The Climate Art Vandals Are Embarrassing

Aesthetics matter in politics. But not like … this.

Illustration of a framed landscape painting with a splash of paint patterned like the Earth
Getty; The Atlantic

Earlier this month, two young people visiting room 43 of the National Gallery in London shed overcoats to reveal T-shirts printed with the name of their activist group, JUST STOP OIL. Then they poured tomato soup across one of Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings, turned around, and glued their hands to the wall. “What is worth more: art or life?” one of the activists asked. “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”

Then it happened again, and again. Last weekend, two activists associated with Letzte Generation, a German climate-activist group, splattered mashed potatoes across a Claude Monet painting of haystacks on display in the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, and glued their hands to the wall. This morning in The Hague, another pair of Just Stop Oil protesters mixed it up: One activist appeared to glue his own head to Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, and the other poured tomato soup over him.

If these protests outrage or upset you, well, that’s the point. As one of the German activists put it: “We are in a climate catastrophe, and all you are afraid of is tomato soup or mashed potatoes on a painting.” The protesters want to piss you off, because, hey, why aren’t you just as pissed off about the climate crisis? Climate activism has entered its shock—or is it schlock?—era.

But set aside that somewhat sociopathic logic for a moment. There’s something poignant and undeniably resonant about the first two incidents in particular, in which activists raised in the 21st century attacked some of the most famous cultural heritage of the 19th century. Climate change, after all, implicates a particular vision of middle-class prosperity—a vision of paved roads, bustling factories, and coal-fired power plants—that took shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And the impressionists, who stood in sunlit fields and on Parisian balconies and captured the feeling of industrial modernity breaking into the world like a yolk from a shell, are as linked to that vision as the automobile. No wonder climate activists, the rebels of this century, are targeting them.

That doesn’t justify the vandalism. Nor does it resemble how the activists themselves have talked about their actions. The aim of Just Stop Oil and Letzte Generation has been to wheedle people for not caring more about the climate crisis. Yet even if one were inclined to defend their tactics—and argue, for example, that the activists showed admirable restraint by choosing to defile paintings that were protected by a pane of glass—the protests still fail on their own terms.

James Ozden, a researcher who runs the Social Change Lab, in London, is one of the most prominent early supporters of the protests. In a widely shared Substack post, he has argued that empirical evidence supports the approach—or at least does not suggest that it is harmful to the broader fight against climate change. Just Stop Oil epitomizes what he calls the “radical flank effect,” “where more radical factions of a social movement can increase support for more moderate factions.” He cites a handful of studies showing that radical flanks may increase donations, mobilization, and political support for the moderate arm of a movement.

But when I looked closely at these studies, they didn’t seem to have much bearing on the soup protests. In an experiment from one of the studies that Ozden mentions, researchers asked online respondents about their views on animal cruelty, had them read accounts of a “radical” and a “moderate” activist group’s views and protest tactics, and then polled them on their views again. The moderate-group account described a campaign of peaceful mass protests against factory farming, and the radical-group account described something far more disruptive: Vegans had blocked traffic and “doused streets and meat-delivery trucks with the blood and entrails of animals slaughtered in factory farms … and in some cases advocated violence against animal farmers.” The online respondents said they thought better of the moderate factions after reading about the radicals. (This is, I should note, not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement of radical tactics.)

Ozden also refers to a study from last year, which included an experiment comparing the effects of two different protests against racist policing. In the first, Black activists held peaceful marches and sit-ins; in the second, “a large portion of the African American community” refused to pay tickets and fines to the police. The study found that white people who identified strongly with being white were more likely to endorse concessions to the movement after reading about the latter protest. The lesson of both studies, according to Ozden, is that a mix of disruptive and conventional protest tactics can work better—in the sense of increasing support for the broader cause—than the standard activist repertoire of demonstrations, sit-ins, and marches can alone.

But even if we stipulate that finicky social-science experiments have something to tell us about politics, Ozden isn’t making the point that he thinks he is. In the experiments described above (and in almost all of the others cited in his blog post), the “radical” activists directed their aggressive and even violent tactics toward the group causing their grievance. The animal-rights radicals targeted meat and leather producers, for instance, not elementary schools. The Black activists went on a ticketing strike against police departments, not the IRS. And the radical climate activists in another experiment advocated for violence and vandalism against fossil-fuel companies, as opposed to impressionist painters, museum curators, or members of the art-viewing public. (Even before the mashed-potatoes-on-Monet incident, Ozden wrote a follow-up post recognizing that the first protest may have lacked an “action logic”—a harmony of tactics and target that would help onlookers understand its nature and purpose. “I’m quite unsure if it was overall good or bad for the climate movement,” he wrote.)

This lack of connective logic has irked many otherwise sympathetic climate advocates. “Regardless of whether you think protests like this are effective or not—and as a climate scientist, I’ve spent 30 years on this issue, so my sympathies are with the protesters, of course—I find it weird to target museums and nonprofits that help all of us,” Jonathan Foley, the executive director of the climate nonprofit Project Drawdown, told me. Foley is an influential environmental scientist who has studied the planet’s ecological boundaries and deforestation, but he also knows something about museums: From 2014 to 2018, he led the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco, one of the largest science museums in the world. And the protests worry him.

It’s true that the targeted paintings were protected by glass panes—but those panes aren’t designed to protect against seeping liquids (or whatever mashed potatoes are), Foley said. They keep out ultraviolet light and dust. Nor are museum-security staff prepared for the challenge of patting down every potential visitor for wayward appetizers, which is what insurance companies will now likely demand, he said. Furthermore, because staging protests at art museums has now happened a few times, he said, every art museum could see its insurance and security costs increase by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Museums may also put paintings—and even sculptures—behind the kind of boxlike cases that today protect only a few world-famous works, such as the Mona Lisa.

“You’re hurting organizations that are often in debt, that are often struggling financially,” he said. And he rejected the connection that some academics have made between the art world and the wealth inequality that fuels climate change: “People say, ‘It’s fancy art for billionaires.’ But no, the billionaires keep their art in their homes, and it’s insured. You’re not hurting them by doing this. You’re hurting the public.” Climate activists and museum workers are “on the same team,” he insisted: They’re both trying to preserve a priceless intergenerational gift for the public. “I don’t understand, in the name of preserving something we cherish, damaging something we also cherish.”

So we don’t know that the protests are effective, and we do know that they’re likely to cause financial problems for many museums. Here I will add my own concern: The activists look so silly. Food-throwers at the targeted museums attached their body to the wall under a painting, or to the painting itself. This required some anatomical logistics: Each activist had to remove a hidden tube of superglue from their pocket or bra, grasp it with one hand and twist off the lid with the other, then carefully squirt out the adhesive. It is awkward to describe; it is even more awkward to behold. There is no dignified way to squeeze a tiny bottle of superglue. Aesthetics matter in politics: Think of Che’s upward-and-to-the-left gaze on a T-shirt; a civil-rights protester’s head held high against police dogs in a black-and-white photo; or even the arc of a Molotov cocktail through the air. The soup-and-superglue movement fails an important test of youthful, radical politics: It does not look cool.

The activists’ stated rationale—that they are calling out the public for caring more about art than the climate—is just as awkward. If you and I were standing next to, say, a tranquilized horse, and you punched the horse, I would probably say, “Stop punching that horse!” I might even try to get you to stop. It would be highly irregular for you to respond, “Why do you care about this horse more than climate change?” The answer is, I do care about climate change, but right now you are punching the horse. Leftists sometimes resent mainstream economists for imagining trade-offs where none actually exist. But that’s exactly what they have done here.

And yet, the kids mean well, right? When you’re thinking about a problem as consequential as climate change, it’s tempting to grade for effort. Well, these activists really care about climate change, and it’s such an important issue … shouldn’t we listen to them? But the story of the past 40 years, the thing that the activists say they resent, is that politicians have claimed to fight climate change for decades and have met only occasional success. Getting angry about climate change is the easy part; actually finding ways to cut carbon emissions, to disrupt the fossil-fuel-powered economy that has dominated since Monet, is something else. The soup protests don’t make sense, aren’t obviously justified by bank-shot social science, and—worst of all—they look bad. Humanity is already doing enough to tarnish its precious inheritance. We don’t need extra help.