public art watch

Mashed Potatoes Meet Monet

Climate activists have been celebrated for defacing great paintings. Why?

A Gustav Klimt splashed with an oil-like substance on November 15. Photo: Letzte Generation Oesterreich/AP
A Gustav Klimt splashed with an oil-like substance on November 15. Photo: Letzte Generation Oesterreich/AP

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On October 14, climate activists Phoebe Plummer, 21, and Anna Holland, 20, shocked the world by splashing tomato soup over van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London’s National Gallery. Wearing JUST STOP OIL T-shirts, they then glued themselves to the picture. One asked, “What is worth more, art or life?”

Plummer later explained that they were motivated by a “sense of fear” brought on by global warming. They despaired that humanity was not doing enough to preempt its worst effects and decided to try “a media-grabbing action to get people talking.” Talk they did. Activists around the world have recently engaged in similar actions, tossing mashed potatoes and other substances at, or gluing themselves to, works by Vermeer, Klimt, Botticelli, da Vinci, Monet, Goya, Constable, Warhol, and Charles Ray.

The answer to their question — art or life? — is clear: life, of course. But the activists have nevertheless left behind questions that remain unexamined, including why art, of all things, has been pitted against life in the debate over the Earth’s inhabitability. Why these specific works of art? Why did the acts against them provoke such a visceral reaction on the part of those who opposed and supported the stunts alike? And what happens to activism when it resembles a performance — when it looks something like art itself?

Activists understand that this art has a powerful grip on the collective imagination. We have been taught that these paintings have a magical value and are not to be touched by human hands, let alone disrespected with tomato soup. That’s why these acts have burst through the usual noise telling us to compost, eat less meat, conserve, shun plastic, go electric, and all the rest. There is something transgressive about them, which makes them far more effective than gluing oneself to a coal factory.

In this sensationalist way, activists have cracked a code. Their subversions are political transfigurations of consecrated objects in the name of a greater good. They pose a challenge: If you gasp, if you are livid with rage, if you are denouncing these kids on Twitter, why aren’t you similarly vexed by what is happening to the climate? Are you so blinkered, so bourgeois, that you are more offended by an attack on some paintings than an attack on humanity as a whole? What is worth more?

The works have been perfectly chosen. Van Gogh, Klimt, Monet, Vermeer, Constable, and da Vinci — these are part of the holy canon of art, the trophy paintings of the asset class. This is the art that sells for obscene prices at auctions. The activists’ suggestion is that this art is one of the many coins of our corrupt realm, a highly liquid investment for the plutocrats and petrostate dictators who have driven the world to the brink of catastrophe. Not to mention that the kinds of large cultural institutions where these protests have been staged often have been recipients of generous oil-industry patronage.

The effect of the attacks would have been different if different art had been chosen. If protesters had soaked a Jeff Koons or a Damien Hirst with soup, crowds would have cheered. If they had gone after art in biennials, it wouldn’t have worked because the general public already sees most contemporary art as worthless and decadent. If they had doused a Kara Walker or a Kerry James Marshall, the act would have been branded racist.

Tellingly, the activists have targeted works protected by glass. Indeed, they insist they have zero intention of damaging the art at all. Their transgression, in truth, is superficial because if they really did destroy the Mona Lisa, it would be exceedingly difficult to defend them. Life may be more valuable than art, but that doesn’t mean that art — this repository of ideals and truths and beauty — must be needlessly harmed for a cause that is only tangentially related to art in the first place.

Attacking art for whatever cause, be it political or religious or something else, has a long and mixed history. In 1914, suffragist Mary Richardson slashed Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, saying, “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history … to procure justice for womanhood … until the public cease to countenance human destruction.” Richardson is now hailed as a trailblazer. In 1974, Tony Shafrazi, who was a gallerist of Keith Haring’s, spray-painted Picasso’s Guernica to protest the release of the lieutenant who oversaw the Vietnam War’s My Lai Massacre. I remember thinking, Right on, man; stop the war. But I still boycotted his gallery for years.

When I asked people in the art world what they thought of the climate protests, the answers often divided along generational lines. Older people didn’t like them. Neither did younger people, but they sympathized with the underlying message. As an older person, I’ve found that just discussing the issue makes one seem complacent and culpable. “These protesters believe, with all their souls, that we are destroying the planet,” the artist Nicholas Cueva wrote to me in an email. “If that’s true, why is a painting more important than whole coast lines? Why is an old piece of canvas smeared with colors worth more than the lives of billions in the Global South?”

If art in the past has had to defend itself against charges of being sacrilegious or offensive or reactionary, it now finds itself in the common position of being accused of frivolity. The activists have chosen a target that is meaningful enough to people to draw a response but not so meaningful that one can give a full-throated defense without sounding like a gaseous aesthete. Most of us are compelled to embrace paradox, to criticize and understand these acts at the same time. Meanwhile, the activists and their defenders live in a world of certainty: They are so very sure that their cause is more important than these old pieces of canvas that have been important to people for a very, very long time.

It is ironic that these attacks on art have not generated much commentary on the actual outcomes that face us — the difference, say, between living in a world that has limited warming to two degrees Celsius or 1.5. (Contrast this with Nan Goldin and her band of pirates, who focused their attacks on OxyContin and institutional corruption and actually brought about real change.) Plummer, the activist, told NPR, “For the first time I felt a bit of hope that I could do something to secure myself a future.” But as these splash acts grow more familiar and slide into caricature, the discussion has centered on the act of protest itself; really, it becomes a question far less of climate than of art. Thanks to people like Andreas Malm, we know the moral case for blowing up a pipeline. But the activists, despite the arresting imagery they have created, have not yet made their case for marring paintings.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Plummer and Holland’s protest included in upcoming lists of top-ten artworks of 2022. Theirs is a form of performance art, but its message is muddled and unconvincing. Sacrifice is supposed to be hard, yet the climate protesters seek to place art under this archaic blade of pain while signaling that the blade will never fall. They want to have it both ways, to act out their emotions and give up nothing. Plummer asserts, “We don’t have any time to waste.” But what are these protesters doing now if not wasting time? Let’s not pretend that debating the ethics or effectiveness of defacing art makes anyone sacrifice anything, let alone helps save the planet.

Mashed Potatoes Meet Monet