Alienating Our Allies

I’m sure that most of us have seen the video of climate activists from the organization “Just Stop Oil” throwing cans of soup at one of Van Gogh’s priceless masterpieces. This incident ignited internet-wide debates over the morality of this protest, and whether or not these activists were harming their cause. The message was clear: we value works of art higher than we do our planet. If what they intended to do was accentuate and highlight what we value in society, they definitely achieved their goal. However, if instead, they wanted people to be cognizant of how their values shape their treatment of the environment, they failed, horribly. Generally speaking, polarizing demonstrations are just that, polarizing. There are always people that support the cause, but not the demonstration itself, and then people who are just patently against anything having to do with the cause, and of course, everyone in between. What I think these activists did, more than anything, is create a unifying experience, that quite honestly, backfired. However, their message and their intent were in the right place. They succeeded in uniting people around a cause, just the wrong one. 

To be clear, they were actually unable to harm the painting itself, because it had a shield of protective glass over it, but the soup did damage the frame. By defacing a common cultural artifact, the demonstrators proved their point that we as a society care more about a piece of art than our planet. The message, and the intent, I understand. It sometimes seems that people have such a total and complete disregard for the environment that drastic measures are needed. We need something so shocking that it wrestles our attention away from other issues. Something that also makes us completely and wholly devoted to a different cause. Their method was flawed, but their messaging remained relevant. They got a big, violent reaction from all sorts of different people. Art fanatics, regular citizens, even members of the climate community condemned their vandalism of Van Gogh’s work. Others defended their work, and argued that their intent matched the impact: that people cared more about a destroyed painting than our dying planet. The fact that the activists highlighted the irony is undeniable. However, it is harder to understand a show of defiance in the face of environmental destruction when the defiance was itself destructive. Personally, it felt a little unnecessarily outlandish. I thought that there might have been better ways to express their frustration and the urgency of the climate crisis.

By defacing a beloved piece of art, these activists effectively alienated their allies. People who were once willing to aid the climate cause were disgusted by their vandalism, and skeptics were pushed further, instead of being thoughtfully convinced of the relative merits and importance of saving our planet. The range of reactions created a situation in which people were more angry about the vandalism itself instead of the message behind the vandalism. People who were supportive of the activists were suddenly caught in the crossfire. People who condemned the activists were unable to separate the intent and the impact. They created a situation in which people were so flabbergasted that a priceless piece of art was defaced, that they were unwilling to recognize, in a sense, that the demonstration had worked. 

It made me feel a sense of urgency and a kind of existential crisis dawned on me. The activists were right. I cared more about painting than I did about my home. I realized both the importance of their demonstration and the drastic consequences of their controversial rebellion. The effectiveness of this demonstration provided, for some people, a moment of thoughtful reflection, and revealed with startling clarity the irony of the scandal. I was in this group. I was looking at TikTok comments, and I realized that the activists were right. People were so concerned with a piece of art that they had completely lost sight of the fact that our planet is quite literally dying. 

In this case, the drastic measures had even more polarizing results. Internet controversy, one of the most common and prevalent forms of peer pressure and public condemnation, is a relatively easy thing to achieve. But oftentimes, it is founded in the small things, small details that are misremembered are misquoted. However this scandal proved a larger point, and was indicative of a larger movement. Essentially, it got a reaction because it needed a reaction.