Vandalism is not activism

Van Gogh protest weakens environmental movement

Activism is one of our most powerful tools to change the world for the better. It can be helpful to disrupt the status quo in order to draw attention to an issue. However, there is a fine line between disruptive and counterproductive. A recent protest in which climate activists threw soup at Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Sunflowers” does nothing to protect the environment, and will only marginalize the environmentalist movement.

The protestors in question, members of an organization called Just Stop Oil, were demonstrating against the approval of new oil drilling projects by the British government, according to NPR. Although the painting itself was not harmed, the frame was slightly damaged, according to The Guardian.

Bark without bite: Future efforts to address climate change should focus on lasting policy advancements instead of destructive symbolic gestures
(Photo courtesy of CNN)

While the motivations of these activists are valid, their methods are not. This protest is a publicity stunt that prioritizes getting attention over making an impact. 

There are much more effective avenues for dissent than throwing soup on a painting. If the activists involved in this protest instead dedicated their time to lobbying lawmakers or organizing large demonstrations with other people concerned about climate change, they would actually have a chance of changing government policy and reducing emissions.  

Instead, the attack on “Sunflowers” actively discredits the efforts of more practical activists who are doing less glamorous but more impactful work. For example, the peaceful efforts of environmentalist Greta Thunberg have inspired people across the political spectrum to take action against climate change, according to Yale

On the other hand, the soup-throwing incident drew widespread ridicule from journalists and commentators, as many feared that it would decrease public support for climate change regulations, according to The Huffington Post

The central motivation behind these protests is a false choice. One of the activists, Phoebe Plummer, justified the demonstration with the question, “What is worth more, art or life?”, according to CNBC. However, both art and life can be prioritized at the same time if we commit to activism that creates real change, insead of damaging objects that are integral to our culture and civilization. 

Art reflects the progress and values of society. Artists like Van Gogh have influenced modern attitudes toward beauty and individuality, according to The Van Gogh Gallery. Works like “Sunflowers” should be celebrated, not treated as props in a political game. 

We have the power to save the environment and humanity, but in order to use that power, we need the united support of people across the world. This will never be obtained through unnecessarily polarizing protests that get headlines without producing results.