Yesterday two Just Stop Oil activists entered the National Gallery in London, threw tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and then glued themselves to the wall, awaiting inevitable arrest.
The action was widely reported in the news media.
For those not familiar with Just Stop Oil (JSO), all you need to know is in the name. They seek an immediate moratorium on new oil exploration, followed by a structural reset to move away from the dependence on fossil fuels. They share the objectives of groups like Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain. They take the dire warnings about the climate crisis seriously and demand urgent action to prevent further damage.
So is attacking a cultural icon an appropriate way to advance this cause?
In case you are worried or outraged, Sunflowers is fine. Like many high value artworks, it is protected by security glass. It will be cleaned up and put back on display. There is no damage but the gesture will remain. It will remain in people’s awareness and searchable on the web. People will reflect on the action. Some will condemn it, others will welcome it as a action to raise awareness of a terrible threat that is bearing down on us all.
Compare this action to one that took place in the early hours of 10th October. Climate activists smashed all the windows at the Cambridge Schlumberger Centre. Schlumberger is a multinational company providing services to the fossil fuel industry. They are actively involved in oil and gas extraction. The site in Cambridge is a cooperative venture with Cambridge University.
An activist involved in the protest gave a statement in the local media:
“Schlumberger is the home of oil and gas in Cambridge. “They’re the biggest offshore drilling company in the world and do untold harm to us. The company is evil. They have to go”.
This story was only covered in local news in the Cambridge area. Unlike the Sunflowers action, there was no national coverage.
So in terms of exposure, Sunflowers was a resounding success. Items on primetime news, coverage in all the newspapers, opinion pieces in the more worthy newspapers. It was a PR person’s dream.
It’s true that the incident attracted plenty of negative comments. But if only 5 per cent of those people who engaged with the story were positively influenced to engage with the climate crisis, surely that is success?
This was a very canny action. Public engagement with the art world varies enormously, but probably most people would recognise Sunflowers. An incident involving Sunflowers would inevitably be reported. By contrast, the world outside Cambridge is not interested in what happens to a suburban university research building.
If one is seeking publicity for a cause, it’s important to take action that will actually generate publicity. In this respect, the Sunflowers incident was a media triumph. I offer my solidarity to the perpetrators.
I have no wish to encourage vandalism, but I am mindful of the big picture. The excess CO2 in the atmosphere is causing a climate disaster. The fossil fuel companies knew this thirty years ago. Did they accept the responsibility inherent in that knowledge? No, they didn’t. They dug and drilled more than ever and paid off politicians to let them get on with their toxic business. Should we worry about them getting their windows broken? Absolutely not. Should cultural icons be co-opted into this struggle? If that’s what it takes, yes.
This is a struggle for the future. If climate activists have to pull some cultural levers to get the public to take notice, so be it.