Destroying art is not the right way to protest

Destroying art is not the right way to protest

Theo Gingras, Contributing Writer

Last Friday, two young activists under the organization Just Stop Oil threw a can of tomato soup on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” painting at London’s National Gallery.

They performed this stunt to protest the oil industry’s involvement in the climate crisis and publicize their organization. According to their website, Just Stop Oil is “a coalition of groups working together to ensure that the government commits to ending all new licenses and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK.” Despite the controversial nature of their protest, there is important context and critical questions to be asked surrounding the stunt to get a complete picture of the protest. 

No matter how important a message is, attempting to ruin a priceless work of art is the wrong way to bring attention to an issue. Although they could not ruin the painting because it is encased in glass, the activists not only appeared to ruin the painting, but may have hurt it in other ways. Throwing paint on the painting likely damaged the frame, an integral part of the piece. From outrage on Twitter to articles criticizing this antic, the general consensus is that this is the wrong way to protest. Certain things need to be considered off limits to protesters, and if the only way they know how to generate buzz is to try to ruin other people’s creations, then activists need to reconsider what tactics they use; they need to use alternative methods to get people to rally behind their cause.

This is particularly relevant when the target of their protest is a piece by Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh was famously poor for most of his life. His artwork was never appreciated while he was alive, and he was mentally ill. Many doctors and psychologists speculate that he had psychosis and/or manic depression, and in the end, he died by what most art historians believe was a suicide. That is to say, all he had was his art, and it is now his entire legacy. As such, Vincent Van Gogh is the last artist who deserves to be singled out in this kind of performance. To try to ruin the creations of a man who had nothing else than those creations is disrespectful at best.

The founders of Just Stop Oil are also important to consider. The organization is financed by the Climate Emergency Fund, started by three wealthy donors. Aileen Getty, one of the original donors, is also heir to the Getty family. They made their fortune by starting Getty Oil, a massive oil marketing company worth between 50 to 100 billion dollars. Seeing a Getty heiress pour some of that money back into protesting the oil industry shows initiative to fix some of her family’s damage, but her actions are questionable even if her intentions are pure. Getty and her family still live on a fortune built from the very thing she is now protesting against.

While I don’t expect Getty to dedicate her organization to solving all of climate change, Getty’s activism seems performative without action deeper than throwing around oil. What’s more, the three donors started the Climate Emergency Fund because wildfires near their Malibu homes “woke them up” to the climate crisis. Although this doesn’t necessarily say anything about Just Stop Oil, it certainly raises some eyebrows that people this privileged are pouring money into an organization that just pulled off such an insensitive performance. Ironically, Just Stop Oil accepts donations in cryptocurrency, which is notoriously bad for the environment.

There are too many issues with the organizations behind this stunt and the stunt itself for me to get behind it — even though I agree with their urgent mission to address climate change. Even if Just Stop Oil has good intentions, and even if they weren’t funded by the Climate Emergency Fund, a stunt like this is the wrong way to get a message across. So what is the right way to fight climate change, if not performances like these? This is a question we all need to consider. Despite this particular antic being bad, climate change is one of humanity’s most pressing issues that we need to find solutions for. One way students can fight climate change is by checking out the World Wildlife Fund, NRDC, Vox, and Green America to learn from people who know a lot more than I do on how to help fight this issue yourself. Save the art for later.