The attack on Van Gogh’s famous ‘Sunflowers’ in October this year is the latest in a series of art-related environmental incidents. The event began when two Stop Oil movement activists entered the National Gallery in London dressed in long coats, which they stripped off before the oil painting. They then opened and threw two cans of Heinz soup at the image before kneeling down and glueing their hands to the wall. As the entire incident was recorded on camera, one of the protesters then proceeded to say;
“What is worth more, art or life? Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people? The cost of living crisis is part of the cost of the oil crisis; fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup”.
The questions asked raised some provocative thoughts — although most of the reaction on social media has focused on the negative side, calling the action a wasteful, meaningless publicity stunt. The incident has also provoked much generational backlash, given the relatively young age of the offenders.
In a Tik Tok video proceeding the trial, one of the activists, Phoebe Plummer, explained that she knew full well that the painting was protected behind glass and would therefore be unharmed. Minimal damage was sustained to the frame.
Acknowledging the act slightly ridiculous, Phoebe Plummer said something needed to be done to start the conversation over difficult questions. Pheobe gave the example of Liz Truss, recently elected British Prime Minister, issuing over a hundred new fossil fuel licenses. She also showed that fossil fuels are subsidised at a rate thirty times higher than renewables when wind-powered energy is nine times cheaper.
Just Stop Oil has remained behind the work of the activists, showcasing their soupy act on their main website. The movement aims to end any new oil and gas projects from this year onward. Their website contains research, articles and ongoing court cases they are fighting. As a charity, most of the money is spent on organising and funding their continued activism. If you wish to donate or support them, you can do so here. Or, for ongoing climate research and climate change funding, you can support Just Stop Oil’s partner, Climate Emergency Fund.
Just Stop Oil made the following statement following the initial act;
"Human creativity and brilliance are on show in this gallery, yet our heritage is being destroyed by our Government’s failure to act on the climate and cost of living crisis. What use is art when we face the collapse of civil society? The art establishment, artists and the art-loving public need to step up into Civil Resistance to live in a world where humans are around to appreciate art."
Just Stop Oil has been running a continual campaign outside 10 Downing Street, rallying protesters to sit with them outside and voice their concerns. The action has received little attention from the media and anyone online, although 28 arrests were made during the activism. Compared with other forms of protest, such as the anti-whaling vessels first launched in the mid-seventies, these actions seem to have fallen into the background of our collective conscience. This has prompted some to suggest that these ‘aggressions’ against established art are justified in the face of extreme climate change and increasing climate change ‘blindness’, where the issue is recognised but ignored mainly as a future problem.
Other art-related activist acts include another Van Gogh painting in June, ‘Peach Trees in Blossom, which two activists glued themselves to. Works like Tomson's ‘Aeolian Harp’, Leonardo da Vinci's ‘The Last Supper’, Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’, Paul Ruben’s ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ and the Vatican’s sculpture ‘Laocoön and His Sons’. John Constable's ‘The Hay Wain’ has suffered minor damage after an alternative scene was pasted over the river landscape to show “paved road, dead trees, factory smokestacks and aeroplanes”.
The protestors of the soup incident have made it clear that the point of these attacks on art, which are orchestrated to make a statement rather than harm the piece in question, isn’t meant to inspire copycat responses. Instead, the point has been to capture attention and voice a message in an increasingly climate change-weary media. Just Stop Oil has elected to help bail out the young activists, and more actions are underway. These aren’t all tied to art either; earlier this year, protestors hung banners over the QE2 bridge, spray painted the Scotland Yard sign yellow and disrupted a football match by tying themselves to a goalpost.
Whether or not the actions, and the donations for these actions, are justified is up to the reader's discretion. At Eartha, our stance is to make every action we take a step towards protecting our earth. We have decided that our proceeds will go directly towards helping remove rubbish and clean up the environment so that we can be sure all our customers have a link to an actionable climate change when they buy our products.
Art is precious, and so is our earth. We recognise attempts to help bring balance to our beautiful planet and appreciate the thought behind them. Our climate column is dedicated to bringing you environmental news that you can use to make up your mind. So, while many of our topics will be controversial, and while we do have an agenda, we want you to have the best environmental reports based on solid news events and scientific evidence.
The choice of what to believe, especially in the case of an activist statement, is up to you.
- Dolsak, Nives, Prakash, Asheem. “Will Hurling Tomato Soup On Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Advance Climate Policy?” on Forbes. Date Published: October 19th, 2022. Site Sourced: https://bit.ly/3TFdzV2.
- Edwards, Christian. “Fossil fuel protesters charged after tomato soup thrown on Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' in London gallery” on CNN Style. Last Updated: 15th October 2022. Site Link: https://cnn.it/3F2Kvm9.
- Guardian News. “Just Stop Oil activists throw tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting at National Gallery” on YouTube. Date Published: 15th October, 2022. Site Sourced: https://bit.ly/3VWBKzV.
- JOE. “Just Stop Oil activist explains why she threw soup at Van Gogh painting #shorts” Date Published: 19th October, 2022. Site Sourced: https://bit.ly/3Dx2m3D.
- Kiderlin, Sophie. “Oil protesters arrested after throwing tomato soup at Van Gogh painting” on CNBC. Date Published: 14th October, 2022. Site Link: https://cnb.cx/3snaopi.
- Nerozzi, Timothy H.J. “Anti-oil environmentalists pour tomato soup on van Gogh 'Sunflowers' painting” on Fox News. Date Published: 14th October, 2022. Site Sourced: https://fxn.ws/3TQShnn.
About the author - meet Earthan James McCulloch
James is a literary student and environmental enthusiast who likes thinking about the better futures we could have (and those we best avoid). When not playing with other people’s dogs or taking long, mindful walks, he’s usually found reading and writing, often at the local library. You can check him out on his blog for something a little different, where he talks about all things literary or otherwise.