Throwing soup at a Van Gogh? Why climate activists are targeting art

When Georgia B. Smith recently walked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art on June 24, she felt nervous. The 34-year-old wasn’t there to admire 18th-century paintings alongside New York City’s summer tourists; with red marker on her hands and black tape on her mouth, she was there to disrupt. 

Smith is part of a growing climate activist movement whose protests center art and museums. Since at least May 2022, environmentalists with groups like Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion have been using cake, soup, paint, and glue to capture the attention of museum visitors—by marking the glass protecting art pieces and attaching themselves to the frame or wall surrounding them. Each time, their message is simple: there is no art on a dead planet. 

But these climate activists say they have no interest in damaging art. Instead, they want to raise awareness about the climate emergency and attract new members. By at least one measure, their approach is working: Smith became involved with the New York City chapter of Extinction Rebellion only after protesters began focusing on museums. She had marched peacefully in defense of Black lives and women’s rights, but she had never put her body on the line—not until Extinction Rebellion. 

“I saw this action at an art museum… and it was a controversial action, but I know why they’re doing this. I feel the same desperation these people are feeling,” Smith said.

Calling attention to climate change

Everyone is affected by the planet’s rising temperature. July kicked off with the Earth’s hottest week on record. Meanwhile, marine heat waves are driving mass death of ocean creatures. Wildfire seasons are intensifying, leading to unprecedented air quality warnings. Farmers are struggling to grow food as soils either dry out from too little rain or wash out from too much. The result? Famine.

While the protests’ provocative nature has drawn mixed public reactions, organizers don’t plan to change gears anytime soon—especially after the federal government criminally charged two of their peers for smearing red paint on the glass and frame of a sculpture at the National Gallery of Art in May. 

Smith and about 19 others gathered in the Met that June morning to stand in solidarity with Joanna Smith and Tim Martin, the activists charged.

“Bringing the climate emergency to people’s attention should be something society rewards, not tries to punish to such an extreme degree,” said Shayok Mukhopadhyay, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion NYC who helped organize the protest.

The group stood before “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”—a bronze statue similar to the same wax sculpture for which Joanna Smith and Martin now face up to 10 years in prison—with their hands colored in red marker and their lips covered with black tape. White words were stamped on the tape: “HEAT,” “WILDLIFE,” “FIRES,” “DEATH.” Georgia Smith’s lips read, “FAMINE.” 

What’s the purpose of art in a global crisis?

Climate protestors say they are taking to major museums, in part, because these cultural institutions aren’t telling these stories. In fact, museums like the American Museum of Natural History and Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum have been pressured in recent years to cut the funding they receive from fossil fuel companies, the greatest contributors to global carbon pollution. 

“The function of art is for people to be able to understand the world that they live in and reflect on the human condition, but big art isn’t fulfilling that function,” Mukhopadhyay said. “That’s the reason for us to be in museums: to tell people that we are in the middle of an emergency, and it is the time now for you to face that emergency.”

Climate change is also itself a threat to art: Leading cultural institutions, the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, outlined in a June report the need for “immediate action” to address climate change given how it threatens cultural heritage sites, art collections, and institutions. 

Museums, however, say these protests are attacks on priceless artworks. “We unequivocally denounce this physical attack on one of our works of art,” said National Gallery of Art Director Kaywin Feldman in a statement after Joanna and Martin threw paint at the “Little Dancer” exhibit.

However, Favianna Rodriguez, an artist and climate justice activist, supports these organizers. As the president of The Center for Cultural Power, which uses art to inspire action on societal issues, Rodriguez views the protests themselves as a form of art. “Protest is like theater,” she said. “It’s the creation of a counter-narrative.”

She hopes the protesters can bring more optimism and solutions into their actions. She also wants to see participants take an intersectional approach to climate protests and call out the museums for the ways they’ve historically exploited communities of color. She notes that the marginalized groups most likely to be impacted by climate change are often the most misrepresented in major museums. 

“A lot of these museums are holding things that were stolen during colonization—sacred, sacred objects,” Rodrigeuz said. “These places are not just contested by climate activists. There’s been a lot of contestation around their collections, how they’ve collected, and what kind of point of view they have shown.”

Will these protests make a difference?

Miranda Massie, founder and director of the Climate Museum, isn’t worried about her institution being protested next. “If museums want to protect themselves against these interventions, then they can do that very effectively by actively engaging with the climate crisis in their programming,” she said.

She supports the activists and is frustrated by the bad press surrounding their actions; Massie worries this coverage may alienate the general public.

One survey published in November of last year suggested public support of climate protests may dip after demonstrations such as pretending to deface art. A larger set of data suggest the art museum protests might be an effective call to action, though it’s too early to tell.

Dylan Bugden, an assistant professor of environmental sociology at Washington State University, researches the way people interpret social movements. Every movement is different, which creates challenges for making generalized statements, but Bugden’s findings have shown that peaceful, nonviolent protests can resonate with people who believe in climate change. He’s not sure that would be the case with something as disruptive as throwing soup in a museum, but he doesn’t believe such actions would cause harm, either.

“When we talk about climate change activism and social movement strategy, what really matters is not a one-off protest event and catching people’s attention here and there,” Bugden said. “It’s building grassroots activism and organizations that can mobilize people to vote, to protest, to take action. Building that kind of coalition is what it will take to do something about climate change.”

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