Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: Did the Protest Work?
Emma Duke, Staff Writer
On Oct. 14, you may have heard of an event where protesters threw a can of tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. But what was the purpose of the protest? The act of protest, while divisive on several fronts, seems to have set both the art world and mainstream media on fire. Whatever the aim was, few doubt its effectiveness at grabbing the attention of the collective consciousness.
The actions of the two young protesters from Just Stop Oil, an organization dedicated to preventing climate change, are controversial worldwide. Critics question the protests for its unclear aim and how it relates to climate change. Some people predict that they threw the can because Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is made of oil paints. Others have pointed out, however, that the binding agent in oil paintings is linseed oil, which is made of plants. This is unlike the petroleum in the superglue they used to glue their hands to the floor in the latter part of the protest, and one protester’s pink hair dye and nail polish, which are both made of crude oil.
The protest becomes questionable if the protesters themselves are using petroleum products, the very oil they are protesting against, while throwing soup at a piece of art that was not made of crude oil. This was not the only way that the activists were hypocritical. During the protest, Phoebe Plummer, one of the activists, speaks to the cost-of-living as well as the hunger and poverty that many face; wasting a can of soup to make a point about food insecurity seems counterproductive, however.
Initially, when people didn’t know that the painting was covered in glass, people were outraged that a Van Gogh painting had been destroyed. Though Sunflowers is protected by a layer of glass, and the protesters did no damage to the painting itself, much of the controversy surrounding the protest is regarding the fact that it was Van Gogh’s painting that was the subject of the damage for other reasons.
After all, couldn’t they have found a painting that demonstrated their point about climate change more effectively? As mentioned earlier, one of the aims of the act was to address food insecurity and high cost of living. Some argue that it is offensive to involve Gogh in the protest when he himself lived a lifetime of poverty and suffered much throughout his life.
The demonstration by the activists mostly garnered negative media attention and reactions from the public. Is a protest effective if it makes people angry at your organization? Well, maybe. Isn’t any publicity good publicity? The Guardian, New York Magazine and Global News are just a few examples of news organizations that have picked up the story. The press and attention that throwing a can of soup at a Van Gogh painting has received worldwide perhaps makes the protest a success.
Isn’t the point to bring attention to an issue? I, for one, searched the organization Just Stop Oil. The environmental activist group is receiving more publicity and website clicks than ever before, drawing people to their organization and awareness to their cause. While personally, I side with those who are not in favor of the protest, I cannot argue the point that their actions triggered discussions. Whichever side you’re on, you probably have a strong response either way–it either makes you mad, or you are passionate about your support for the demonstration. Personally, I can’t think of another example of a protest that has provoked such strong emotions in people.
I am a firm believer that this protest would have been more effective if it was executed differently. I still struggle to understand the point and how their actions were related to the issues they were protesting. I, along with many others, believe that they were hypocritical in their demonstration. I don’t agree with what they did, but I am writing an article about it, and perhaps their goal was just that — the attention they knew they would receive.
It is true that the outrage over the apparent destruction of a Van Gogh painting felt stronger than the outrage society tends to express towards the impending issue of climate change, and perhaps that speaks to their point as well: do we care more about art or life?
The following questions remain: will this piece of news, like many others, quickly become forgotten and irrelevant? Will our strong emotions about the demonstration, whether we are passionate in anger or support, lessen and ultimately fade? Alternatively, will the protest spark change?
What happens now?