Will a painting displayed for the public be worth anything when people won’t be able to live in a future free of climate crisis effects?
***Content Warning – this article discusses suicide
On Oct 14, 2022, a viral video spread across social media of two Just Stop Oil climate activists throwing tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting, then gluing their hands to the gallery’s floor at London’s National Gallery. One of the activists, Phoebe Plummer, explained their actions in a video uploaded to TikTok and Twitter: “I want to make one thing perfectly clear, we did no damage to the painting whatsoever,” Plummer said. “We’re using these actions to get media attention to get people talking about this now and we know civil resistance works, history has shown us this works.”
Plummer, along with fellow activist Anna Holland, were arrested on charges of criminal damage and aggravated trespass shortly after their demonstration.
Climate-change protest art and performances such as Plummer and Holland’s aren’t new to the activism scene — they’ve been around for quite a while; but what qualifies as “protest art”, and why do people turn to art to protest?
Protest art — at its core — is the creative work of activists or social movements. This can include all types of art expressions including, but not limited to, common visual arts like painting, sculpture, performance art such as dance, and other forms of art including music and more conceptual pieces or performances like Plummer and Holland’s. Art as a protest movement is just another way for activists’ voices to be heard and to express social and political injustices. Just like how common protest marches or other orthodox political demonstrations function, protest art functions in the same way — just with art as the activist’s chosen method to voice their fight for injustice.
Some notable moments in protest art history include the 1910s and 20s Swiss art movement Dada, and the Mexican Muralism art project, involving mural artists around the same time.
Dada was an art movement in the early 20th century that started in Zurich during World War I. Dada artworks all had one common theme: nonsense. From Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain featuring an upside-down porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt,” to Hannah Höch’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany featuring seemingly random cuttings from newspapers and magazines, these Dada artworks were purposely satirical and nonsensical in nature, and served as a reaction — a protest — against the rise of capitalist culture, the war and the concurrent degradation of art and art culture. These cultural and societal shifts prompted artists to explore a new art expression, or “anti-art,” a term coined by French painter Marcel Duchamp.
Comparatively, the Mexican government in the early 20th century commissioned artists to create artwork including large-scale fresco paintings, encaustic or hot wax paintings, mosaics and relief carvings illustrating the strife of the working class as a revolution against tyrannical industrialization and as a fight to protect workers’ rights.
Naturally, as time and society have progressed, protest art has evolved with it. More recent protest art is focused on climate-change — like Plummer’s tomato soup on Van Gogh’s painting — as well as feminism and racism, which is what the anonymous female artist collective, the Guerilla Girls, target. The Guerilla Girls protest gender and racial inequality in the form of humorous and satirical posters, books and billboards as well as staging surprise exhibitions. Members wear gorilla masks in public and use pseudonyms of deceased female artists such as Alma Thomas, Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz.
Oftentimes, a majority of protest art does not directly cause significant harm to the activists themselves, but some instances of protest art have driven some to the extremes. Namely, protestors have used the act – or occasionally referred to as “performance” – of self-immolation to garner attention and spread awareness to their cause.
A notable climate-change protest performed last year was photojournalist and climate-activist Wynn Bruce’s self-immolation in front of the United States Supreme Court on Earth Day, Apr 22, 2022. The Washington Post reported on Apr 26, 2022, that “a few weeks before his act, Bruce edited a Facebook comment on an older 2021 post sharing a link to an online course about climate change. In the caption, he included “4/22/2022,” the date of what would be his self-immolation, next to a fire emoji.” Bruce practiced Buddhism and his final act is speculated to have been inspired by Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who in 1963 burned himself to death in protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. Both acts, Bruce’s and Đức’s, have had profound impacts on the world of protest, and protest art as their actions have elevated both men to the status of martyr and art subject.
Following the aforementioned event of tomato soup being thrown on Van Gogh’s painting, other climate-change activists in Germany were inspired to act. On Oct 23, 2022, two activists from Letzte Generation (Last Generation), a German environmental activist group, threw mashed potatoes on Monet’s Les Meules (Haystacks) painting at the Museum Barberini and glued their hands onto the gallery wall.
“We are in a climate catastrophe and all you are afraid of is tomato soup or mashed potatoes on a painting. You know what I’m afraid of? I’m afraid because science tells us that we won’t be able to feed our families in 2050,” one protester said in a video Letze Generation tweeted. “Does it take mashed potatoes on a painting to make you listen? This painting is not going to be worth anything if we have to fight over food. When will you finally start to listen? When will you finally start to listen and stop business as usual?”
They were protesting the same cause as Just Stop Oil’s Plummer and Holland. The Letzte Generation activists were not arrested, but were heavily fined with criminal damage.
Why do these activist artists go to such extreme measures and risk their safety, and for some, even their own lives? Are these recent art protests working? It’s too early to say if the tomato soup, mashed potatoes and self-immolation have created any drastic shifts in government action against climate-change. Regardless, activists across the world are likely to continue engaging in acts of protest art — some increasingly dangerous and extreme — as long as they feel their cause continues to be ignored, and governments fail to implement policies to reverse climate change and other ongoing social injustices.
Plummet and Holland and the Letzte Generation activists utilized protest art by creating their own performance out of the desecration of famous artists’ work, but will either art piece mean anything if there is a future filled with climate crisis effects?