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What the Hell Happened: Van Gogh is Crying, But Heinz is Happy!

Vincent Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" (1888), Copyright London National Gallery, all rights reserved.
Vincent Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" (1888), Copyright London National Gallery, all rights reserved. By Courtesy of the London National Gallery
By Amelie Julicher, Contributing Writer

On Oct. 14, two fossil fuel protesters threw two cans of tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Sunflowers” and glued themselves to the wall of the crime scene. For everyone concerned: The painting was not damaged and is back on display at the National Gallery in London as of Oct. 15. Meanwhile, the two activists pleaded not guilty to criminal damage at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court later that day.

Despite debate over their method of protest, the protesters succeeded in garnering media attention. Social media sites were flooded with pictures of the two activists glued to the London National Gallery wall, holding up two cans of Heinz tomato soup. Safe to say, the two protesters made Heinz’s PR manager very happy. After all, there is nothing better than free media attention!

It seems free media attention is exactly what the two “Just Stop Oil” climate activists were going for. “We’re doing these actions to get media attention because we need to get people talking about this now,” one of the activists said in reference to the growing movement. To what extent throwing soup at an almost 200-year-old sunflower painting will truly generate media attention capable of saving the environment is debatable. Yet, this event is only the latest of many art-based nonviolent acts of protest that have occurred throughout Europe in recent months.

Earlier this year, activists glued themselves to Horatio McCulloch’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands” in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. Shortly thereafter, a new generation of climate activists was born — a generation that stuck themselves to world famous paintings in world famous art galleries as means of protest. But why do protesters turn to canonical art to make statements? After all, the act of drenching a van Gogh in tomato soup does not exactly have an obvious link to the current climate crisis.

Yet, it is undeniable that the iconic paintings represent historical status and wealth. “What is worth more — art or life?” the activist asked, her hand still glued to the wall. “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.” While these are certainly poignant questions, one cannot help but ask if that is what the public will retain from this performance.

Granted: Impactful activism is difficult. Clearly, in today‘s society, dramatic action is a very effective way to command attention. Climate change is one of the most, if not the most pressing issues of this generation. Imminent global action is necessary, but what is true protest and what is performance art? Is throwing soup at paintings the solution to the climate crisis?

Probably not.

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