Waves of controversy erupted recently when Just Stop Oil campaigners threw tomato soup on Van Gogh’s sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. Although the painting was behind glass so undamaged, politicians were quick to condemn their “attention seeking“vandalism as media commentators proclaimed the act had”lost themto the cause.
It is perhaps with a certain poetic timing that I have just launched a project which is an oral history of environmental movements in the United Kingdom. The objective is to contribute to a better understanding and wider public awareness of the diversity of modes of engagement on environmental issues.
This tactic was certainly a provocative act and Van Gogh’s work is undoubtedly one of the most important works of art of modern times. However, many of these comments about Just Stop Oil’s stock simply don’t hold water.
The main criticisms of the militant stunt are that it alienates people who are sympathetic to the climate cause by attacking a much-loved and important work of art. That it smacks of middle-class activism and is too performative. And, finally, that you had to “explain yourself”, which if you have to do, you lose.
While there is some truth to these reviews, I don’t buy them.
Rather than dig deeper into the quagmire of the social media debate, here’s a breakdown of the three arguments and explanations of why I think this kind of provocative activism deserves our unwavering support.
Art is an extension of corporate power
First, museums and art galleries have long been used by fossil fuel corporations for artwashing – the ethically acceptable process of funding art and culture to mitigate their practices of artwashing. very unethical company. Some of the more conscientious institutions (including the National Gallery) have cut ties with any oil company sponsorship, but others have doubled down.
Art itself, through global trade networks, tax evasion and the creation of free ports (huge walled complexes where art is stored away from prying eyes and tax collectors ), has become totally intertwined with global corporate and fossil fuel capitalism. Corporations pump money into art institutions and the artworks themselves because it gives them validity in the eyes of the public. The art becomes a shield for their most nefarious planet-destroying practices.
But art should never be considered above or separate from the capitalist content that underpins it. Millions of valuable works of art are now under the thumb of corporate power and have become windows – nice windows no doubt, but still windows – into the shady practices of global capital and international tax evasion. . As difficult as it can be at times, works of art thus become extensions of corporate power and are therefore legitimate targets of climate activism.
Fighting class oppression and climate change is the same
The second critique, often from the left, accuses climate activism of being inherently bourgeois. The groups, they claim, are populated by white people and the “mess” they create (whether with soup on paintings or milk in supermarkets) is often cleaned by working-class cleaning staff.
There is some truth in these arguments, often absent from the justification of these militant practices. However, taking a more holistic approach, social and economic justice are fundamental pillars of climate justice – you cannot have one without the other. The Just Stop Oil activists who defaced the Van Gogh acknowledged these arguments in part when they said that many people “can’t even afford to buy and heat soup because of the energy crisis”.
“Solving” the climate crisis requires total system change. As Greta Thunberg and other prominent voices have consistently said. Capitalism will not solve the problem, it will only make it worse. Capitalism has the oppression of the working class as its central engine. So, fighting climate change also means fighting the class (and indeed, racial, gender and ableist) imbalance of capitalism. The two are, and must continue to be, one.
Direct action is important
Finally, some have launched the phrase “if you explain yourself, you lose”. Again, there is a kernel of truth in this, but the severity of the climate catastrophe needs no further explanation.
Explaining is not the goal of direct action. If you need to be “won over” by the argument, then you’re clearly not doing enough.
Just Stop Oil’s action with sunflower soup was to symbolize that we are attacking something we love. The level of anger against those who symbolically destroy – remember, this was behind glass and therefore was not destroyed – a precious work of art should be given a million times over to those who actually destroy our precious planet .
Direct climate action will only increase as the situation escalates and our governments continue to actively make matters worse with new mines, fracking and new oil drilling contracts. Destroying pipelines, demanding an end to private jets and other direct actions against fossil fuel burning infrastructure are important acts in this regard. They underline how art is also part of this infrastructure and therefore just as vital.
The current generation of climate activists – Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, etc. – will chart its own course because that’s what activists need to do to get their point across. But for all the reasons discussed above, understanding history (and its successes and failures) will be important in helping to build a cohesive, united and effective climate movement.
This cohesive movement will need art yes, but not as a conduit for the very capitalist vehicles that are destroying our beautiful planet. As Van Gogh himself said:
…it is not the language of painters but the language of nature that one must listen to, the meaning of things themselves, because reality is more important than the meaning of images.
Oli Mould, Lecturer in Human Geography, Royal Holloway University of London
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Feature Image: ‘Just Stop Oil’ activists stick their hands to the wall after throwing soup at a Van Gogh painting. Photo: Reuters