Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers" painting in London. (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)


Opinion: Soup does not belong on paintings

Climate activists protest fossil fuel companies and global warming by carelessly throwing soup on historic paintings, thus diminishing the true meaning behind the movement.
<a href="" target="_self">Tara Malhotra</a>

Tara Malhotra

January 19, 2023
Climate activists have taken on a new form of protesting fossil fuel companies since October of 2022. Is it gathering with signs outside of their local government building? Is it writing powerful social media posts? Both options are wrong. They are throwing soup at famous paintings and gluing themselves to walls.

The first protest to do this took place in early October 2022. According to The Atlantic, it all started when two people visited a renowned Vincent Van Gogh sunflower painting in London. They removed their jackets at the painting, revealing shirts that read “Just Stop Oil.” Just Stop Oil is the name of the organization they represented; their goal is to stop the British government from funding fossil fuels. The protestors then threw tomato soup at the painting and glued their hands to the surrounding wall.

Unfortunately, this protest was only the beginning. Nine days later, a German organization called Letzte Generation sent two activists to throw mashed potatoes at Claude Monet’s “Haystacks” painting and stick their hands to a wall. The same events were repeated once again with more Just Stop Oil activists, who poured tomato soup on “Girl With a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer. In this demonstration, one member of the group even glued his head onto the painting.

Shane Sahadi, an art teacher at Brentwood School, gives perspective on the paintings and their relation to the protests.

“These paintings are one of a kind, so for the protestors to target a painting — when there are other things they could have targeted to make their point — it’s just terrible. If something gets destroyed, it’s not going to solve the issue that they are protesting about. It’s a very dominating mindset to destroy these paintings to make their point,” Sahadi said.

Although I appreciate the global warming awareness the protestors were trying to accomplish, I cannot think of a more ridiculous way to get the message across. The protests caught the media’s attention, earning headlines in The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. However, I believe the extreme stunts did more harm than good for climate activism.

The first issue with the protests is how damaging they can be to the climate change image. Throwing acidic liquids at priceless paintings from centuries ago is simply a recipe for disaster. On top of that, gluing yourself to a crime scene causes a bigger problem. These harmful actions alienate the activists, and it seems like they have no care for conservation when the opposite is true. People then associate these disturbing displays with destruction and negative emotions instead of inspiration to reverse climate change.

The second issue with the ostentatious protests is they overshadow the true message. One of the key elements of raising awareness is to reach a large audience. But, these protests are so misguided and absurd that they become a media spectacle and people disregard their purpose. Rather than focusing on taking action in their everyday lives, author Lucy Whelan told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that people mainly talked about the random events in a lighthearted manner. What was once an important point about stopping global warming became a shocking, entertaining story.

David Hernandez, a history teacher at Brentwood School, touches on the significance of protesting in a meaningful and beneficial way.

“Protesting can mobilize or organize people to rally around a common set of values or cause. It tends to amplify the voices and experiences of people that might be less represented. Also, bringing awareness to such causes — when successfully done — can evoke change,” Hernandez said.

While good intent was behind these protests, it was lost in translation through bizarre actions. Barely anyone will remember the essential purpose behind the tomato soup and glued hands. It will mostly be recalled as an insane incident managed by ruinous people who wanted to destroy valuable artifacts for attention. If we want to truly have a positive impact and encourage people to do their part in combating climate change, we need to arrange harmless protests that clearly communicate the message. Otherwise, our necessary concerns will never be understood and there will be no true improvement in fighting global warming.

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