Throwing soup on artwork as climate protest: tactical or tacky?

“What is worth more, art or life?” 21-year-old Just Stop Oil activist Phoebe Plummer’s thought provoking question reveberate through the exhibition halls while glued to a wall in London’s National Gallery. Above her lies Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, dripping in tomato soup. Gasps of shock and disapproving voices rose from witnessing visitors. This act of creative activism aimed to draw attention to the UK government’s recent developments in oil extraction policy, which critics argue undermine efforts to combat the climate crisis. However, this unconventional protest has sparked a debate over its effectiveness and potential consequences for climate advocacy.

To reduce reliance on foreign energy sources imports, the British government opened a new offshore oil and gas licensing round earlier this month. Studies have shown burning fossil fuels to be the main source of CO2 emissions. The burning of coal, oil and natural gas is easily the largest contributor to global climate change. This recent development has alarmed environmentalists and scientists, who believe it contradicts the government’s commitment to addressing the climate crisis.

Dana Fisher, a social scientist at the University of Maryland specialising in protest movements uses the term ‘tactical innovation’ to describe such unconventional protests. In today’s digital age, climate campaigns heavily rely on mass media to raise awareness and inspire action. As traditional forms of protest become more commonplace, the shock value of throwing tomato soup over paintings ensures media attention, thereby amplifying the message of climate activists.

However, creative forms of activism are met with skepticism.  Online discussions reveal condemnation and distaste, hence showing that such acts may be counter-intuitive. Professor Michael Mann from University of Pennsylvania expresses concerns that Just Stop Oil’s ‘tactic’ of targeting artworks in museums might alienate people who are ‘natural allies of the climate battle but will draw negative associations with climate advocacy and activism from such acts.’

It is essential to clarify that like the rest of Van Gogh’s sunflower collection, the painting in the National Gallery was encased in glass and hence unharmed. A spokesperson from Just Stop Oil empahsises that the act was performed with the safety of the targeted painting in mind. It was therefore intentional that the protestors chose the Sunflower, which was shielded. Unfortunately, news headlines often fail to divulge such crucial information, potentially leading the public to perceive the protest as a mindless act of destruction. This misinterpretation risks deterring those sympathetic to the climate cause from joining activist groups and participating in collective climate action.

While the public art stunt staged by Just Stop Oil garnered wide press coverage accompanided by a viral video footage, its true effectiveness in provoking meaningful action remains uncertain. The climate crisis requires widespread engagement and collaboration, and it is crucial for climate activists to consider the long-term consequences and potential impact of their protest strategies.

Phoebe Plummer’s provocative act of throwing tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers successfully captured the public’s attention and ignited a heated debate about climate activism. However, the repercussions of such unconventional tactics must be carefully considered. Climate advocacy requires broad support, and there is a risk that actions perceived as destructive could alienate potential allies of eco-activism. Striking a balance between attention-grabbing actions and maintaining a positive image for climate activism is therefore crucial for inspiring lasting change.

Featured image: by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

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