The British environmental activist group, Just Stop Oil, calls for the UK to stop licensing new oil, gas or coal projects. They attack works of art. And we can’t look away. Why, other than the sensation of the Getty name as a supporter/funder? One of the group’s representatives admits that “Art has been extremely valuable to us as a disruptor,” and explains that one reason is that “we are embarrassing them.” They are joined by others, like the network of groups called The Last Generation, in their efforts to call attention to the looming catastrophe of climate change.
Few environmental groups have a budget to cover the publicity scored by the May, 2022 attack on the Mona Lisa (by a lone actor) or when The Last Generation protestors glued their hands to Primavera by Botticelli, July, 2022, in the Uffizi.
These activists felt the message on the danger of climate change wasn’t getting through – that people were not internalizing the issue. How has art become the megaphone, even Bat-Signal, for their message, whether or not you agree with their methods? Or even how you feel about climate change. Let’s consider the emotional response to the October, 2022 incident when Just Stop Oil protestors threw tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London’s National Gallery to see how that was accomplished.
First, Sunflowers belongs to the public, so “the public” felt attacked. Next, the work is familiar to us all. We know it. Art does not have to represent a human form for the viewer to feel an attachment, or to think of it as a living thing.
To their detractors Just Stop Oil explains that the art is not damaged. They have supporters who are conservators, and they consult with them first. And, when they use the time-honored protest method known as a lock on, or locking on, using Super Glue, it’s to the frame or plinth. (Tying yourself to a tree to protect old growth forests is another example of a lock on.) As for the inconvenience caused by the protest occurring in a public facing space, like the disruption of the Les Misérables performance in London, they answer, “If you stand on the side of the street, no one listens. If you stand in the street, they have to.” And to those who ask what art has to do with climate change, they say if you want to protect something beautiful and valuable, start with the planet. Often, works are chosen with a connection to a vulnerable area, like J.M.W. Turner’s Tomson’s Aeolian Harp since its setting is an area of London, flood maps show to be in danger of being more frequently underwater in the near future.
Do I think these attacks will continue? Yes, though museum security teams are getting better at preventing them.
Here’s a snippet on non-political vandalism of art in the first book in The Big Picture Trilogy:
Excerpt from THE COLLECTOR –
“Emma, I have one question for you now. You said none of the paintings in that room were —.” He tapped and scrolled on his phone, then quoted me, “typical candidates for defacing. What would be?”
“Museums are big, emotional spaces. If you eliminate damage for cultural or religious reasons, for instance when the Taliban destroyed the World Heritage Site of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the usual targets are paintings of women. The eyes or breasts are slashed.”
Ned rolled his eyes and pocketed his phone. “I’ve had my share of luck in solving murders, but I’m gonna need a lot of help.”