At the pinnacle of vandalism and protest movements, the alteration of art by groups of public protesters is as old as the art itself. Intertwined with the history of colonization, slavery, and the battles that entailed, public art on the street corner, in museums and other public buildings are often in front of the storm.

Is this form of dissent by angry protesters against people in public monuments and public museums leading to a new understanding of artwork, or is it removing the irrelevant and making room for what should be?

One often wonders if it’s part of the process of making circumstances politically relevant. In some cases, it can be an annoying act committed by a rogue, but more often it is a criticism of the context in which the artwork was commissioned and created. 

   Tourists look at the damaged ‘Dirty Corner’ installation by British-Indian sculptor           Anish Kapoor at the Palace of Versailles, near Paris, France   

Art defacement is a form of protest when statues are toppled, paintings are vandalised or public art is sprayed with protesters’ graffiti. Historically, we have read about conquerors shattering statues in the city they have won over. We have, as humans, been making monuments to glorify people and ideas since we started making art, and since we started making statues, other people have started tearing them down.

In recent years, we have seen many organisations, individuals vandalise paintings and robberies take place in museums around the globe, the most recent one is where members of the “Just Stop Oil” appeared to glue themselves to the wall adjacent to Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ and threw a “red substance” at the painting.

This organisation isn’t alone in these series of shaken-and-stirred acts. Some of them are Extinction Rebellion (XR), Insulate Britain and Tyre Extinguishers in the UK, Blockade Australia and Fireproof in Australia, Ultima Generazione (Last Generation) in Italy, Letzte Generation (Last Generation) and Rocks in the Gearbox in Germany, Återställ Våtmarker in Sweden, Declare Emergency in the US, Save Old Growth in Canada, Renovate Switzerland, Stopp Oljeletinga! In Norway, Dernière Rénovation In France.

All these groups wish for the masses to understand the implication of our ignorance towards the climate crisis. However their ways of protests have led to division amongst the public; some consider their radical ways as a form of eye opener while others feel that they have gone to extremes involving art, tomato soup, mashed potatoes and glueing their scalp or hand on the walls

 ‘Just Sop Oil’ protesters glue their hands after throwing a “red substance” on Van Gogh’s sunflower painting.

Just Stop Oil activists have succeeded in garnering public attention, and the most recent incident, which happened in The Hague, is the closest to the pattern of active protests going on. As one person glued his hands onto the glass of Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and another poured out a can of tomatoes, campaigners asked viewers how it feels to see something beautiful at the risk of harm. They followed that with questions like, “Do you feel offended? Good,” and “Where is that feeling when you see the planet get destroyed before our very eyes? 

However, the link between their actions and climate change is not very clear.

The groups have framed their efforts as campaigns of nonviolent civil disobedience, intended to draw people’s attention to the climate crisis and what activists say are their government’s woefully inadequate efforts to cut emissions. But the more specific goals of the protests differ.

In Germany, the stunts have centred on demands to cut speed limits on the country’s highways to 100 kilometres per hour (62 miles per hour) and to make public transit more affordable. Increasing use of public transportation and lowering speed limits for passenger vehicles would decrease vehicle emissions and cut fuel consumption.

While shutting down roadways certainly gets the attention of local commuters and civil authorities, the recent art stunts—both of which were filmed and posted on social media—are also clearly aimed at an international audience, with the purpose of shocking people out of complacency as emissions rise and the window to avert catastrophic temperature increases grows smaller. 

“We are in a climate catastrophe and all you are afraid of is tomato soup or mashed potatoes on a painting,” shouted Mirjam Herrmann, speaking in German, after splattering the Monet. “When will you finally listen and stop business as usual?”

According to the organisation, “This action is intended to evoke a reflex response, forcing people to experience emotion about the potential loss of a masterpiece. “When you think about it, that’s what we’re dealing with,” she said. “The loss of all that we love.”

Furthermore, we need to understand that such actions are not as fruitful as they look.These recent forms of protest have been met with backlash by the masses as well. DW, an independent media house conducted an unrepresentative poll asking their followers how they felt about acts of civil disobedience like the Monet mashed potato incident.

Of the 491 people who answered, 22% said they raised awareness and helped. But 56% said such acts hurt the climate movement.

According to Robb Willer, a professor of sociology and social psychology at Stanford University in the US and an expert on social movements, some severe forms of protest can weaken public support for a cause.

According to Willer, rallies involving property destruction typically draw a negative response from the public. They might be good at getting attention, but if people have negative impressions, such attention might not be beneficial. 

In the end, we need to understand paintings have been vandalised in the name of art, to protest against the government or to express disappointment over a perceived mistake since the beginning of our civilisations and will keep on happening as we proceed further.

Has there ever been even a slightly positive consequence from art vandalism of any kind and for any cause? Probably not. Have the perpetrators ever profited from the act? Yes, on many occasions.

In one of the recent cases, a Frenchman dressed as a woman, pretended to be disabled and proclaimed his concern for the planet, while strangely calling on artists to heed him. Besides making a mockery of the disabled, the man achieved little with this stunt, certainly not what he claimed to be his motive –climate change awareness. 

There are a myriad of ways in which climate change is being tackled and awareness spread. That man did nothing to advance the cause. Instead, the only coherent parallel between his act and his cause that can be drawn here is the cowardice with which the act was carried out.

Radical ways of protests are surely useful in the initial phrase of protests, they help in raising awareness for the issues but if done in extreme measure they might alienate the cause and reduce public support.

How the public perceives protest behaviours largely stems from a common sense of right and wrong, and extreme actions such as threats of violence, major disruptions, or inflammatory rhetoric tend to be viewed as immoral.

And when the public perceives something to be immoral, it provokes the public to care less about the issue and the protesters’ might even face backlash.

Activists may use moderate protest strategies to avoid offending the general public. Alternatively, if a movement is just beginning to get traction, activists may at first engage in extreme activities to bring attention to their cause before turning to more subdued strategies to keep the public’s support.

We all live in a global village where this connectivity has proven to be a boon and a bane depending on the circumstances. When actions like this take place we should look past all the noise and see the actual cause. With so much distraction present around us, it is easy to get lost but keeping our head straight and having an unbiased point of view allows for a clear understanding of all the situations taking place.


 FY (B.Sc Economics)

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