What is worth more, art or life? Present the question to a sophomore fine arts class, or at a seminar on the visual arts, and it’s likely to elicit a keen discussion on the place and value of art in our lives. But when activists Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland posed the same question to a crowd of stunned spectators in room 43 of the National Gallery in London, moments after throwing soup onto Van Gogh’s masterwork, Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers, their intentions were a little more straightforward. Plummer and Holland were not so much interested in a philosophical reflection on the value of art as they were in bringing about an epiphany for those watching—one which, had all things gone the way they hoped, might have culminated in a better public understanding of the climate crisis. That was the plan, at least, but the response at the National Gallery that afternoon was decidedly different. It was one of consternation, even outrage, not climate change contemplation.
As is expected in our age of smartphones and social media, a video quickly went viral, and the response was predictably divided. Some supported the stunt, urging their followers on Twitter to check their anger for a moment and consider instead the message. Yet for many, the act of defacing artwork of such cultural importance was inexcusable. Speaking of Plummer, the more vocal of the two activists involved, Janice Turner, a columnist at The Times, wrote in a scathing tweet that the iconoclastic act did little more than show the “sheer entitlement of [the] plummy-accented child to destroy what belongs to everyone in the nation.”
Since the attack on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, “Just Stop Oil” has targeted several more artworks. At present, activists have thrown mashed potatoes at Monet’s Les Meules, smeared cake on a wax effigy of King Charles III at Madame Tussauds in London, and, in Amsterdam, one activist glued his head to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring while a colleague poured soup on him. In May of this year, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was smeared with cake in another act of climate protest, with the unnamed activist saying: “Think about the Earth. There are people who are destroying the Earth. Think about it...”
Iconoclasm has long played an important role in social and political conflict. Consider, for example, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001, or the attack on Michelangelo’s Pietà in 1972 by Laszlo Toth. Two years after the latter, Tony Shafrazi spray-painted words on Picasso’s Guernica at the Modern Museum of Art in New York in protest against the Vietnam War. Rembrandt’s The Night Watch has been particularly susceptible to such gestures, having been slashed three times—first in 1911, then 1975, and finally 1990—each time for different reasons. And just over a century ago, Mary Richardson, a Canadian suffragette, slashed Velázquez’s idealized nude Rokeby Venus with a meat chopper to protest the arrest of British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.
Compared to such acts of iconoclasm, the recent string of attacks feels a little tame. In fact, it would be erroneous even to label them as iconoclastic, since no artworks have actually been harmed in the making of these protests. The Van Gogh is behind glass, as are the Monet and the Vermeer. What we are seeing, then, is spectacle—a pseudo-iconoclastic event that gets attention by way of symbolism and shock-factor rather than true vandalism, as some have accused. Still, the attraction to iconoclasm remains enduringly powerful. What is it about art that draws people to its destruction in times of conflict?
Iconoclasm, in the first instance, is symbolic. When the statue of Edward Colston—a seventeenth-century merchant who found fortune in the transatlantic slave trade —was toppled from its plinth in Magpie Park, Bristol, weeks after the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protest, it signified to the world that “we” would no longer ignore the criminal colonial history of the West nor allow it to remain celebrated.
In such instances, acts of iconoclasm are effective methods of protest to the extent they are able to capture attention—a feat that counts as precious currency in our noisy age defined by pitifully short attention spans. Part of the reason why iconoclasm is so captivating is that people pay attention to (and, dare I say, care) far more for art than they do for other people. After the attack on the Bamiyan Buddhas, for example, the Taliban expressed their indignation at the protest coming from the “West,” which they described as being exclusively concerned with saving “idols” but ignorant of the misery of the Afghans. Iconoclasm, in short, cuts through the noise and forces us to reconsider what is actually valuable.
In the recent spate of attacks, the primary motive was clearly to direct attention to the climate crisis and encourage positive action. Plummer confirms this, both in a video circulating on TikTok and in an interview with the art magazine Frieze. In the latter, she states that the point of the stunt was not to cause any real harm to the painting (which was protected behind glass) but to get media attention and encourage conversation about the UK government’s inaction (and, in recent months, u-turns) on climate protection. Similarly, on Twitter, the official account for Letzte Generation, the German branch of Just Stop Oil responsible for smearing Monet with mashed potatoes, wrote that “If it takes a painting with #MashedPotatoes or #TomatoSoup thrown at it to make society remember that the fossil fuel course is killing us all,” then that is what the organization will do. There are of course those who will argue that there are better ways to make a point or raise awareness, ways that are less radical, less destructive, and less entitled.
But those better ways, arguably, are too little and too late, and those who issue even the most dire and well supported warnings about impending catastrophes—many of which are already occurring—are dismissed as Cassandras and generally disbelieved or mocked.
As early as 1999, Alan AtKisson, a leading figure in sustainability consultancy turned bestselling author, wrote that to understand that humanity is on a collision course with the laws of nature is to be stuck in what he called the “Cassandra dilemma,” a situation in which a few can see the most likely outcome of current trends, and warn others accordingly, but the vast majority cannot, or will not respond. AtKisson wrote this of the climate debate more than two decades ago, and now as we approach what many say is a “point of no return,” when immediate and effective action is necessary, it feels, AtKisson writes, as if all we can do is “watch helplessly, as Cassandra did, while the metaphorical soldiers emerge from the Trojan Horse, just as foreseen, and wreak their predicted havoc.” We can either sit idly by and watch the Achaeans burn the city, or we can attempt to ring the alarm bell louder.
The trouble is that such ringing seems to produce little more than additional noise. These acts of iconoclasm—though effective in grabbing attention—win few converts. Indeed, as many have said in response to Just Stop Oil’s crusade against art, it risks alienating people from the very message that the iconoclasts are trying to get across. As the British broadcaster Andrew Marr tweeted, “Right. They’ve absolutely lost me. Forever.” And that was one of the kinder reactions.
The least that might be said for these misguided and possibly counterproductive efforts is that the artworks chosen, notably Sunflowers and Les Meules, are symbolically apt. As depictions of the beauty of nature by two of history’s greatest painters, they offer visions of a world that is increasingly imperiled in the future we are barreling toward. If we are so upset at seeing only the theatrical destruction of these artistic renderings of nature, we should be able to extend the same sympathy for the destruction of the real thing.