Arts & Culture

The fallacy of “Artivism”: Van Gogh x Tomato Soup 

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“What is worth more? Art or Life? Is it worth more than food, worth more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” 

As the world economy continues to sleepwalk towards its seemingly inevitable doom, climate activists’ desperation to save the planet is amplifying – and has found novel forms of expression. 

From civil life to the life of art 

While protests on highways conventionally involve glue, a new wave of protests has reached the art galleries too: Van Gogh tasted tomatoes and Monet mashed potatoes; meanwhile “this is too radical”, so the debate goes. 

First, the “Sunflowers” in the National Gallery, targeted by Just Stop Oil in London, then the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, a protest claimed by Last Generation. For months across Europe, climate activists have been gluing themselves to artworks with global resonance.  

– Attention-grabbing, captivating, prompting both outrage and applause internationally, the question is: why target art? 

Choose one: Art or Life? 

That art per se is an effective tool to sway public opinion is surely not a novelty. Yet rather than leveraging paintings as communication means – in the old Banksyesque fashion – the Van Gogh dissidents raised an unprecedented ultimatum: never have protesters compelled their audience to choose amongst art or life. 

For if art emanates from liberation, how could there exist a dichotomy between them? Certainly, art does not exist without life, but conversely, what is life without art? An intrinsic expression of life, art can demand justice, and even so-called “climate justice”. 

Just Stop Oil has failed… twice! 

Alas, Just Stop Oil’s attempts to advance climate policies have been a twofold failure. 

Related:  Monday Briefing 27/03/2023

First, the choice of action: art exhibited in a museum bears the inherent symbolism of preservation. In this vein, public outrage following the protests discredited the activists’ reproach; that some removable tomato soup on a priceless painting was more concerning than climate change. Indeed, rather than unmasking preposterous priorities, climate activists unveiled that the public’s values were coherent with theirs: that the idea of preservation, rather than eradication, remains a pertinent one.  

The second erroneous assumption was that their protest would ignite a comprehensive discourse on the urgency to take climate action. Conventionally, shocks can act as an accelerator for change: if years ago, the causes of Fridays For Future arousing fury and mockery on the international landscape, they now constitute an inherent part of many governments’ agendas. But today’s artivism, as part of a broader wave of organised protests of civil disobedience, blatantly failed: discussions following the tomato soup incident addressed anything but climate change: on democratic participation, the value of art, and on political extremism – rather than, for example, the latest UNEP Emissions Gap report

To listen to the language of nature 

While often tasteless remarks about the radicality of climate protests surface – for some, Just Stop Oil propagates a novel form of terrorism! – we ought to ask ourselves: why art? As the pink haired Van Gogh activist reasoned in an email to The Times, “it isn’t the language of painters one ought to listen to but the language of nature”, quoting the Dutch artist himself.  

Radicality is met with radicality 

Yet for some, the apparent destruction of art is reminiscent of sinister times: a handful of German politicians claimed that activists were targeting freedom of expression, drawing ludicrous comparisons with the collective annihilation of art under the Nazi regime.  

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Naturally, somewhat agitated activists responded that lingering inaction on climate policy made recourse to traditional political participation futile. According to their rationale, underneath the façade of seemingly radical acts lies an even more radical doom: the unrelenting reality of climate change.  

On the freedom to be free

The irony is that both parties, those targeting art, and those condemning that, are essentially in a quest for divergent freedoms: critics deem their freedom of continuity – or complacency? – imperilled by climate activists and their demands. For them, changes of radical nature should occur not by countering social and political institutions but by inviting them to act. 

The Van Gogh dissidents’ dimension of freedom, however, is one that is more profound, if not much more radical: it is a both intergenerational and intertemporal antecedent. It is the freedom to be free – the Arts’ conditio sine qua non? 

Paint, draw, compose! 

The even greater irony, perhaps, is that the arts are an inherent source of expression that alternates our perception of society. That is, in any endeavour to provoke social change, the life of art is not an antagonist, but a tool for expression.  

So, to all climate activists: use it – paint, draw, compose!  

And to the Van Gogh dissidents: the life of art contributes to bringing food, bringing justice. Art and life, in conjuncture, can protect the planet and the people.  

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