At Large  October 18, 2022  Rebecca Schiffman

Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers: Activism for Real Change?


Just Stop Oil's protest at the National Gallery.


Last week at the National Gallery in London, protestors from the campaign group, Just Stop Oil, threw a can of Heinz tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers and glued themselves to the wall of the gallery. The activists then delivered a speech in which they asked visitors if they “are more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?” 

Just Stop Oil is a coalition of groups working together to stop the British government from committing to new licenses concerning the exploration, development, and production of fossil fuels. They are fighting for the government to recognize that they should be helping the population deal with the “cost of living crisis” instead of enabling fossil fuel extraction.

Courtesy Just Stop Oil

Just Stop Oil protest

This is not the first time that a climate organization such as Just Stop Oil has targeted famous artworks to draw attention to the usage of fossil fuels. For months, climate organizations all across Europe have been gluing themselves to famous paintings to illicit strong responses: from England, to Germany, to Italy, activists have attached themselves to works from John Constable paintings to Rubens masterpieces. One activist in May even threw cake over the glass of the Mona Lisa in an act “against people who were destroying the planet.”

This past July was a particularly popular month for this type of protest: Just Stop Oil glued themselves to a version of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, and Italian climate action organization, Ultima Generazione, attached themselves in two separate instances to Botticelli’s Primavera in Florence and a Boccioni sculpture in Milan. 

These groups target art and cultural institutions because they believe that politics follows culture and that culture should help in putting pressure on the government. They make sure that artworks are not to be damaged, and are careful to use glue that is a suitable adhesive. In a statement to the New York Times, Just Stop Oil said that van Gogh’s Sunflowers had nothing to do with climate change. It was targeted by the group because it was simply “an iconic painting, by an iconic painter” and by attacking it, they would call greater attention to their stunt.

Courtesy Just Stop Oil

Just Stop Oil protest

In the case of last week’s van Gogh, the painting was protected by its glass frame and was not damaged. In fact, it has been cleaned and is already back on view. And none of the other works targeted have been damaged, besides minimal damage to their frames. But this protest is just yet another use of exploiting masterpieces to get headline attention. Is it morally justifiable to potentially ruin an artwork? And is this really the type of activism we need to enact real change?

While the activists have good reason to be protesting the government, the use of art and the potential to ruin these masterpieces runs down a tricky path. Protestors see art as a useful prop, and once the news dies down about one masterpiece used in a protest, they pick another to get more attention.

Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. Three gelatin silver prints, 148 x 121 cm each.

It is also worth considering how the actions of these climate activists will be viewed in the future. In 1995, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei smashed a valuable and ceremonial Han Dynasty urn. Many were outraged by the smashing of this artifact, to which Ai countered by saying, “Chairman Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.” By dropping the urn, Ai let go of the social and cultural structures that impart value. Today, Ai’s destructive statement is viewed as an iconic moment in the history of contemporary art.

There is no easy answer to this issue of climate change or best practices of protest. If anything, one thing is clear: museums nowadays should always make sure major artworks have protective glass.

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