Glue and Food: Is environmental activism in museums actually working?

October 14th: two activists by Just Stop Oil’s coalition throw two cans of tomato soup on the protective glass of a painting and glue themselves on the frame. The painting, part of Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers series, stays undamaged, except for the frame itself. In a few minutes, the video goes viral, every media talks about it, and every newspaper writes flash articles about the two young protesters.

The activists’ idea was to raise awareness among people that, while they were contemplating that piece of art, the world was collapsing on itself because of climate change.

This was not the only action performed by environmental activists in museums. The act of sticking themselves to artworks seems to be a constant, not only by Just Stop Oil but also by related groups of protesters. In summer, two Italian activists by Ultima Generazione did the same thing targeting Botticelli’s Spring, and just a few days later “the soup protest”, activists by Letzte Generation glued their hands on Claude Monet’s Les Meules after throwing mashed potatoes on it.

What happened in London, Florence, Potsdam, and most recently in Amsterdam, testifies that this is a well-connected and organized net of people united by the same purpose: doing non-violent protests to tell us that, if we don’t act right now, we won’t be able to guarantee ourselves a future on this planet.

But why are they using museums for their protests? Why are they mostly targeting some of the most known art masterpieces in history? First of all, it is good to repeat that, since the moment I’m writing this article, activists used glue and threw food on glass-protected artworks. Seeing their perspective justifies their actions not only by the symbolic meaning of the action itself but also by the fact that none of these pieces was actually damaged. On the other side, if we think about what Just Stop Oil is fighting against we might believe that a protest such as the one they did in Rome to block the car traffic could be more suitable to convey their message.

Coming back to our first question, this short video posted on JOE’s magazine YouTube channel can help us answer it.

According to Just Stop Oil what they’re doing is then purely symbolic. We shouldn’t ask ourselves why museums but mostly: why are we not acting against climate change? Why are we not having a conversation about it? What they’re doing is ridiculous and they’re well aware of that but it’s just a way (a very impacting way) to break our life stream.

Why are they targeting art history masterpieces then? Because it’s part of their visual communication strategy, which, in the case of Botticelli’s Spring and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers worked particularly well. The point is to create a social shock for people so they can stop and listen to what Just Stop Oil is saying.

The problem with this approach is not that they’re destroying or they’re attempting to destroy art, but the fact that this is the only thing that people around them and people who watched the video on social media think about them. Basically, now everyone hates Just Stop Oil. Now, it is legitimate to consider that even bad publicity is, in the end, publicity, but not if you’re trying to speak to people about such an important issue.

In general, what Just Stop Oil, Ultima Generazione, and all the related groups are showing is a total lack of empathy for people. If you need to convince such a wide audience that your message is worth listening you should speak directly to them and not to other activists who already know what they’re fighting for and what they’re fighting against.

If we look at the latest environmental activists’ actions, without biases or limitations we can realize that the problem is not the method but the communication of it. Just doing shocking actions is not enough if it’s not followed by good communication. And yes, the activists actually stand there to explain their actions, to explain their point of view, but nobody is really listening to them, nobody really cares about what they’re saying because they’re just too busy thinking: “how dare you?”.

It is necessary to speak about climate change and it is necessary to make people aware of the impact they’re having on this planet, but we, as human beings and part of the problem, need to figure out the right way to do it and we probably need something more reasoned than sticking each other to artworks. 

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