Art or Life?

Recent controversial methods of protesting climate change and the discourse they bring.


Photo Courtesy of New York Times

Phoebe Plummer (left) and Anna Holland (right) standing in front of Sunflowers by Van Gogh with a can of tomato soup

Annika Karbstein, Opinions Editor

Soup splashed on a Van Gogh, mashed potatoes thrown on a Monet, hands glued to the frame of a Botticelli and cake smeared on the Mona Lisa. In the past few months, there have been increasing acts of radical protest methods from climate activism groups. While some may think these actions are futile and unproductive in the fight against climate change, it is evident that this type of behavior from protestors is garnering more media attention than decades of peaceful lobbying, petitions and marches; actions like the ones above force people to truly face the reality of the climate catastrophe.

Just Stop Oil is one of the most prominent groups behind the recent protests; operating across the United Kingdom, this environmental activist group works to force the British government to stop licensing the production of more fossil fuels. Recently, the group has begun to target art in their climate protests, with the most recent ‘attack’ on October 14 being from two women in their 20s, Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, throwing cans of tomato soup on Sunflowers by Van Gogh.

During the attack, Plummer yelled to onlookers, “UK families will be forced. to choose between heating or eating this winter, as fossil fuel companies reap record profits […] crops are failing and people are dying […] caused by. climate breakdown.” Plummer’s actions coincide with the UK government awarding hundreds of new oil and gas licenses on October 1, causing not only more projects disruptful to the environment being initiated but also continuing the dependence on fossil fuels that leads to hikes on energy prices.

This protest, and others similar, have all been planned to target artwork that  is adequately protected by layers of glass, so no art has actually been harmed. However, as Mel Carrington, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil. explained, the actions were “intended to elicit a visceral reaction, to force people to emotionally experience the potential loss of a masterpiece.” With climate collapse, which is what the world is currently facing, people could lose everything, including the creativity and freedom that allows art to be made.

Some people disagree with the actions taken by the Just Stop Oil activists. “I think actions like this are unproductive and just make people mad, polarizing the movement to solve the climate issue,” Robert Davis, a sophomore, said. However, the truth is that those who get angry at these protests’ priorities need to be reevaluated; if they are mad about this, where is their anger over the climate-driven famine in Somalia, glaciers and ice sheets exponentially disappearing and taking the polar bear population with them and dry spells causing impossible numbers of forest fires globally? People must ask themselves the question of what they truly value more, art or life.

“I had not even heard of Just Stop Oil or any of these conservation organizations before these protests had happened,” Clara Manning, a junior, said. The actions of throwing soup on a painting has gotten more media coverage than the weeks of civil disobedience and road blocks, proving the strategy of the activists in pursuing more high-profile targets was successful in forcing a spotlight on the problem of climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change formulated a special report on the impacts of global warming in 2018, and concluded that “any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” It is evident that action on climate change must be taken quickly, and protests like those by Just Stop Oil and similar organizations are working towards the shared goal of raising awareness and changing policy.