That painting, that soup

On October 14th 2022 two young activists, just 20 and 21yrs old, from Just Stop Oil threw a can of tomato soup at Van Gogh’s The Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. “What is worth more, art or life?” they asked. “Is it worth more than food? More than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”. 

There was a huge outpouring of anger and disdain immediately after the protest. “I’m struggling to understand why destroying a painting of sunflowers done by Van Gogh, an impoverished man who was marginalised in his local community due to his mental illness, is the right target to make a statement about how awful the oil industry is” read one tweet, which has been liked over 100 thousand times. Others also bemoaned how the protest took place, questioning why that painting, why in a gallery that is not funded by fossil fuels (anymore), some even questioned why a can of soup. A friend tweeted that they were disappointed at the lack of clarity and confidence in how the young people in the video spoke about their cause, describing it as “meh”. Mostly critics discussed how this sort of protest was not how you should get people on the side of your cause.

For me, the criticism of these young people’s protest doesn’t hold. There was clearly a lot of thought into why that painting and why that gallery. Van Gogh painted seven versions of The Sunflowers, and a further five versions of sunflowers exist from a previous period of his work. Margaret Thatcher requested a private viewing of the painting at The National Gallery, but mistakenly called the flowers “chrysanthemums” (no one corrected her) during her time as prime minister, it holds a certain place in our social psyche. The painting itself sits behind glass and was intended for a wall in Van Gogh’s studio, as he had a vision of his studio walls being covered in sunflowers. The painting was never really meant for public consumption, but for Van Gogh’s own private space. All of this adds to the narrative of why this painting was chosen to be sloshed with soup: it is ultimately protected and no real damage to it will be done, there are six more similar sunflower paintings so the painting itself is not completely unique and it was never meant for this level of public consumption. Yet here we all are outraged at this act, despite us consuming this art for decades in ways that Van Gogh himself didn’t intend. 

The gallery choice too feels important. If this act had happened at any other British Institution that receive funding from fossil fuels (a list of which can be found here), it would be siloed into a discussion about the arts and oil. ‘Greenwashing’ is the term which refers to oil companies and other conglomerates using the arts to signify their businesses as ‘good guys’. By choosing a gallery that does not have these ties, the conversation is opened and not siloed into just the arts sector.

The criticism that acts of protest must be done which encourages the public to sympathise with your cause is also absurd (if you are on the side of a dying planet then you’re on the wrong side of history). The historical protests we hold dear, the suffragettes, the Stonewall Riots even the protests that followed MeToo have all been criticised by those on the wrong side of history as protesting the wrong way. In 1914 suffragette Anne Hunt slashed a painting at the National Portrait Gallery, at her trial she argued the artwork would be “of added value and of great historical importance because it had been honoured by the attention of a militant”. The suffragettes went on to target dozens of art works stating “We have tried all other ways… We have been too ladylike in the past. Now we are going to fight”. The desperation the suffragettes felt, feel echoed in the desperation of those two young people we heard proclaim “What is worth more, art or life?”.

And to their credit, for the first time in years every newspaper is talking about what’s happened. When has there ever been multiple news stories about the climate crisis across media outlets? 

A few months ago, I wrote an article for The Skinny about the importance of hope. In it I talked about Rebecca Solnit’s incredible book Hope in the Dark. In the article I wrote “The sparks of hope are bewilderingly bright when you are used to the darkness of pessimism. In fact, so bright they can push you into action.” I felt those sparks watching that incredible video. I could hear the pessimism about the world’s future trembling in the two young activists’ voices as they spoke, I could almost feel the adrenaline pumping in their blood and making their hands shake. Their acts weren’t one of idiotic vandalism, they were acts of hope.


Comments (18)

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  1. Meg Macleod says:

    Respect……..where does disrespecting something beautiful become justified..

    What is lacking in the world is respect for environment ..sentient beings…each other
    Is the only way attention can be achieved to disrespect something else????
    It was a desperate attempt to wake people up……alas the people whose attention is needed to do the right thing will not pay attention to this act of defiance

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    Except we’re not talking about climate change, we’re talking about the actions of spoilt brats who think we should all believe as they do and the timescale they dictate.
    All they are generating, in the minds of rational people, is disdain for their pathetic behaviour, complete disregard for others and their arrogance to refuse to raise their case in a reasonable manner that would encourage real debate.
    This painting was glass fronted. As they think they have the right to escalate their actions to ensure they grab headlines, then every painting and artwork will have to be presented behind protection of some sort. We’ll no longer be able to get close to artworks to wonder at each brushstroke, each sculpting of the palette knife, each nuance of the artist.
    As for climate change it’s happening. It’s always happened. It will continue to.
    We’re all aware we should live cleanly on our planet and clear up the mess we make. Oil is already being phased out as technology offers better solutions.
    These despicable criminal cowards should be directing their protest as those who restrict progress, or before the 1700 coal fired power stations in China, or those in the US, India etc. rather than the soft targets they choose. They’ve changed nothing by their actions, nor will they.
    Meanwhile, we’ll take the action we know is necessary and will do so at the speed and level that doesn’t damage the economy and thereby plunge hard pressed ordinary folk into penury and poverty.
    Because that’s what grown-ups do.

    1. Philippa Tomlin says:

      Didn’t they say the exact thing about the suffragettes?

      Terrible mothers!
      (God forbid) lesbians!!
      Reckless behaviour!

      They got talked about. And so did their cause. It’s important we listen, instead of name calling.

    2. John Learmonth says:

      Quite, why is the so called ‘green movement’ so incredibly posh?

      1. Wul says:

        I realise you are simply trolling, rather than genuinely seeking information, but here’s an answer to your question (at least in part) anyway:

        The phenomenon of middle class revolution or activism would surprise economists more than political scientists and historians. As argued by Francis Fukuyama, it is typically the newly prosperous and educated middle classes that exert pressure on governments by participating in collective actions, such as demonstrations, protests, or even revolutions and demand for reform and a higher quality of governance, such as better public services and less corruption. The other side of the same coin is that the poor are usually passive politically.

        In other words, the politically disadvantaged (mostly the poor) are inclined to hold politically cynical views about how their country is governed, and remain skeptical about what would be brought to them by political movements.

        1. 221022 says:

          ‘The other side of the same coin is that the poor are usually passive politically.

          ‘In other words, the politically disadvantaged (mostly the poor) are inclined to hold politically cynical views about how their country is governed, and remain skeptical about what would be brought to them by political movements.’

          Almost spot on, Wul. However, the scepticism of those who are marginalised and disadvantaged in relation to the bourgeois activists who dominate decision-making in the public sphere, both in our assemblies and our extra-parliamentary political movements, is at least potentially our greatest advantage insofar as it leaves us free of ‘colonial’ interference to actively develop and invest our own social capital in voluntary association. There’s a wealth of DIY political activism ongoing in marginalised and disadvantaged communities, outside of the ‘normal’ forms of politics, organising food banks, time banks, warm banks, baby banks, school banks, credit unions, and many other forms of mutual self-help. And as the crises of capitalism deepen, so too will the values of solidarity to which those crises give birth flourish and thrive – again, outside the ‘normal’ forms of politics.

  3. Squigglypen says:

    Who is paying these kids ?
    How do they survive? Have they got a job…who supports them…????
    I’m too busy scrabbling to pay my energy bills everybody else..must be great to have the time and resources to
    engage in games that will grab headlines.

    I do hope no relative of yours R. Priest was stuck in an ambulance possibly gravely ill and unable to get to hospital because of these shiny happy people glueing themselves to major roads to save the planet.
    For Scotland!

    1. Wul says:

      It’s a piece of canvas with some paint on. V.G. probably sold it for beer money.

      You’d probably have used the same argument against the Suffragettes who gained you your vote. “Blocking the pavement, chaining themselves to railings, scaring the horses….wasting busy people’s time”.
      These people care enough to risk their freedom, a criminal record, a police beating, their employment prospects. They should be supported. (by the way; ambulances have blue lights, priority over every other road vehicle, reverse gears, steering wheels. Hospitals usually have more than one route to their door)

      1. 221021 says:

        Van Gogh’s problem was that he couldn’t sell his work, even for beer money. It was only in retrospect that connoisseurship admitted him to the canon of ‘great artists’, thereby making his work so highly marketable.

        BTW My patient transport had a helluva job finding a route to get me to my hospital appointment on Monday past, due not to street theatre, but due rather to the poorly coordinated scheduling of several planned major roadworks.

        But at least the roadworks will issue in positive outcomes. What difference will the street theatre make?

  4. WT says:

    Hello Rosie. I can understand why you wrote this article, but like so many of these ‘movements’ these days they seem more about the self than about the issue. You say that the two people involved were ‘just 20 and 21yrs old’ your use of the word ‘just’ suggests that you too recognised this as the work of two rather naive people who put idealism before reality. If you think that feeling strongly about something is an excuse to do a piece of vandalism, then I would say you have to be on the side of ISIS destroying the Temple of Baal in Palmyra – at least they saw this as a temple to a false God and thus an afront to Allah and the teachings of their religion. The group Just Stop Oil itself is another Johnny come lately to environmental issues, if these newcomers want to do something useful to stop the use of petrochemicals, then, perhaps, they should look to older voices such as Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace for some advice. We wouldn’t be where we are just now without the work of the groups from the 80’s. We seem to live in an age where publicity and outrage, fuelled by social media and fed by poor analysis and reportage, are more important than really doing something about it. Outrage and anger, being on the right side of history are more important than the issues themselves. It is a sad country we live in today where activism has been relegated to fire on social media and soup on a painting. Are we so banal these days that we need personalities such as Greta Thunberg and organisations such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain? Can’t we do something more constructive?

    1. What would be more constructive than stopping the annihilation of our environment?

      1. 221020 says:

        But they’re not stopping the annihilation of the environment, are they, Mike?

        1. No, they are not, they are just helpless powerless citizens trying in some desperation to call attention to the dire situation we are in.

          1. 221020 says:

            Indeed! The ‘right-wing media’ is full of it, scaring us sh*tl*ss, paralysing us with fear, and scapegoating ‘others’. I don’t think anyone can remaining unaware of the impending apocalypse, given all the publicity its been given by all sides in the competition for hearts and minds.

            Everyone’s at it. The only difference lies in the ‘saviours’ that the various interested parties respectively punt.

  5. 221019 says:

    What the protest highlighted for me was the degree to which art has become fetishised in our society. The protesters are being accused of a kind of impiety in so disrespecting an artefact that we’ve come to idolise. The fetishisation of art is worthy of such iconoclasm in itself.

    However, the protest was more subtle than that. The protesters were asking why, in our scale of values, social and environmental justice doesn’t enjoy the same idolisation that a signature work of an artistic brand does.

    And it does make you think, doesn’t it?. Should we be idolising ‘the environment’ in the way that Van Gogh’s Sunflowers are idolised? Isn’t the nature fetishism we see as a cultural phenomenon of late capitalism itself part of the problem? As a form of reification, doesn’t nature fetishism present its value as inherent to the object itself and not arising from the interpersonal relations that produced nature as ‘nature’, as an object, over and against ‘man’; not, that is, as an ideology of capitalism? Shouldn’t we equally be throwing tins of soup at giant pandas and nature fetishists like David Attenborough?

    1. Paddy Farrington says:

      Or at some commentators on Bella, whose clever (ir-)rationalisations are perhaps not always as harmless as they might first appear?

    2. Wul says:

      “…Should we be idolising ‘the environment’….”

      It’s a hard thing to live without.

      1. 221020 says:

        It is indeed, Wul. But my question is more about the attitude we assume towards it (and ourselves) in our work.

        [Hint: I’m thinking of Marx’s critique of the dichotomy between ‘man’ and ‘nature’, which (according to him) lies at the heart of bourgeois humanism as an ideological expression of our alienation of the world under capitalism, and of his prophetic vision of a ‘higher’ form of life (communism) in which that dichotomy is overcome, in which ‘nature’ is humanised and ‘man’ is naturalised, in which the environment becomes my own embodiment rather than an object outside myself, in which ‘I’ doesn’t end at the surface of my skin but extends to encompass the whole unfolding universe.]

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