Writing by Zoe Nayani. Artwork by Kate Granholm (@katesartthings on Instagram)
A year ago, the phrase ‘Van Gogh tomato soup’ seemed like a bizarre punchline to a joke that didn’t quite land. Today, it elicits responses that range from climate-denying drivel to reluctant endorsement. Wherever you stand on the 'confused but entertained to self-righteously angry’ metre, you are bound to have had a reaction to UK-based Just Stop Oil’s radical defacement of Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’. While I use the word ‘defacement’ mockingly, I understand where the outrage stems from. The image of two individuals who, admittedly, look like poster children for the hand-wringing Social Justice Warrior Society (from which I have yet to receive my membership card), throwing soup onto a famous painting before gluing themselves to the wall is obviously attention-seeking. The absurdity of the act was, after all, perfectly tuned to capitalise on outrage journalism and propel the Just Stop Oil movement from relative obscurity to national headlines. By that metric, the stunt was a success.
An off-shoot coalition of similar environmental movements such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, Just Stop Oil has one demand: the British Government enacts a moratorium on all new fossil fuel licences. Likewise, it promotes investments in renewable energy and the reduction of oil-based transportation. For the environmentally conscious, these demands appear straightforward, simple, and irrefutably necessary. For the British government and many journalists, twitter-users (god bless them) and Tory voters, however, Just Stop Oil’s agenda is a terroristic blight on our great nation. So why this backlash?
Whilst some Twitter users questioned the efficacy of soup-related terrorism, others cited the aphorism ‘all publicity is good publicity’ and echoed the sentiments of the activists. An opinion piece from the Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer entitled ‘The Climate Art Vandal are Embarrassing’ presented a perspective that aimed for pragmatism but ultimately was, itself ‘embarrassing’. While the piece recognises the need for climate action, the writer decides that Just Stop Oil is undermined by the fact that ‘the activists look so silly’. Admittedly, I recognise the importance of optics as much as the next politics enthusiast, but an obsession with it misses the point entirely. Protest is necessarily performative. It is audacious and bold. It can be simultaneously ‘silly’ and effective. If an activist protests in a secluded forest clearing, they are, effectively, not protesting at all. Maybe holding unapologetic and passionate belief in a cause is embarrassing? If that’s the case, then we should all aim to be as outlandishly embarrassing as possible.
Moreover, contrary to what Meyer believes, the protest in the National Gallery was done in conjunction with organised road blockages throughout the month of October and a protest at Westminster that is being conducted as I write. The idea that protesters are targeting Institutions such as art galleries instead of fossil fuel companies is also patently false considering Just Stop Oil blockaded oil supplies back in April which targeted 7 facilities and led to over 100 arrests. Just Stop Oil is not ‘targeting’ already struggling galleries but are instead using the art as a symbolic and unharmed prop for their protest. Many other journalistic sources seem to be preoccupied with the obvious and material reality that yes, by itself, ‘Throwing soup at paintings won’t save the climate’. A multi-pronged approach is not a preference but a necessity for any activist movement.
As I browsed the hellscape of twitter for this piece, I found the crux of anti-Just Stop Oil argumentation. Scattered amongst climate-denying tirades and obscenities directed at protesters was the sentiment that, as an organisation, Just Stop Oil is virtue-signalling. Criticisms range from the whiteness of the organisation to the controversial bankrolling of Aileen Getty, and the notion that the organisation is built around privileged snivellers who have no solutions to the climate crisis and instead seek attention. These criticisms often bypass the modus operandi of civil resistance groups; that is, to protest and garner publicity rather than engage in high-level scientific or political solution-seeking research. It shouldn’t be particularly shocking that many Just Stop Oil protesters are ordinary people without an in-depth understanding of the minutia of policy implementation. This is why protest groups partner with, and often rely on, scientists, policy experts and other organisations to execute their proposed demands. Likewise, Aileen Getty has no connection to the fossil fuel industry beyond her surname. Getty Oil has been non-existent for four decades (it was acquired by Texaco in 1984) and Aileen Getty has dedicated much of her adult life to reversing the damage of her predecessors through the creation of the Climate Emergency Fund, which, in turn, donates to Just Stop Oil. It feels perverse to criticise eco-protestors for being privileged when they are, in fact, using that privilege to fight for environmental justice. Unlike you, dear twitter-user, the ‘wokerati’ (thank you for that delightful term, Ms Braverman) are aiming to instigate crucial change and not just complain online.
The majority of artists seem supportive of civil disobedience that utilises humanity’s reverence for art as a means to garner attention for the movement. Art, after all, defines our humanness. It catalyses feeling and translates the ineffable into common tongue. Van Gogh’s work in particular, with its quiet veneration of the mundane and synesthetic adoption of colour, epitomises the fundamentally human nature of art. It feels comically self-evident to say that, without a planet hospitable to humanity we will, of course, be bereft of art. It’s therefore apt that the symbolic destruction of a painting has become the centrepiece for Just Stop Oil protest. The almost-but-not-quite devastation of cultural artifacts fills us all with an inherent sense of dread that transliterates perfectly to the secular Armageddon of oncoming climate disaster. Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, the young activists responsible for the ‘attack’ in the National Gallery, cried out ‘what’s worth more, art or life?’. I would argue they are inseparable.
I do not know if the actions of Just Stop Oil will result in any long-lasting change. I do, however, believe that climate activism is as necessary to human wellness as previous historical movements such as the Suffragettes or the Civil Rights movement, both of which were similarly castigated by the prevailing media narratives of the time. Strikes and Industrial action disturbs and inconveniences the lives of many, especially working-class Brits, and yet the consensus is that these disturbances are an essential and unavoidable component of living in an inequitable and corrupt society.
Maybe our Conservative government is too hell-bent on continued fossil fuel use. A new oil and gas licensing round started in early October despite outrage from environmental groups such as Greenpeace, so perhaps all of this is futile. Regardless, it’s a genius move to hold art hostage to the demands of eco-activists. It reveals the incoherence of mindsets that value art but refuse to acknowledge the largest and most potentially devastating threat to art and artists everywhere. No, it is not soup (or mashed potatoes for that matter) that mocks art, but earthly obliteration at the behest of climate change. Unlike ‘Sunflowers’, however, humanity doesn’t have a protective glass cover.
‘The Climate Art Vandals are Embarrassing’ by Robinson Meyer for The Atlantic
‘Protestors continue to block UK oil terminals despite more than 100 arrests’ by Clea Skopeliti for The Guardian
‘How many Van Goghs is one Earth worth?’ By Aja Romano for Vox
‘Throwing soup at paintings won’t save the climate’ by Eric Levitz for the New York Magazine
‘UK offers new North Sea oil and gas licences despite climate concerns’ by Alex Lawson for The Guardian
'Tofu-eating, wokerati' to blame for Just Stop Oil protests, Suella Braverman says’ by Charles Hyman and Jack Hardy for The Telegraph