Activism or vandalism?

Activism or vandalism?

Climate change protesters from the British organization Just Stop Oil entered the news with a splash in October after throwing cans of tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s iconic “Sunflowers” painting and supergluing themselves to the wall of London’s National Gallery.  

“They threw soup at the painting because it is such an obscure act that will attract attention to their cause; however, I have no idea why it was tomato soup at Van Gogh,” Alayna Roper, senior, said. 

The demonstration has sparked international controversy for both fellow climate activists and critics alike. Many have called it unnecessary and destructive, arguing that it was irrelevant to the cause and a needless defamation of a historic art piece. Others have said the protest is a call to action that was successful in drawing attention to the threat posed by Big Oil, the world’s six leading oil companies, who have caused major pollution across the globe. 

“I think their protest was very effective because it highlighted the reactions to climate change versus the reactions to vandalism,” Priscilla Dice, senior, said.  

Since Feb. 2022, Just Stop Oil has been organizing frequent and purposefully disruptive protests. They have held marches, tied themselves to goalposts during soccer matches, and even blocked busy motorways in an attempt to halt new oil exploration licenses that the United Kingdom (UK) government recently approved. Just Stop Oil’s critics have referred to these measures as extreme. For the group’s members, however, the increasingly divisive campaigns are a result of years of the government ignoring scientists and activists’ cries that warn of the impending climate crisis. Just Stop Oil’s primary tactic seemingly boils down to this: be as loud as possible so that climate change can no longer fall on deaf ears.  

I tried all the more traditional forms of activism, I guess you could say. I have written to [lawmakers], I have signed petitions, I have gone on marches. I did all the things I felt I could do for the climate and eventually went vegan, stopped buying clothes firsthand, and I was so frustrated that I saw it not going anywhere,” Pheobe Plummer, one of the Just Stop Oil protestors responsible for defacing “Sunflowers,” said. 

 Pheobe Plummer and Anna Holland, the other activist present during the demonstration, were arrested on charges of aggravated trespassing and criminal damage shortly after the act. The painting, however, remains entirely unharmed thanks to a protective glass covering. Plummer and Holland claim that the aim was never to damage the painting itself but, rather, to shock people with the possibility of the destruction of a beautiful thing. A metaphor, they say, for Big Oil’s treatment of the earth. 

“Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people,” the protesters said. 

While discourse over Just Stop Oil and their soup-throwing tendencies remains highly polarizing, the question posed by the organization has undoubtedly made itself clear: what is art without a world full of people to enjoy it?