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Can the destruction of art save us from the destruction of the climate?

Ahead of Christmas, climate action group Just Stop Oil is expected to disrupt life in London to draw attention to their cause. Their tactics range from scaling bridges to sticking to busy roads to defacing famous paintings.

It is a non-violent form of protest that relies heavily on shock value and has it has drawn the ire of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government, who have vowed to crack down on disruptive climate protests. While most of the protesters who were arrested were released on bail after a relatively short time, the toughest legal response has come in the form of a new public order bill, which would punish the act of sticking to objects or buildings or block transportation from six months in prison.

Rights groups have seen the bill as authoritarian and regressive, but a UK government spokesman told Vox it served the interests of the public. “The right to protest is a fundamental tenet of our democracy,” the spokesman said, “but those protesters who disrupt public life, delay our emergency services and drain police resources cost taxpayers millions and face adequate sanctions”.

Middle-aged protesters, in neon orange vests, lie on their backs in the middle of a street.  They were handcuffed by a bunch of officers in neon yellow jackets.

Just Stop Oil protesters arrested by London police in October 2022. Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Just Stop Oil entered the world’s radar last fall when two activists, Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, threw tomato soup at van Gogh Sunflowers at the National Gallery of Art in London.

The painting, which is encased in glass, was not damaged, but the gallery said the frame sustained minor damage. The use of tomato soup might seem preposterous – after all, the group is trying to make a point about oil’s damaging effects on the climate, so why not deface the painting with fuel or even petroleum jelly? But the group’s spokeswoman, Emma Brown, told Vox’s Today, Explained that the soup was a nod to the cost-of-living crisis in Britain, which has led to the proliferation of food banks across the country, where tomato soup is a staple but often too expensive to reheat.

“We wanted that dramatic, slightly bizarre protest,” Brown said of throwing soup at van Gogh’s beloved painting. “Because by targeting something that is precious and valuable, people feel a sense of shock and discomfort when they see him threatened. This is really the emotion we must feel when we see the decisions our governments are making and the devastation wrought by the climate catastrophe.”

Time will tell if Just Stop Oil’s protests will help save the planet, but their tactics aren’t new. The destruction of art in the name of political or social change can be traced back to the dawn of time, according to David Freedberg, who wrote the 1989 book The power of images, which is often cited by art historians who study the use of images for propaganda, pleasure and destruction.

“They will obviously draw attention to the cause. It might make some people think more about the oil and fossil fuel problem,” Freedberg said in an interview with Today, Explained host Noel King. “But it’s not really clear to me if she’s going to achieve much.”

The following is an excerpt from the conversation between Freedberg and King, edited for length and clarity. There’s a lot more to the full podcast, so listen up Today, Explained wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotifyand Stapler.

Noël King

How effective is the destruction of art in advancing a political or social cause?

David Freedberg

Well, I’m afraid to say it’s usually very effective… acts of rebellion against power or acts of insult to power are effective in the beginning. Whether they actually end up carrying out regime change is another matter.

Noël King

I wonder if you could give me a short history of people destroying art to clarify a point.

David Freedberg

It’s been there since the beginning of time. We have the destruction of images of hated rulers in ancient Babylon, we have had the destruction of images in the late Roman Empire as Christianity entered the scene. And we must not forget that some acts of destruction are simply ways of replacing the symbols of a hated past of the old regime, of the old regimes, as happened in the French Revolution, in the Russian Revolution, with the fall of the Iron Curtain. People removed images of hated leaders because they never wanted to see them again. This actually fell into an older class of image destruction, which was the so-called damnatio memoriae, the damnation of memory.

The examples go on and on: when the Shah of Persia was replaced, the images in Tehran went down. There was the famous removal of the Saddam Hussein statue in 2003. It was supposed to be an outburst of popular resistance to Saddam, but we actually later found out that it was orchestrated by American troops. And then, of course, the Islamic State was radically Islamist. Islamic State has taken this to an extreme with its effective displays of image destruction. When you saw these acts of destruction, you shivered in your bones; you realize these were accompanied by assaults on real human bodies.

Let me tell you something about what the history of the hacking of images for the sake of publicity is, what class the action of Just Stop Oil obviously falls into: people have always tried to hack images for the sake of publicity, whether for publicity personal and for political purposes cause. The Irish Republican Army has, since its inception, removed defaced pictures or images of English heroes. This is a well known strategy. This is by no means new.

Noël King

We spoke to a Just Stop Oil spokeswoman. Her name is Emma Brown and she told us that the group hasn’t gotten much attention since the blockade of the oil terminals, which is an action explicitly tied to their goals. But they got a lot of attention when they threw tomato soup on a painting, something that isn’t explicitly related to their goals. Why do you think this is so?

David Freedberg

Any assault on a loved object attracts attention. One of the interesting things about great paintings is that they are housed in museums, which are the equivalent of ancient temples: people come and stand in front of them in muffled silence. And there’s another problem: people don’t like oil terminals. I think what you don’t want to forget is that most people have some sort of aesthetic sense. People like Sunflowers not just because it’s a famous painting, but because they’re moved by the painting. It means a lot to them.

Noël King

When you ask Just Stop Oil members, why are you doing this? They will say very openly that it is ridiculous to protect art and museums and not protect the earth. What do you think about this?

David Freedberg

I would respond by saying that it is ridiculous to invest so much in oil. We should stop the oil. But what is the connection with allowing people to continue to enjoy the works of art they love, which mean something to them? There is no conceivable connection between the two statements. It’s kind of a logical nonsense, you know, to take out a big salvation of civilization to save civilization from climate change. It seems to me a confusion of intent.

Noël King

One gets the impression that Just Stop Oil is betting that artists would understand their actions in some sense, or that at least the artists would work to try and interpret what they are doing. She [Brown] he said the group chose tomato soup precisely because it’s an allusion to Britain’s high cost of living: people cook soup in cans. Is there a way to consider these protests as art in themselves, or is that a bridge too far for you?

David Freedberg

There is no doubt that many artists are radical; artists should be radical. Thank God they are radical. And I’m sure there are plenty of artists who aren’t particularly against throwing tomato soup Sunflowers by Van Gogh. I think the question of bringing sympathizers from a group in our society that is reduced to having to prepare meals that consist of tomato soup… I think that’s the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard. Because these are people who are reduced to such hardships that they won’t really care about van Gogh or anything else in the context of such an attack. I think it’s one of the most spurious connections imaginable. It appeals to intellectuals and artists, perhaps, but that’s a small part of our society.

I think we should leave the stuff in our museums aside for the most part. Britain, after all, is a society that until recently had museums that were free for everyone, and that was one of the great things about Britain, because it made it clear that art was available to everyone.

As I speak, I’m growing stronger in my feelings about what I predicted: to deprive people of pleasures that have now become increasingly available only to the wealthy would be a great sin.

Two young men, one with pink hair, the other with dark brown hair, kneel before Sunflowers, her glass covered with dripping red soup.  The pink-haired protester holds up a can of Heinz tomato soup and appears to be speaking.

Members of Just Stop Oil moments after throwing soup on Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers.Stop Oil/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images