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Can art destruction save us from climate destruction?

An art expert breaks down Just Stop Oil’s infamous climate protests.

Two young people, one with pink hair, the other with dark brown hair, kneel in front of Sunflowers, its glass covered with dripping red soup. The pink haired protester holds up a Heinz Tomato soup can and appears to be speaking.
Members of Just Stop Oil moments after throwing soup on Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
Just Stop Oil/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Haleema Shah joined Today, Explained in 2019. She produces, reports, and guest hosts episodes on the controversies and curiosities of the day.

In the lead-up to Christmas, the climate action group Just Stop Oil is expected to disrupt life in London to draw attention to their cause. Their tactics range from scaling bridges to gluing themselves to busy roads to defacing famous paintings.

It’s a form of nonviolent protest that’s heavily reliant on shock value and has drawn the ire of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government, who have vowed to crack down on disruptive climate protests. While most protesters who’ve been arrested have been released on bail after a relatively short period, the sharpest legal response has come in the form of a new Public Order Bill, which would punish the act of gluing oneself to objects or buildings, or blocking transport by six months in prison.

Rights groups have regarded the bill as authoritarian and regressive, but a UK government spokesperson told Vox that it served the interests of the public. “The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy,” the spokesperson said, “but those protesters that disrupt public life, delay our emergency services, and drain police resources cost the taxpayer millions and must face proper penalties.”

Middle aged protesters, in neon orange vests, lie on their backs in the middle of a street. They are being handcuffed by a gaggle of officers in neon yellow jackets.
Just Stop Oil protesters being detained by London police in October 2022.
Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Just Stop Oil came on the world’s radar last fall when two activists, Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, threw tomato soup at van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London’s National Gallery of Art.

The painting, which is encased in glass, wasn’t harmed, but the gallery said the frame suffered minor damage. The use of tomato soup might seem absurd — after all, the group is trying to make a point about the harmful effects of oil on the climate, so why not deface the painting with fuel or even petroleum jelly? But the group’s spokesperson, Emma Brown, told Vox’s Today, Explained that the soup was a nod to Britain’s cost-of-living crisis, which has resulted in the proliferation of food banks around the country, where tomato soup is a staple product but often too expensive to heat up.

“We wanted that dramatic, slightly bizarre protest,” Brown said of throwing soup on van Gogh’s beloved painting. “Because by targeting something that is precious and valuable, the people feel a sense of shock and discomfort when they see that being threatened. That is really the emotion that we need to be feeling when we are seeing the decisions our governments are making and the devastation being wreaked by the climate catastrophe.”

Time will tell whether Just Stop Oil’s protests will help save the planet, but their tactics are not new. Art destruction in the name of political or social change can be traced back to the dawn of time, according to David Freedberg, who wrote the 1989 book The Power of Images, which is often cited by art historians studying the use of images for propaganda, pleasure, and destruction.

“Obviously, they will draw attention to the cause. They may make some people reflect more on the problem of oil and fossil fuels,” said Freedberg in an interview with Today, Explained host Noel King. “But it’s really not clear to me that it’s going to achieve very much.”

Below is an excerpt of the conversation between Freedberg and King, edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so listen to Today, Explained wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Noel King

How effective is the destruction of art in the advancement of a political or social cause?

David Freedberg

Well, I am afraid to say it’s usually very effective ... acts of rebellion against power or acts of insults to power are effective at the start. Whether they actually end up effecting regime change is another matter.

Noel King

I wonder if you could give me a brief history of people destroying art to make a point.

David Freedberg

It’s there from the beginning of time. We have the destruction of images of hated rulers in ancient Babylon, we’ve had image destruction in the late Roman Empire when Christianity came on the scene. And we shouldn’t forget that some acts of destruction are simply ways of replacing the symbols of a hated past of the ancient regime, of old regimes, as took place in the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, with the fall of the Iron Curtain. People pulled down images of hated leaders because they never wanted to see them again. That actually fell into an old class of image destruction, which was the so-called damnatio memoriae, the damnation of memory.

The instances can go on and on: When the Shah of Persia was replaced, images in Tehran came down. There was the famous removal of the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003. It was supposed to be an outbreak of popular resistance to Saddam, but actually we discovered later that it was orchestrated by the American troops. And then, of course, the Islamic State was radically Islamist. The Islamic State took this to its extreme by its actual performances of image destruction. When you saw these acts of destruction, you shook in your bones; you realize that these were accompanied by assaults on real human bodies.

Let me say something about what is the history of attacking images for the sake of publicity, into which class obviously the actions by Just Stop Oil falls: People have always attempted to break images for the sake of publicity, either personal publicity or for a political cause. The Irish Republican Army, from its beginnings, pulled down images or defaced images of English heroes. This is a well-known strategy. This is not a new thing at all.

Noel King

We talked to a spokeswoman from Just Stop Oil. Her name is Emma Brown, and she told us that the group did not get much attention from blockading oil terminals, which is an action that is explicitly tied to their goals. But they got a lot of attention when they threw tomato soup on a painting, a thing that is not explicitly tied to their goals. Why do you think that is?

David Freedberg

Any assault on a loved object gains attention. One of the interesting things about great paintings is that they’re housed in museums, which are the equivalent of the ancient temples — people go and stand in front of them in hushed silence. And there’s another issue: People don’t love oil terminals. I think what you don’t want to forget is that most people have some kind of aesthetic sense. People like Sunflowers not only because it’s a famous picture, but because they are moved by the painting. It means a great deal to them.

Noel King

When you ask Just Stop Oil members, why are you doing this? They will say very openly, it is ridiculous to protect art and museums and not protect the earth. What do you think about that?

David Freedberg

I would respond by saying it’s ridiculous to invest so much in oil. We should stop oil. But what’s the connection with allowing people to go on enjoying works of art that they love, which means something to them? There’s no conceivable connection between the two claims. It’s a kind of logical absurdity, you know, to do away with one great salvation of civilization for the sake of saving civilization from climate change. Seems to me a confusion of aims.

Noel King

One gets the impression that Just Stop Oil is betting that artists would understand their actions in some sense, or that at least artists would work to try to interpret what they are doing. She [Brown] said the group picked tomato soup specifically because it’s an allusion to Britain’s high cost of living — people cooking soup in cans. Is there any way to look at these protests as art themselves, or is that a bridge too far for you?

David Freedberg

There’s no doubt that many artists are radical; artists are supposed to be radical. Thank god they are radical. And I’m sure there are plenty of artists who are not especially opposed to the throwing of tomato soup on Sunflowers by van Gogh. I do think that the question of bringing in sympathizers from a group in our society who are reduced to having to make meals that consist of tomato soup … I think that’s the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard. Because these are people who are reduced to such straits that they are really not going to be worried about van Gogh or anything at all in the context of such an attack. I think that’s one of the most spurious connections you could imagine. It appeals to intellectuals and artists, maybe, but that’s a small section of our society.

I think we should leave things in our museums alone for the most part. Britain, after all, is a society which until very recently had museums that were free for everybody to attend, and that was one of the great things about Britain, because it made it clear that art was available for all.

As I speak, I’m becoming stronger in my feelings about this that I anticipated — to deprive people of pleasures which now have become increasingly only available to the rich would be a great shame.