Sunflowers & Tomato Soup: “What side are you on: Art or Life?” – A litmus test for society

1. Summary

On Oct 14, 2022, “Just Stop Oil! ” activists threw tomato soup on van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” painting in the National Gallery in London. They used art as a focal point of attention in human society to illustrate the impact of the climate emergency (“No art on a dead planet!”). By this highly controversial act of civil resistance, they also forced people to choose sides whether it was appropriate  to instrument  expensive artworks in civil resistance actions to fight for climate action (“Art or life?”).

While critics suggest to target civil resistance actions to “bad actors”, such as the fossil fuel industry, current numbers of activists and forms of protests have not had any substantial impact on policies and media attention is focused on other simultaneous crises (e.g. war in Ukraine, Covid-19, inflation, crisis of democracy, …).  Therefore, in a situation, where a majority of society is distracted, willfully ignorant and/or passive but urgent, massive climate action is required to prevent climate breakdown, such an action is considered appropriate to stimulate attention and trigger an evaluation process of the situation and appropriate action of members of the current passive majority.

PS: The National Gallery stated “There is some minor damage to the frame, but the painting is unharmed.” [3]

2. What happened?

On 2022-10-14, Activists of the climate movement “Just Stop Oil!”, which is based in the UK, has thrown two cans of tomato soup on the painting “Sunflowers” by famous painter Vincent van Gogh at the National Gallery in London (UK) [1]. The painting is valued at 86 millions Euros in 2022. The National Gallery announced that the “There is some minor damage to the frame, but the painting is unharmed.” The incident immediately stimulated a massive reaction by mass media (eg New York Times [6]) and social media (e.g. Van Gogh trending in Sweden with 291K tweets) and a controversy about the action. In the following, I will discuss this action, and draw the conclusion that the action is effective and justified to promote the demands of the group:

  • Choose life over art!
  • Just stop oil!
  • Free other activists! (#FreeLouis #FreeJosh)

in the context of the overarching goal of stopping climate and eco breakdown and the collapse of human civilisation.

Figure 1: Original publication of the action by Just Stop Oil! at the National Gallery, London

3. Cons

The action has been criticized, often based on initial impression that the painting  was harmed or even destroyed. This act on the painting, which is not only extremely expensive but also considered an artistic masterpiece  and, thereby, and important part of human cultural heritage, thereby, created a shock reaction in the mass media and social media. The actions were negatively labelled as “stupid” or “harmful” to the climate movement scaring away present or potential supporters. In a humorous way, a twitter user summarized the reactions in a “Soupy painting bingo” (see Figure 2) [4], many of which can be categorized as “argumentum ad hominem” or “argumentum ad absurdum” fallacies, which miss the overarching objective of the action. In the addition, there were framing attempts to setup the activists as wasteful, elitist, bullies and vandals, who pour “expensive” tomato soup on the painting of a “poor” artists, who was “ridiculed” for his artwork by contemporaries, and “destroyed” the painting.

Figure 2: Soupy painting bingo

There were also climate scientists, for example, Prof. Michael Mann, who were not supportive of the action [5] (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Negative comment by climate scientist Prof. Michael Mann

4. Pros

On the other side, the action received also positive reactions in the mass media and social media, including raising funding for the “Just Stop Oil” movement by some people. Immediate positive consequences are:

  1.  Massive attention in the mass media and social media for
    1. the activists
    2. the “Just Stop Oil!” movement
    3. the “Sunflower” painting by Vincent Van Gogh
    4. tomato soup by “Heinz” company
    5. the damage of fossil fuel (oil) production and consumption on the climate
  2. Dramatic images
  3. A metaphor for the destruction of (cultural) value by climate breakdown (“No art on a dead planet!”)
  4. A point of conflict (“litmus test”) to stimulate a discussion on societal values
  5. Minimal physical damage (to painting itself and otherwise)
  6. Minimal psychological damage (some “shock” element to the public)

The method of activists to works of art has multiple aspects: Artworks are the focus of great attention in a society, especially of the (super)rich, upper class and also represent great economic value in a comparatively small object. In addition, inanimate cultural artifacts with great financial value stand in sharp contrast to animate natural beings with no value which they they receive in human culture. Of note, these artifacts have no direct relevance for the survival of humans or other forms of life and are purely based on the construed value in human perception (from a constructivist perspective).

In addition, other leading climate scientists like Dr. Eric Holthaus  [6] supported the action (Figure 4):

Figure 4: Supportive comment by climate scientist Eric Holthaus

While some climate scientist point out that protests and actions should be directed at the bad actors, e.g. fossil fuel companies, others point out that it is also the silent public majority who stands by passively during a climate and eco collapse who is a bad actor (Figure 5). Climate activists desperately need the help of a larger part of society to be able to substantially influence policies.

Figure 5: Comment by climate scientist Kimberly Nicholas

5. Conclusion

While the long-term efficacy of this and similar types of civil resistance actions remain to be seen, the short-term effects of the “Art or Life?” action by “Just Stop Oil!” at the National Gallery in London are in my opinion positive as an effective method to direct attention in mass media and social media towards the climate emergency. In spite of the  “shock” element of the action, the physical harm done to the painting and otherwise was minimal.

The activists use art as a focal point of attention in human society to illustrate the harmful impact on climate breakdown (“No art on a dead planet!”)  and raise a question about fundamental values in our society “Art or life?”. The activists, thereby, force the citizens to choose which side they stand on as a litmus test of public opinion.  The silent and passive public is an important supporting factor of the current catastrophic climate policies, and, therefore, can also be considered a bad actor.

6. Postscript

Michael Mann published a study on the effect of the Soup-on-Sunflowers protest by Just Stop Oil in an US-american sample and found the following results [10]:

A plurality of respondents (46%) reported that these tactics decrease their support for efforts to address climate change. A whopping 27%, in fact, said they greatly decrease their support. Only 13% reported increased support.

An extensive discussion on the action logic of protests by activists discussing the “activists’ dilemma” [9], that “On the one hand, radical actions can bring greater attention to a cause, but they can simultaneously reduce support for that cause.”