OPINION: Artistic Activism or Vandalism? Climate Change Protests Target Famous Artworks

Photo by Falco Negenman on Unsplash

Why do we typically look at art? Do we admire the stroke of a painter’s brush on an oil painting? The detailed chiseling of a sculpture? The complimentary colors of a finished landscape? Perhaps some, none or all, but lately we have been given many reminders about the famous surviving artworks of our age, though not in the best of ways.

Most recently, a big event for the art community happened in mid-October of last year when two members from activist group Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” (1888). The Dutch painter is one of many famous painters from the Post-Impressionism art movement. The Smithsonian Magazine reported that the incident took place not long after 11 a.m. in Room 43 of London’s National Gallery. After the two females threw the soup at Gogh’s painting, they glued their hands to the wall below it and 21-year-old Phoebe Plummer began yelling: “Is [art] worth more than food? Worth more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?” she asked the stunned crowd. She and the other protester were arrested after the room was cleared, and police were called, as reported by a tweet from the National Gallery’s Twitter. 

In June of last year, the same activist group did a similar stunt by gluing themselves to “My Heart’s In The Highlands” by Horatio McCulloch at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland, as reported by The Art Newspaper. The Smithsonian report mentions other cases similar to these as well, such as when two individuals from Extinction Rebellion in Oct. 2022 glued themselves to Picasso’s “Massacre in Korea” (1951), or the attempt by two members of the environmental group known as Ultima Generazione in July 2022 who tried to glue themselves to Botticelli’s “Primavera” (1482). This group is rather relevant right now. 

Just this month, on Sunday, May 21, nine activists from Ultima Generazione dumped diluted vegetable charcoal in the famous Trevi Fountain (1762) in Rome. Insider reported that their action was in response to the deadly floods that recently swept through Northern Italy and the need to stop assisting fossil fuel organizations. The protest occurred for about 15 minutes before police were at the scene and were actively removing the individuals knee-deep in the blackened water. Per a video by The Guardian, some members in the crowd were clapping during the event.

Rome’s Mayor, Roberto Gualtieri, spoke about the event on Twitter shortly after it taking place: “Today 9 activists poured charcoal into the #FontanadiTrevi. Thanks to the timely intervention of the local police, the worst was avoided. Now an intervention is needed that will commit public resources and lead to the waste of 300 thousand liters [79,300 gallons] of water.” Though the damage was not significant and the fountain is likely to revert to its natural beauty, the mayor stated on Facebook, “I reiterate, that this is not the right way to conduct a battle for the environment and against climate change. Such gestures are completely wrong and damaging, because they risk damaging precious common goods such as our monuments, and force public administrations into very expensive and environmentally impactful restoration interventions. So they are completely counterproductive, and they also risk reducing the consent in public opinion regarding the right battle for the environment and climate.”

But where is the connection between these famous artworks and today’s current pressing issue of climate change? Over the course of the fashion industry, there have been many protests during fashion shows, but they often stand for issues in relation to the industry such as sustainability, carbon emissions, excessive water usage and pollution.

“I think that vandalism to art for any purpose is wrong,” Dr. Melanie Enderle, a History of Western Art instructor at Bellevue College, told The Watchdog, “And any connection between historical works of art and climate change is tenuous at best. Art has generally been perceived to be for the elite and powerful — so perhaps this is why it has been a target for groups trying to draw attention to their issues. However, aside from attracting attention, there seems to be little connection between their purposes and the specific artworks.”

Enderle discussed the recent event regarding one of Rome’s main tourist attractions: “With your example of the Trevi Fountain — not only did their actions harm the public work of art and impact the plumbing (repair is a great expense), they also affected the experience for visitors, many of whom may have traveled far and looked forward to throwing a coin in the fountain. I don’t think their vandalism really got their message across.”

“Perhaps a better way to protest (rather than damaging artwork or public property),” Enderle shared, “is to make a direct connection to the cause, such as what kayakers did in 2015.” As reported by The Seattle Times, 24 kayakers protested the Polar Pioneer drill rig by entering the 500-yard safety zone dedicated to the rig. Former city council member Mike O’Brien was among the kayakers who were eventually escorted away by Coast Guard to their base at Pier 36.

While I do acknowledge the concern of climate change and its causes, I do not condone the destruction of property — whether places and materials were damaged or not — in the name of climate justice. The previously referenced events all use artworks from artists who had little to no impact in our current state of environmental concerns in comparison to most common people now. The artworks that individuals glued themselves to or near to had no relation to fossil fuels output. Though Plummer questioned the audience in Room 43,“What is worth more—art or life?” why had there been no consideration that some people’s lives are art? And some people use that artistic passion to speak about the climate crisis facing our world.