By dr. Sally HicksonSchool of Fine Arts and Music
Over the past few weeks, climate change activists have perpetrated various acts reversible vandalism against famous works of art in public galleries.
In the latest incident on October 27, two men entered the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague. After removing their jackets to reveal t-shirts printed with anti-oil slogans, one started sticking his head glass top Johannes Vermeer a girl with an earringwhile the other bathed his accomplice’s head with what appeared to be tinned tomatoes before sticking his own hand to the wall adjacent to the painting.
It was just the latest in a series of similar artistic attacks that have dotted the news.
The motivation of the eco-activists involved is to draw attention to the climate change crisis, the role of big oil in accelerating environmental degradation and the need to save our planet.
By attacking a famous and valuable cultural target like that of Vermeer a girl with an earring – this even starred in his own movie — the protesters are asking us to examine our values.
Major Oil Events
Vermeer’s first painting to be auctioned in nearly 80 years sold for nearly $40 million in 2004. Today a Vermeer (There are not a lot) could easily be doubled. Whether you like Vermeer or not, the monetary value of attacked targets reinforces the audacity and shock value of today’s artistic attacks.
Eco-activists want to appear to desecrate something that people associate with value and culture. Their argument is that if we don’t have a planet, we’ll lose all the things we seem to value more.
As Just Stop Oil activist Phoebe Plummer says NPR after being implicated in Van Gogh attack Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London:
“Since October we have been carrying out disruptive acts all over London because at the moment what is missing to make this change is the political will. So our action in particular was a media action to get people talking, not just about what we did, but why we did it.”
Note that the idea is disruption, not destruction. As acts designed to shock, the activists captured immediate public attention.
By staging their attacks in public galleries, where the majority of visitors carry cellphones, activists could be assured that footage and photos of the incidents would immediately attract attention. By sticking to non-corrosive substances and mitigating damage to the structures under attack, they do not arouse the kind of public anger that willful destruction would cause.
In recent times, attacking art as a form of public protest has largely been limited to public monuments outside of gallery space, such as the Confederate destruction and removal or colonial statues.
But it is also true that works of art in museums have already been attacked. During its history, by Rembrandt night watch at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was stabbed in two separate incidents in 1911 and 1975; in 1990 he was doused with acid; but all of these attacks have been attributed to individuals with unclear and less clearly rational motives.
I see some issues at play in evaluating what these recent attacks on art might mean.
1. How effective is the message?
Activists have made their goals clear, but those goals have not been obvious to all who see via social media, but don’t stick around to hear the explanation. When a wide range of media all outlets perceive the need to publish editorials on why eco-activists target art, something gets lost in translation.
People see the endangerment of works of art, but may attribute this to activists, not the planetary erosion caused by climate change. I don’t think everyone gets the message.
2. Possible misplaced outrage
The incidents so far have been fairly effective and innocuous acts. But what if something is damaged beyond repair? People will be outraged, but they will still be outraged by the art, not the planet.
And while there is a call for harsh prison terms, precedent suggests that is an unlikely outcome.
Man Who Damaged $26 Million Picasso At Tate Modern in London in 2020 was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
3. Damage to public trust
The third effect is what I consider to be a breach of public trust, and that makes me think. Works of art, even the most famous, lead precarious lives in constant danger; war, weather, fire, flood. The protesters undermine the idea that public galleries are “safe” spaces for works of art, held by the public.
As fari nzinga, first curator of academic engagement and special projects at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, KY, pointed out in a 2016 article:
“The museum does not serve the public trust simply by exhibiting works of art for its members, it does this by keeping and caring for the art on behalf of a larger community of members and non-memberspreserving it for future generations to study and enjoy.
Right now, these acts, however well intentioned, could lead to increased security and more limited access, making galleries prisons for art rather than places for people.
At the same time, part of the campaigners’ point is that the economy that sustains major oil companies are tied to arts infrastructure and the art market.
The pandemic has taught us, I think, that art might be the thing we share that saves us; think about people during quarantine in Italy sing opera together from their balconies.
Eco-activists engaged in performance protests ask us to question our public institutions and hold ourselves accountable for what they and we value. Their climate activism is dedicated to our common destiny.
If you’re ready to fight to protect art, maybe you’re ready to fight to protect the planet.