Sheer horror swept over the media as millions watched videos of tomato soup dripping from one of Vincent Van Gogh’s most priceless paintings. On Oct. 14, a European climate activism group known as Just Stop Oil intentionally splashed a full can of soup on Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the U.K. National Art Gallery.
One of the two activists leading the demonstration, Phoebe Plummer, is recorded gluing their hand to the wall and asking a mob of museum-goers, “What is worth more: art or life?” Plummer challenged the cameras: “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”
This demonstration by Just Stop Oil was one of many ways the group has tried to draw attention to the impending climate crisis. Much of the outrage, however, was directed at the climate activists rather than the climate crisis.
People commented under the YouTube video of the demonstration saying “That’s not activism, that’s vandalism” and “Will somebody please put these clowns in prison and throw away the key?” However, contrary to many’s concerns, the painting was left unscathed because it was protected by a glass case.
Zoe Miller, a third-year student at the University of Nebraska Omaha and an active member of Sustain UNO leaned in support of Just Stop Oil’s soup demonstration. She said, “A lot of time in climate protests we play it safe…you have to make a scene sometimes.” As an art teacher, Ms. Esther Hamra felt indifferent about the choice to involve the precious artwork in such a way. “I get the message and I understand where they are coming from, but is there a better way to go about it?” Hamra said.
While this form of protest is both relevant and controversial, the use of civil resistance in the climate justice movement is no novelty. Civil resistance, a method of protest where civilians intentionally induce a public conflict that doesn’t directly harm or threaten the adversary, has been used as an accelerant for progress in the environmental movement for over half a century. Women’s Studies teacher, Ms. Susie Sisson said, “civil resistance is a big part of our identity and history as Americans…politicians are influenced by the fire our activists light beneath them.”
Julia Butterfly Hill is a prominent environmentalist who performed tree-sits during the 1990s as a way of protecting the California Redwoods from loggers. Hill would live in the branches of the redwoods for months at a time, preventing loggers from cutting the tree down. Her success in both gaining media attention and protecting the trees is one of many examples that demonstrate how civil resistance can bring environmental justice. However, was Just Stop Oil’s demonstration in the art museum as effective as or even equatable to past uses of civil resistance?
“I understand what they are doing…they are trying to draw attention by being provocative, but their intentions kind of backfired,” Sisson said. Headline after headline demonized the activists. Sisson said, “as a society, we don’t allow ourselves to look beyond the headlines…we need to slow down and take a step back.”
While throwing soup at artwork may not be the best way for people to spark change and garner attention in their local communities, Miller encourages young people to step out of their comfort zone with the ways they protest. Joining local organizations such as Omaha’s Students for Sustainability or even Marian’s own Sustainability club can be a great first step for students looking to insert themselves into the conversation about climate.
Miller said, “sometimes you just have to be annoying to get things done.” And though there was a strong controversy developed around Just Stop Oil’s demonstration, it caused many people to ask themselves, “what measures must be taken to preserve our future on this planet?”