to choose the way forward productively.