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Activists of “Just Stop Oil” glue their hands to the wall after throwing soup at a van Gogh’s painting “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London, Britain October 14, 2022. Just Stop Oil/Handout via REUTERS
Climate protesters demonstrate at the National Gallery in London. Credit: Just Stop Oil / Handout

“There is no art on a dead planet”, said the space scientist Peter Kalmus posting on Twitter a video of Letzte Generation activists throwing mashed potatoes at Monet’s Haystack in Potsdam, Germany. This is not an isolated case; in fact, this is part of a long list of similar actions scattered throughout museums and galleries across all of Europe and beyond in the last year. Many young activists from groups like Extinction Rebellion, Last Renewal, Just Stop Oil, and Last Generation have started to “attack” famous works of art in the name of the environment.

The recent wave of pacific protests targets the most famous masterpieces in the history of art, not even sparing Picasso, Monet or Da Vinci. But which is the link between climate change and art? Is it really protest or vandalism? What are the goals it aspires to? How is public opinion reacting? And above all, is it working?

The non-violent protests made their first victim in Paris last spring: the iconic smile of “la Gioconda” of Leonardo Da Vinci was defaced by a pie thrown to the rhythm of “Let’s save the planet” at the famous Louvre Museum. Fortunately, the priceless work of art was saved by protective glass, which made the protest symbolic rather than damaging. The sensational gesture was emulated the same summer in the United Kingdom, hitting the Courtauld Gallery in London, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, the Manchester Art Gallery and finally the National Gallery in the British capital: this last gesture is the one that has attracted the most media attention since the activists glued themselves to “The Hay Wain” by John Constable slightly damaging the painting (as communicated by the museum management). From this moment onward, the protests followed an ascending trend, a climax which also involved Italy in its vortex (starting from Botticelli’s Venus in the Uffizi museum), the Vatican and other European countries.

During the different attacks, the activists have taken the opportunity of the media attention to spread a series of messages related to environmental issues, for example, the group “Just Stop Oil” while throwing a tomato sauce against the painting “Sunflowers” by Van Gogh in London, shouted “What is worth more Art or life? Is it 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?”. Certainly, the concerns on the part of young (and non) activists are not unmotivated: the rise of the global temperature, deforestation, drought, the scarcity of natural resources etc., are just some of the natural tragedies that are devastating our planet and which require immediate action on the part of governments through a series of urgent and coordinated actions. One of the most exemplary (and perhaps effective) attacks was the one in the Prado museum in Madrid, where two exponents of “Futuro Vegetal” wrote on a wall “+1.5°C” with black paint, referring to the previous alarm announced by the United Nations on the impossibility of remaining below the limit established in the Paris Agreement of 1.5 °C of average temperature increase compared to pre-industrial levels. The non-violent action partially damaged the frame of the paintings.

However, even if the museum director or ministers of culture share the same fears and worries, they do not agree with the way to manifest it, expressing profound dismay and discomfort for the well-being of the works of art which, although often protected by armoured glass, risk to be indelibly damaged.

In fact, many of these non-violent actions have not achieved their expected purpose: the original goal of the protest perpetrated by the activists was to attract as much media attention as possible, in order to raise awareness of the environmental issue to a large portion of the world’s population and encourage a change. But the side effect was that the majority of the public opinion, too upset by the (even if superficial) harm of the works of art, failed to grasp the noble mission that motivated the exaggerated action. An ancient Chinese proverb reads “when the wise man points at the moon, the fool looks at his finger”.

Even if the intention of the protest is right ideologically, it is important to analyse if it is actually effective or if it is doing bad publicity to the environmental cause. In general, the widespread reaction was sceptical: the protest is confused by public opinion as vandalism acts of its potential damage to the beauty of the museums, provoking more critics and a lack of solidarity rather than sensitisation and collaboration. For example, many of these protests have been using food products like tomato sauce or smashed potatoes against the paintings, which may appear incoherent to the idea of food waste and security. Another criticism is the fact that the activist may be inspired more by the Internet trend and 15 minutes of notoriety than the real environmental purpose.

The activists refuse this definition and describe their action as “the last desperate warning scream” for the safeguarding of nature. But this voice risks not being heard because of the questionable means to express it, overcasting the real noble goal: save our planet.