On March 10, 1914, Mary Richardson entered Room 17 of the National Gallery in London and pulled a meat cleaver from her sleeve.

Richardson grew up in Belleville, Ontario. In England, she was an art student and a journalist, and an active campaigner for women’s voting rights. That’s what brought her to the gallery. She smashed the glass around the 17th century Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez, then slashed the painting. Her actions were a protest against the treatment of Emmeline Pankhurst, a fellow suffragette who had been imprisoned.

After her arrest, Richardson made this statement: “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas.”

One hundred and nine years later, on Nov. 6, 2023, two climate activists used hammers to smash the glass protecting Rokeby Venus, which still hangs in the National Gallery.

They understood the significance of the target, referring to the original attack as they talked to the gallery patrons: “Women did not get the vote by voting. It is time for deeds, not words. Politics is failing us. It failed women in 1914 and it is failing us now.”

Paintings and protests are both forms of expression – and people have often used art as a focal point for their protests.

In recent years, a series of climate activists have taken up that approach. They’ve glued their heads to Girl With a Pearl Earing by Vermeer in a museum in The Hague, tossed mashed potatoes at Haystacks by Monet in Potsdam, thrown tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London, smeared a black, oily liquid on Klimt’s Death and Life in Vienna, and splattered soup on Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in Paris.

Attacking major works of art is guaranteed to garner publicity, but is it an effective strategy?

Why museums are targets

Last year, an opinion piece in the journal Art in America explored the phenomenon under the headline “Why Climate Protestors Should Keep Targeting Museums”.

The author, Michael Wang, is an artist himself. He said the activists don’t intend to cause material damage to the work, as the art is protected. Yet he suggests the response to the attacks is instructive.

“All these works benefit from a nearly consensual agreement that each is a masterpiece,” he wrote. “Their hyper-visibility lends social drama and social meaning to the activists’ interventions. The works – often described as ‘priceless’ by journalists – are focal points of cultural and monetary value. They are, therefore, the exact points where these values might be called into question.”

Wang argues that the sense of endangerment the protests elicit compels us to wrestle with what we value. One of the activists who threw soup at Sunflowers said this: “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”

Many people, even those who are deeply concerned about climate change, don’t like these stunts. But Wang does. “I see value in these acts. By hijacking the attention we pay these artworks, the activists’ gestures have triggered public conversations around fossil fuels and climate that would not have happened otherwise, redirecting attention where it is badly needed.”

He added that while preservation is among a museum’s main roles, they should also be a space for public discourse. Moreover, Wang notes that the International Council of Museums has stated that museums are perfectly positioned to address issues of sustainability as part of their mission.

The activists, though not law-abiding, have taken that to heart.

You can’t golf on a dead planet

Paintings aren’t the only high-profile target of climate activists.

Earlier this month, two people were arrested after spraying orange corn flour on Stonehenge in England (they said it would wash off in the rain).

Days later, six protesters ran onto the 18th green of the Travelers Championship, a PGA golf tournament in Cromwell, Connecticut. They disrupted final round play after they let off smoke bombs that left powdery residue on the putting surface. The protestors wore shirts that read “No golf on a dead planet”.

Just a month earlier and 24 km away in Hartford, protestors at the Travelers annual meeting had urged the insurance giant to stop providing insurance for fossil fuel projects and investing in fossil fuel companies.

You’d think insurers would take heed. In 2023, global insured losses from natural catastrophes topped US108 billion, reported the Swiss Re Institute. This March, they stated that “insured losses could double within the next 10 years as temperatures rise and extreme weather events become more frequent and intense.”

After police tackled the protesters at the golf tournament, the crowd start to chant “USA! USA! USA!” An odd response, until you remember that the U.S. emits more than 6.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. Although China is the world’s largest climate polluter in pure volume, the U.S. emits twice as much per capita.

Workers cleaned the powder off the green with leaf blowers, which was a fitting coda to the protest. Environment America, a research and policy centre, says fossil fuel-powered lawn equipment – leaf blowers, lawnmowers, weed trimmers and snow blowers – emit more than 30 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s equivalent to the carbon pollution of 6.6 million cars.

Peter Singer, a professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, says that climate activists who make mischief in galleries and museums shouldn’t be condemned. And not just because they stop short of actually damaging the art. In a column last year, he wrote that society has historically honoured protesters who broke the law to advance a good cause.

“Eco-activists can properly claim that their non-violent civil disobedience is justified by the failure of our democracies to show sufficient concern for the interests of future generations,” wrote Singer. “Like the suffragettes more than a century ago, today’s young people have no voice.”

Paintings are an art form. And so is protesting.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Connect with me here on LinkedIn, check me out at foxmancommunications.com or follow me on X (formerly Twitter) @StuartFoxman where I share these blogs too. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

June 26, 2024

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