Vandalism of art by activists isn’t new. But in 2022, climate activists have taken their activism to new highs by plumbing, well, new lows. They've glued themselves to frames of renowned artworks (about food, drink, nature) in art galleries or museums or thrown soup or mashed food onto them. They've shouted dire warnings about apocalyptic futures where people must fight each other for food because the elite’s stubborn “inertia” on climate action will have destroyed the natural world beyond remedy.
Angry activists have targeted several artworks: Leonard da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” at the Royal Academy in London; J.M.W. Turner's painting, "Tomson's Aeolian Harp" at the Manchester Art Gallery; a Vincent van Gogh painting at the Courtauld Gallery in London; a Horatio McCulloch artwork in Glasgow; one of Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings in the National Gallery in London; a Claude Monet painting of haystacks in the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany; the statute of the priest “Laocoon” at the Vatican Museums (the priest of Apollo had tried in vain to save the doomed city of Troy); Sandro Botticelli’s "Primavera" at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy; Nicolas Poussin’s “Thunderscape With Pyramus” at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany; Raphael's "Sistine Madonna" in the Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden, Germany; Cranach's "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" in Berlin's Gemäldegalerie; Rubens' "Massacre of the Innocents" in Munich's Alte Pinakothek; Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece “Girl with a Pearl Earring” in the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague.
And this is merely a snapshot of the havoc misguided activists are wreaking, while undermining much-needed activism by more sensible activists.
Art vandals breathlessly argue that only radical tactics can provoke moderate, but at least more immediate, responses to climate emergencies: more people, practices, money and technology around “pro-climate” causes and less, or none, to “anti-climate” ones. Only, they're the ones deciding what's "anti-climate", broadening that list by the hour.
Those otherwise sympathetic to considered and concerted climate action disagree. They argue that these misguided tactics will spike costs (insurance, security, sponsorship) for museums, already struggling for sustainable funding. After all, more sensible activists have targeted protests better: animal-rights protesters targeting meat and leather producers, Black activists targeting police departments or other climate protesters targeting fossil-fuel companies. Targeting art, its producers, chroniclers, consumers and protectors, seems indefensible.
Given the reductive-seductive appeal of social media, such hit-and-run operations can do more harm than good to both, climate action and Art. If Art's accused of being elitist, will such tactics make it even less accessible, exacerbating what the Art world is already accused of?
I’ve argued here that these activists lack imagination and direction and that they can learn from Art by turning more creative, not less. Art has repeatedly celebrated our love of nature and critiqued our defilement of it. Why present Art as inimical to nature?
The activists are right to demand thought and action. But what may be required is better (not quicker) thought, wiser (not more) action.
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer.