In one minute, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is displayed under bright lights for viewers to enjoy, and in the next, it is covered in a can of tomato soup. But why would someone do this?
On Oct. 14, two activists entered London’s National Gallery to throw soup on one of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, Sunflowers, before gluing themselves to the wall where it was mounted. (Thankfully, there was no damage to the actual painting, only to its frame and protective glass covering.) Then, they shouted phrases such as “What is worth more—art or life?” and “Are you more concerned about the protection of the painting, or the protection of our planet and people?”
They did so in the name of the activist group Just Stop Oil, which stages protests against the government’s choice of protecting artwork like Sunflowers rather than putting in more effort to help reduce carbon emissions or switch to renewable energy sources. So far, aside from throwing soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Just Stop Oil has glued itself to other priceless pieces of art as well as blocked off several of London’s main streets and bridges—also by gluing themselves to the ground.
Protests are meant to draw attention to a cause and sometimes that involves making a scene. But the way Just Stop Oil protests is flawed. You can bring attention to a cause without destroying other things of value. There are better ways to protest for a cause that are not needlessly destructive. A spokesperson for Just Stop Oil told The Guardian justified the stunt they pulled by stating that its purpose was to draw massive amounts of attention, claiming that they were “not here to make friends.” But throwing soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is not productive. In fact, the protest caused the exact opposite of what Just Stop Oil seeks to do: the majority of people online talking about the protest are not talking about climate change—they are talking about the ruckus Just Stop Oil has caused.
Videos of the soup-throwing went viral almost immediately with many people expressing disapproval. Some left comments on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram like “A waste of food” and “Horribly upsetting behavior for this generation.” Others labeled the protestors as “stupid, ignorant [with] no clue what they were talking about.” But by far the most popular criticism was how the vandalism of Sunflowers and other works of art was not the way to go when it comes to protesting, especially since it has nothing to do with the environment.
And these commenters would be right. Sunflowers and other paintings Just Stop Oil has targeted, including John Constable’s The Hay Wain and an early version of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, were not irreparably damaged; however, protesting in such a way has achieved little more than criticism on the internet. Through the vast sea of comments on various news outlets and social media, very few were about why the activists were protesting in the first place. The large majority only spoke about how the two protestors should be punished for vandalizing such important pieces of artwork. It is indeed slightly ironic how Just Stop Oil’s purpose—to bring attention to climate change—has veered so far left.
But though Just Stop Oil went about it in the wrong way, they do have a point. It is important to call for government action in the fight against climate change. However, we should not have to choose between protecting artifacts of the past or preserving the planet for the future. Both can coexist and succeed in everyone’s favor, which is why it is important to not take away from why Just Stop Oil is protesting in the first place. But for now, it seems like the climate activist group has only succeeded in collecting infamy over the internet.