Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Why throw tomato soup at a Van Gogh painting?

Last Friday, two "activists" for Just Stop Oil threw a tin of tomato soup over the very famous painting of Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh which was hanging in the National Gallery.

Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland of Just Stop Oil at the National Gallery
Just Stop Oil supporters throw soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers to demand no new oil and gas.

Two supporters of Just Stop Oil have thrown soup over Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, as actions in the capital roll into the 14th day. They are demanding that the UK government halts all new oil and gas projects. [1]

The two women walked into the room in the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, in which the ‘Sunflowers’ is hung and at 11am threw the contents of two tins of Heinz Tomato soup over the painting which has an estimated value of $84.2 million. [2] 
Just Stop Oil Press Release

What's different about the new forms of extreme activism?

The main difference is that
  • they target art - rather than objects and places associated with the activity they object to (as Greenpeace used to do).
  • those perpetrating vandalism appear to have no knowledge of the artwork they're attempting to damage.
  • they attack oil paintings without realising the oil has nothing whatsoever to do with petroleum - see my previous post Just Stop Oil is both destructive and IGNORANT!
  • they appear to be very ignorant of the way their activities can antagonise rather than engender support.
For example, the Van Gogh is a very valuable and high risk painting. It's therefore covered in glass to prevent either accidental or intentional damage.

Apparently the two protestors did not know this and so far as they were concerned they were going to damage a much loved and irreplaceable painting valued at nearly $100million - to highlight the fact art is protected but not people whose lives are grossly affected by climate change.
Social media lit up with anger against the protesters, as media pundits, culture warriors, and progressives briefly united, in a rare show of solidarity, to condemn the protesters, accusing them of “alienating” the public, and damaging the environmentalist movement. Why Did The Van Gogh ‘Sunflowers’ Protest Inspire Such A Hysterical Response? | Forbes
They assert (in An Interview With Just Stop Oil | Frieze) that they use non-violent direct action tactics - and yet they have both been charged with "criminal damage" and "aggravated trespass". They threw two tins of Heinz tomato soup all over the painting and damaged the frame.

The women pleaded not guilty to criminal damage at Westminster Magistrates’ Court during a brief hearing on Saturday.

The Suffragettes also attacked paintings

They're on more sound ground by pointing out that there is precedence for attacking paintings for a cause. They highlight that Suffragettes attacked paintings
The painting took at least five slashes with a meat chopper. Its attacker, Mary Richardson, a suffragette who later became a disciple of the fascist Oswald Mosley, was protesting against the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst. "Slasher Mary", as the press dubbed her, later admitted that it wasn't just the picture's value - £45,000 in 1906 - that made it a target. It was "the way men visitors gaped at it all day long.  Rokeby Venus: The painting that shocked a suffragette | BBC News
  • In total 14 pictures were slashed and nine women arrested between March and July.
The statements made by the women in self-justification and the reactions of public and government demonstrate the political and social importance of works of art and their powerful symbolic status. The attacks received widespread publicity at first and were almost universally condemned. Why Did Suffragettes Attack Works of Art?  | Rowena Fowler Journal of Women's History

See also Slashing Venus: Suffragettes and Vandalism | Womens Art Tour

So - bottom line- artworks are being attacked - then and now - because they have powerful symbolic power.  

What happens next?

Last Friday, Van Gogh's Sunflowers was cleaned and rehung in the Gallery......

This week a new Public Order Bill completed its passage through the House of Commons and has now passed to the House of Lords. I gather approaches to protests will be changing in future....

My own view is that there are better methods of protesting than through destruction. Artists are actually rather good at the alternatives.....

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