ON FEBRUARY 28, 1974, Tony Shafrazi walked into the Museum of Modern Art in New York and spray-painted kill lies all in red across the achromatic surface of Picasso’s Guernica (1937), in protest of United States atrocities in Vietnam. The next day, his action appeared on the front page of the New York Times, as he had intended: Shafrazi had notified news agencies in advance.
On October 14, 2022, nearly 50 years later, Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland walked into the National Gallery in London, opened a can of tomato soup, and splattered it across glass protecting Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1889). The duo then smeared superglue on their palms before affixing them to the wall below the work. Plummer, whose voice was quivering with emotion, demanded: “What is worth more? Art or life?”
The gesture, planned by the activist group Just Stop Oil, was a call to arms against the fossil fuel industry. The action immediately went viral. News reports invariably called it—as well as similar subsequent interventions—an “attack.” Museums, one after another, have continually condemned the “endangerment” of artworks, while being careful not to denounce the activists’ politics. As climate protests in museums have proliferated, debates have focused on the “cost” of these actions, while ignoring the urgency of the activists’ appeals. Similarly, the Times called Shafrazi a “vandal,” but made no direct mention of Vietnam.
If these truly were attacks, the injuries sustained by the artworks were ephemeral. MoMA conservators scrubbed the spray paint from Guernica’svarnished surface by the end of the day. The National Gallery cleaned and rehung Sunflowers within six hours. The climate activists deliberately targeted the work’s protective glass and frame, not the painting itself. Materially, this doesn’t constitute an attack on the artwork at all; rather, both gestures are political performances that operate primarily within the symbolic sphere.
BUT WHEREAS SHAFRAZI had intended to reactivate Guernica’s antiwar message, to make the painting feel as urgent as it had during the Spanish Civil War, climate activists like Plummer and Holland understand artworks as inseparable from a larger social world. Their action was less about Sunflowers as a painting and more about the value and function of art within economies of attention and exchange.
And yet, the art media quickly questioned: why Sunflowers? They asked the same in the many subsequent cases: Why Monet’s Haystacks? Why Degas’s Little Dancer? Why Laocoön and His Sons? Protesters offered various explanations, but the common denominator is clear: all these works benefit from a nearly consensual agreement that each is a masterpiece. 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.
The sense of endangerment that these actions elicit forces us to reckon with the matrix of values in which the works are suspended and upheld. Plummer asked onlookers atthe National Gallery, “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” As might be expected from any challenge to the status quo, many museumgoers reacted negatively. In the recordings from the National Gallery, you can hear hushed cries of “Oh, my gosh!” and an urgent call for security. Climate protesters acting outside the rarefied context of the museum tend to elicit even stronger reactions. In a video of a Just Stop Oil action at the Chelsea Flower Show, an indignant onlooker doused protesters with a sprinkler until restrained by a uniformed guard.
Some climate activists (or climate-aware non-activists) fear alienating the non-activist public with acts of civil disobedience. They prefer to maintain an institutionally sanctioned and law-abiding public face. But as an artist who engages climate change in my own work, 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.
DESPITE CRITICISM TO THE CONTRARY, Plummer and Holland have expressed reverence for Sunflowers. Holland showed up to their court appearance in a Sunflowers T-shirt, and the duo has described an imagined solidarity with Van Gogh. In a Frieze interview with Andrew Durbin, Plummer opined: “Van Gogh said, ‘What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?’ I’d like to think Van Gogh would be one of those people who knows we need to step up into civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action.” In the same conversation, Holland championed the series’ beauty and iconic standing. The activist duo’s unlikely pairing of symbolic violence and aesthetic beauty is what granted their gesture its potency.
Preservation is one of the museum’s chief functions, but it has also long served as a space for discourse, a public arena for democratic debate. In 2019 the International Council of Museums controversially proposed a new definition for museums that began: “Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures.” While this line was ultimately excised, the body agreed in 2022 that museums must “foster diversity and sustainability” and invite community participation.Actions like throwing soup on Sunflowers have succeeded in reasserting the museum as a political space. The dissensus that makes these events so uncomfortable to observe (the heckling, the disconnect between activist and onlooker)is part of what gives these encounters a strongly political dimension: antagonism must be part of democratic processes in a deeply divided world.
A Forbes opinion piece headlined “Will Hurling Tomato Soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Advance Climate Policy?” by Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash takes a typical position of agreeing with the protesters’ message but questioning their methods. Then, they go on to delineate a list of policy changes that they see as truly actionable.
The very existence of the piece proves that museum actions opened the door to conversations around climate, creating a global audience that far exceeds those present when two activists glued themselves to a museum wall.
These are the questions the protesters want us to ask: should, and will, governments grant new licenses to extract fossil fuels? Will governments meet decarbonization targets? Will they set timelines that avoid, or mitigate, life-threatening environmental effects? All governmental actions taken to date have been far too modest. Immediate and radical change is necessary.
To unsympathetic observers, the anger embedded in activists’ gestures can seem like an excess of feeling. But that anger is rooted in real suffering and loss. As I write, tens of thousands have been killed by flooding in Libya, a disaster caused by a lethal combination of infrastructural failure and unprecedented storms. After a raging wildfire, Maui remains a scorched wasteland with close to 100 dead. Smoke still trails from Canada where millions of acres of boreal forest have burned over the course of a single summer.
Ironically, the enormous scale of these climate-fueled disasters makes them hard to see and easy to dismiss. At a recent Extinction Rebellion march, I overheard a woman, turning away a flyer, hit back with: “Save the bloody world? No thanks, not today. Maybe tomorrow.” I make art that confronts climate change because I believe art can make the invisible visible, the unheard heard, and the unsensed sensible. Similarly, museum climate protests harness art’s power to unveil.
WHILE I BELIEVE these actions have been successful, I don’t think they are replicable. The actions that have the most staying power are the ones that have appropriated particular artworks in peculiar ways. The orange tomato soup created an image, temporarily, that looked as if Van Gogh’s blossoms, or his oils, had melted in the heat of the Arles sun. This bit of visual play surely helped rocket the event through the algorithms. The activists’ youth (Plummer was 21, Holland, 20) was certainly another important factor. Other similar gestures (pea soup on Van Gogh’s The Sower, black oily drips on Klimt’s Life and Death) have not generated quite the same scale of response. The protest must go on, but it will take on new sites and new forms.
Among the dozens of museum interventions carried out over the past year, another stood out to me for the artwork it engaged. In August 2022, activists from the group Ultima Generazione carefully planned an action involving Umberto Boccioni’s 1913 Futurist icon Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. Four group members glued their hands to the plinth supporting the bronze sculpture to avoid touching the work itself. They called not only for an end to new fossil fuel permits, but also for government-led expansion of renewable energies.
To me, the Futurists represent the very birth of fossil fuel modernism: they celebrated speeding automobiles and soot-cloaked cities, studded with smokestacks. But the Futurists were not ignorant of the dangers of the dawning machine age: their fiery fete was, also, a dance of death. The Futurists’ calls to tear down the old museums seem at first glance to presage recent museum eco-actions.
Climate activists meticulously stage events in ways that limit harm, suggesting a very different attitude toward artistic heritage. Environmental activists are, after all, making a plea to preserve the world. The Futurists’ radical program of historical extermination—and giddy embrace of the breakneck thrills of a machinic future—are precisely what environmental activists are countering. For them, what has become radical is to oppose a profit-driven ethos of endless appetites and infinite garbage heaps. The Futurist vision, with all its destructive drives attached, has become our world.
I recently visited Sunflowers in London and sensed a fresh energy among the crowds descending on the work. Following in the footsteps of Guernica in 1974—a year after Picasso’s death and a year before Franco’s—Sunflowers had just recently made headlines. Beneath it, I could make out two patches of fresh paint on the slate-blue walls, where Plummer and Holland had affixed their hands, and what may have been a tomato stain on the varnished floorboards. Amid an urgent global crisis, it’s easy to dismiss the role of art. But this unforeseen confluence of art and activism confirms that art has shaped and will continue to shape social and political responses to the climate emergency.
This article appears under the title “Soup & Sunflowers” in the Winter 2023 issue, pp. 40–42.