Tomato soup on Van Gogh’s sunflowers? Can’t you make your defiance more creative?

Recently, climate activists pretended to vandalize a work of art to make a point against climate change denial and inertia. It’s a valid point and must be made. But was it misplaced? Earlier this year someone flung a cake at the Louvre Museum’s Mona Lisa, apparently to call out “people who are destroying the earth.”

The point isn’t: Did they succeed in making their point? They probably did.

The point is: Should they be protesting, let alone succeeding, at the expense of art?

Many were appalled at this route to protest. Others brushed aside their initial disgust, on hearing that the artwork was unharmed. Why not use novel eyeball-grabbing to make a point, they wondered; how else can activists stir things? But that’s missing the lessons art teaches us. Especially if the next batch of adrenalin-pumped activists isn’t checking whether a prized painting has protective glass, before they toss tomato soup at it.

Art teaches us to persist, creatively.

Activists involved in the latest attack at The National Gallery said “We are not trying to make friends here, we are trying to make change, and unfortunately this is the way that change happens.” But if undermining art is number 4 in the activist to-do list, rather than number 404, that’s an admission of the poverty of our creativity. Have activists already exhausted every trick in their toolbox? If so, we’re in trouble.

What’s next? Take a pickaxe to a Pollock?

If activists want to expose elitism and its indifference to “causes”, aren’t there cleverer ways of going about it? Disruptive activism has a history of doggedness and inventiveness. Is that drying up? Why the laziness?

Why aren’t activists pointing their shock-and-awe tactics more consistently, more directly at legislators, executives, celebrities and editors who, they believe, are complicit in climate denial or inaction? Tomato soup in any of those directions can also spark “millions of conversations”, clips can still go viral and help revoke apathetic laws. Why is patronage of art a villainy? Does art become villainous because its patrons are villains, in this case fossil-fuel villains?

Many great artists wallowed in obscurity until past their prime. They didn’t give up, but stayed true, kept painting, writing, composing, or sculpting.

Nothing wrong with protest. Picasso’s Guernica was a protest, for heaven’s sake.

Protesters must protest. But can they, at least, get more creative, not less? Can they protest smarter, instead of merely harder, or lazier? Can they more imaginatively address us, the public, so we’re shedding our indifference, correcting everyday acts of omission and commission that hurt us because they hurt the planet, rather than let us off easy so we can fume over the spectacular alone: oil spill, forest fire, flash flood?

Art teaches us to respect, even love, life. At the very least life must respect, if not love, art.  

Great artists painted, composed, sculpted or wrote about Nature with love or longing: rivers, oceans, waterfalls, flowers, trees, mountains, ice, snow, clouds, rain, the sun, the sky, animals, birds, fish, men, women, children, old men, old women, babies. Much of an artist’s raw material is from nature: wood, charcoal, clay, graphite, and water.

Vincent Van Gogh, 'Sunflowers' -- National Gallery, London

Art can celebrate our love for nature or critique our defilement of it. Small wonder that there’s a cloudburst of sub-genres that meditate on Nature: sustainable art, eco-art, bio-art, environmental art, art for conservation, land art, garden art. And haven’t musicians, poets and novelists warned of the price we’ll pay if we ignore climate warnings? Why present art as inimical to nature?

Protesters must protest. But can they use, rather than abuse, art to make their point? Can they make more (and better) friends and partners of artists, to more powerfully get their message across? Who knows, sincere and sensible activists may persuade poseur artists to be more faithful to their art.

Great artists are often the ones showing us a new way of seeing; why don’t activists stand on their shoulders to see better, instead of kicking them in the shins?

Can artists, for their part, refuse to let the politics of social justice overwhelm their art? Activism is politics, no matter how you dice it. Artists must stay “above” the pool of politics, even if they take the occasional dip. Sure, artists need an “immersion” to soak things up, but without an “apartness” they lose what makes them artists in the first place: their ability to see better, from a distance.

By exalting our noblest values (love, truth, goodness, beauty, hope, faith) or examining our lack of them, as art does, art becomes a value in itself. Activists attacking art — or pretending to — are indulging in “cancel culture”; they’re just training their guns at more exciting targets.  

Bruce Lee once said, “Simplicity is the last step of art, and the beginning of nature.”

Art isn’t an obstacle to nature. In fact, it may well be a path to it. How horrifying to hear activists scream false dichotomies: do you want to protect a painting, or our planet and people?

Artists are sometimes brave.

Protesters who go after the low-hanging fruit of art-vandalism, are far from brave. If anything, art needs our brave support to preserve what it means to be human. Or, if alarmists are right, what it meant to be human! Either way, art is indispensable to the human narrative. To set it at odds with humanity isn’t oversight, it’s outrage. Tragically, that’s the binary anthem of misguided activists: “What is worth more, art or life?”

Happily, brighter activists don’t buy that. They know that Nature isn’t our only heritage as humans, certainly not the only one worth protecting.

Sure, graffiti artists bring along a “hell with you” attitude, and many are vandals in disguise. But the brightest are careful not to go off the deep end. Anger is important to them, even rage, but their output takes work, patience, and vision. They have something to say and say it intelligently, or funnily, even shockingly, sometimes persuasively.

But misdirected activism, after a point, can become its own form of denial and inaction. There’s a very thin line between social reform and public nuisance. Do protesters supergluing their palms in righteous indignation, believe glue is made without exploiting Nature?

Why champion art?

Art lacks the currency, the urgency, the universal resonance of a natural resource (sunlight, air, water, soil, mineral), because art doesn’t speak with immediacy to all humanity as natural resources do. You don’t have to hardsell the value of “water” to most people, but you do need to educate many to appreciate Mozart or Beethoven. If they “get it” — many don’t —they might even defer their sip of water to better understand both Mozart and Beethoven.

Art defines us as more fully, more indisputably human. We are unique on the planet, in imbuing art with meaning, making art “come alive” as it were, through our heightened enjoyment of it, our increased sensitivity to it, our desperation to learn, teach or simply shout the art we love from the rooftops.

If we don’t give art meaning and power over us, it remains as meaningless to us as Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is to a zebra, or Michelangelo’s Pieta to a kangaroo. Art is one of several markers that remind us that we’re not mere animals, that we can transcend ourselves.

Will activism that weaponizes art-vandalism grow? Yes. Because it “works”. But it’ll probably multiply in ways that even the most sincere super-achieving activists never intended. Because no one stopped to ask: does defacing art make us superhuman or subhuman?

Through their art, great artists are among the first to call us to our senses, to open our eyes, to caution us when we lack context, to warn us when we lose perspective. If climate activism is a call to action, how strange to shush the prophets first.


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