Will Throwing Soup at Art Stop the Climate Crisis?

No ... but that's exactly the point.

A woman looks at Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers painting at the EY Exhibition: Van Gogh at Tate Britain in London.

Stuart C. Wilson / Getty Images

When I first heard about Just Stop Oil climate activists throwing soup over a Van Gogh, I was on vacation in the mountains of North Carolina. I had briefly snuck away from family activities to peruse my Twitter timeline, back before the bird app descended into its current chaos. And that’s when I saw footage of the action, accompanied by a fellow "climate person" I deeply respect lamenting what he saw as an attack on beauty, art, and culture.

“Beauty, art and culture are what we are fighting for,” was his (somewhat paraphrased) take on these shenanigans. 

My gut reaction was to agree with my friend. I have attended my fair share of protests over the years. And some of them have been disruptive and even illegal. Yet I am enough of a product of my middle-class English upbringing to get uncomfortable if an act crosses the line into—gasp!—impoliteness or —shudder!—inconvenience. And while I am deeply scared for future generations in an alarmingly warming world, I am also scared for generations in a world where art, reason, and intellect sometimes seem to be playing second fiddle to spectacle, rhetoric, and outrage. 

So, stepping back into the family vacation, I fired off a somewhat tweet with some X-rated language expressing my disapproval. 

The thing about gut reactions, though, is that they are not always particularly well-reasoned. When I returned from my vacation and started digging back into the debate, I read other climate people, who I respect equally as much, defending the protesters. Or, at least, reminding the rest of us that universal approval or civil discussion isn’t necessarily the ultimate goal for young people who are fighting for their future. 

And in interview after interview, Phoebe Plummer, one of the protesters, explained that they weren’t particularly surprised by the fact that some people reacted negatively to the protest. According to Plummer, though, the acts against art are intended to outrage, as they are intended to be a proportional response to a government that continues to put its own population in danger: 

It’s a fair and articulate point. And it’s a good reminder that rarely in history have disruptive protests been welcomed or universally lauded at the time. Whether it’s the rebels at the Boston Tea Party throwing cargo into the sea or suffragettes breaking windows in their fight for the vote, violence against property has played a role in popular movements that are, in hindsight at least, viewed by majority culture as being on the right side of history.

Phoebe Plummer, NPR

Since October, we have been engaging in disruptive acts all around London because right now what is missing to make this change is political will. So our action in particular was a media-grabbing action to get people talking, not just about what we did, but why we did it.

And as R.H. Lossin reminded us in The Nation during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, even the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, who has been posthumously celebrated by the establishment for his nonviolence, was far more nuanced in his views on property damage during the civil rights era than our culture might have us believe:

“Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking.… Alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights.” 

So does all this equivocating mean that I’ve come full circle and now support the throwing of soup at art? Not really. The Van Gogh action still left me feeling, like the soup, somewhat cold.

The soup attack in London isn't an isolated incident. In the time since, other pieces of work have been targeted by activists, including "Girl With a Pearl Earring" in the Hague, Netherlands; "The Scream" in Oslo, Norway; Goyas in Madrid, Spain; a Warhol painting in Canberra, Australia; a Klimt painting in Vienna, Austria; an Emily Carr painting in Vancouver, Canada; and a Warhol-designed art car in Milan, Italy.

Where I’ve landed is that my opinion on that particular action is really not the point. The point is that I 100% empathize deeply with young people who feel lost, betrayed, and deeply disillusioned with empty promises and slow progress that will, in the best-case scenarios, still leave millions of people to die. 

Would I have picked a different method of protest? Yes. Would I have been deeply annoyed if I had traveled to see a painting and had my visit ruined by angry young people? Probably. But also, do I have any idea what action (or actions) will be the ones that finally push our culture into taking this crisis as seriously as science would demand? There, I can say unequivocally, that I do not. 

Civil disobedience is, as the name suggests, inherently a strategy of breaking rules. With that rule-breaking comes consequences. But that, also, is the point.

Because practitioners of these strategies deploy them with full knowledge of the criminal penalties that might be coming their way. By placing their bodies and, potentially, their freedom on the line, protesters are forcing the rest of us to look at issues we might otherwise be willing to ignore.

If the amount of time that I and others have spent discussing their motivations is anything to go by, then the Just Stop Oil protesters can call their actions a success. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are plenty of other figures in society who are actually deserving of my outrage.