Writing by Alina Pohlmann. Artwork by Berenika Murray.
In one of many photographs depicting the afterlife of Pakistan’s monsoons, a mother wades, knees deep, through mud-brown water. Her yellow sun dress is soaked. Her son, who waves and smiles delightfully at the camera, does not yet understand that the homes and livestock of over 33 million people in his country have been unrooted by extreme floods, caused by the climate crisis scientists have long foretold. He does not yet grasp that they inhabit a reality some still view as a future scenario. Although temporality is not analogous with distance, these disasters appear unreachable, even if they are brought to us through our screens.
As of late, the voices of climate activists have grown louder, more disruptive, more desperate and more creative in their pursuit of climate justice. Many organisations have found new ways to revolt against the structures that enable global warming. On the 14th of October, two young activists from the anti-fossil fuel organisation Just Stop Oil stood side by side, hands glued to the wall underneath a crime scene in the National Gallery in London. Vincent Van-Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ bled red from their oil-colour petals after a tin of tomato soup was thrown against its protective glass cover. As reported by the Guardian, they posed the vital question that shapes this article: “What is worth more, art or life?”.
Nine days later the German activist group Last Generation (Letzte Generation) imitated the event by covering Claude Monet’s ‘Les Meules’ (Haystacks) in mashed potato, declaring that “this painting will not be worth anything if we have to fight over food.” Appropriately, back in July five supporters of Just Stop Oil had glued themselves to the frame of ‘The Last Supper’ at the Royal Academy, bearing the strength of metaphor. But why is art becoming a stage for the climate protest? What is the coalescing bind between them, and is the effect merely fleeting?
To target these specific artworks is not arbitrary, as a parallel can be drawn between ‘high culture’ and our dissociation with the natural world. In our profit-oriented society, the accumulation of wealth and materialistic possessions leads to a simultaneous devaluation of our environment. “The increase in value of the world of things is directly proportional to the decrease in value of the human world”, Karl Marx states.
Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, which was auctioned for £76 million, hovers at the cheaper end of the scale, while Monet’s ‘Haystacks’ was purchased for £85.7 million in 2018. Art, however, is not spared by the capitalist market. It has become a business venture, much like energy and housing. In ‘Aesthetic Capitalism’, Peter Murphy argues that “Aesthetics is a universal condition. Self, society and nature – each one of these has an aesthetic core”. Modern capitalism has transformed art into an economy by gradually permeating art into everyday life. Yet the production of beauty has chipped at the coating of the real, the abstract natural world of soil and birdsong that the poets revere.
To use art galleries for acts of protest locates the threat of the climate catastrophe at the centre of higher social classes and places responsibility on the ones who unknowingly add to the crisis. This article does not seek to negate artistic value, but to emphasise the way in which our society deems the price of a painting, which has no other function than to be admired, to evoke, inspire and be sold, as superior to the world that we feed from, the world that sustains us, the world that makes art, emotion and inspiration possible: a world of sunflowers and haystacks.
Another question arises here: Why did the activists from Just Stop Oil and Last Generation not seek to make a bold, reverberating statement by attempting to destroy the paintings? The answer does not lie in the question of the value of art. The protesters were arrested and contained, although they caused no harm, not even to the paintings themselves.
It is simply not safe enough to revolt.
Within the margins of profit, the deaths of millions are not seen as a tragedy – they are collateral. The people who have it in their hands to alter the worst case (soon to be a realistic) scenario are indifferent to hunger, to fire, and to death. Yet they are phased by the potential threat of investment, the potential threat of losing their status. This includes the leaders of the UK’s Conservative Party who have stayed unfazed by the efforts of climate activism.