As a rural Transylvanian, I’ve spent most of my summer biking in the countryside. Usually, I pass through a sea of bright yellow sunflowers, but I often see burnt fields instead.
Romanian authorities, as well as farmers, have reported that sunflower crops are being decimated by drought. Yet, these issues barely even make the news anymore.
Earlier this year, sunflower emojis kept popping up in social media posts about the war in Ukraine. The sunflower is Ukraine’s national flower and has now become the symbol of Ukrainian resistance and solidarity.
It is almost as if we have an emotional connection to reproductions of a sunflower from paintings to emojis and whatever they symbolise. So, why don’t we have the same affection and determination to protect our living environment?
On October 14, climate activists staged a provocative action at London’s National Gallery by splashing canned tomato soup on Van Gogh’s iconic, 1888 painting Sunflowers.
People familiar with exhibition practices should know that valuable artworks are protected with special museum glass to minimise the damaging effects of light, dust, etc. The specially manufactured glass also protects artworks from vandalism.
Needless to say, Van Gogh’s painting was not damaged by the two activists, members of the Just Stop Oil (JSO) climate action organisation. Hours after the protest, the painting was already back on view.
However, the authorities arrested the two young activists and they were taken into police custody. Soon, the video that captured the activists splashing tomato soup on the protective glass went viral on Twitter triggering social media controversy and angry reactions.
The JSO group took responsibility for the action, tweeting: “Is art worth more than life? More than food? More than justice?”
In the past years, many other climate activists have staged similar protests in museums across Europe but looking at the global outrage, this might seem the most extreme. Social media users and political commentators were quick to voice their frustration, also asking: “Does this accomplish anything?”
The stunt definitely generated heated online discussion and made headlines internationally. Many were quick to call this movement a psyop funded by the fossil fuel industry, and pretentious pearl-clutchers compared the environmentalists to the Taliban (yes, really).
Though many experts made it clear that there has been no damage done to the painting, the activists were targeted with relentless online hate.
Armenian-American art critic and writer Hrag Vartanian recorded a TikTok video explaining why people shouldn’t be upset about this stunt and calling for immediate solidarity with the detained activists. The call for solidarity is important and highlights a deeper issue about state repression against climate activists and the legal consequences of standing up to powerful institutions.
The swiftness to denounce climate protesters hurts the possibility of creating a mass environmental movement.
The main criticism of this stunt is that it would alienate people from the environmentalist cause by disrupting beloved cultural spaces. Many have a fetishising attitude toward art masterpieces because they represent the best of our civilisation, worthy of preservation for future generations.
But don’t we all have a shared responsibility to do the same for our precious ecosystem?
A new report just revealed that animal populations experience an average decline of 70% since 1970. Yet, this mass extinction event upsets less people than the activists protesting it.
There is room for criticism, and people have the right to disagree with certain tactics, but as the climate crisis worsens, there will be more desperate and provocative actions. The JSO protest sparked conversation and successfully raised awareness to the urgency of the climate catastrophe.
Many asked: why art? What does Van Gogh have to do with all of this?
First off, most museums and art galleries are funded by fossil fuel companies, arms manufacturers, industrial profiteers, etc., representing the worst of colonial fossil capital. These are the organisations and individuals overwhelmingly responsible for climate change, and many of them are sitting on the boards of museums.
“Artwashing” is a term used to describe the phenomenon of funding arts and culture to detract attention from predatory corporate practices, human rights abuses and their negative records of destroying the planet. Investing in art is also a tool for tax avoidance and money laundering.
Oligarchs invest in art to wash their money and their reputation.
A new generation of artists and activists is taking action against museums and art institutions and demand their leaders divest from fossil fuel and the military-industrial complex. Decolonize This Place is a New York City-based anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist movement that regularly organises protests and actions demanding museums and universities cut ties with fossil fuel money and develop ethical sponsorship policies.
Strike MoMA is an artist coalition organising direct action, agitprop campaigns, and strikes targeting the Museum of Modern Art because of its ties to fossil fuel companies and other planet-destroying businesses. The coalition has called for community-led operative alternatives and believes that billionaires should not control museums.
Many people think of museums as non-political safe havens that only exist to satisfy our hunger for beauty. This misconception is propagandised by art museums that pretend to be isolated from social and economic issues such as exploitation, inequality, colonialism and climate injustice.
But these art institutions are intertwined with global capitalism and dark money. For the reasons outlined above, art institutions become legitimate targets of environmentalist movements.
In the future, activists will do whatever it takes to push their messages. We should always ask what could we do better? What should we do instead? How is this helping the struggle for a much-needed mass climate movement?
But people who claim that this stunt lost them to the cause were never supportive of the global climate rebellion to begin with.
[Anita Zsurzsán is a Budapest-based independent scholar specialising in Lukács, aesthetics and art history.]