Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” is actually not more important than the future of our planet


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Photo of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” painted in 1889

Bianca Ring, Opinions Editor

On Friday October 14, climate activists Anna Holland and Phoebe Plummer threw a can of soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in the National Gallery in London. NPR’s Halisia Hubbard says the activists are members of Just Stop Oil, a climate action group based in the UK. “What is worth more, art or life? … Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet?” asked the activists. The general public had a definitive answer: art is worth more than life. 

The protest sparked outrage among other supporters of climate activism, many of whom argued that the protestors set back the movement by targeting a beloved historical artwork that had nothing to do with climate change. Matt Taibbi, an author and contributing editor for Rolling Stone, tweeted that “Anyone saying this is a statement about “affluence and excess” is also being disingenuous. Throw soup at a CEO’s sports car, then. Society devotes resources to art because it’s absolutely worth protecting — in fact we don’t spend nearly enough on it.” This sentiment is understandable to an extent, considering the museum workers who need to clean up the soup aren’t the ones in charge of climate laws or perpetuating the use of oil.

However, destroying the property of a private individual like a CEO is a much different story than targeting a painting in a museum. The protest was done as a way to bring attention to the movement, not for the purpose of angering the National Gallery in London, and certainly not to destroy the painting itself. A small amount of damage was done to the frame, but Julianne McShane of NBC News reports that no harm whatsoever was done to the painting itself. Vandalizing property of the owner of an oil corporation would potentially require even more laws to be broken, without the benefit of media coverage, which was the entire point of the stunt in the first place. 

How would protesting by damaging a CEO’s property pan out for the protestors, and what would be the lasting impact of this action on the climate activism movement as a whole? The results of damaging a sports car, for example, would end in an enormous fine at best, and actual prison time at worst, depending on the circumstances. Not to mention, the idea that a CEO would be set back in the slightest by this form of protest is delusional. For example, Darren Woods, CEO of Exxon Mobil, currently has a net worth of $24 million. Even if you took a sledgehammer to his car instead of a soup can and completely destroyed it, he’d hardly bat an eye at the cost of replcing his vehicle. It’s foolish to think that damaging his property would hurt him financially in any way, nor would it persuade him to shut down his company or start producing clean energy. 

The rush to defend the frame of Van Gogh’s sunflowers by so-called fellow activists is confusing to me from a wider perspective, considering how little attention is given to not only climate disasters, but other instances of extreme protest comparatively. 

Last Friday, climate activists threw soup at the protective glass of a painting. The media was outraged, and twitter was exploding with people condemning the actions of these two women. October 14 is almost seven months after the events of April 22, outside the U.S. Supreme Court Building. You’d think anyone so outraged at the vandalism of a painting would be even more appalled by what happened on April 22, 2022. Wynn Bruce, a climate activist from Colorado, set himself on fire at the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court Building. The New York Times reported that Wynn was a Buddhist who was apparently imitating the deaths of Vietnamese monks who burned to death to protest the Vietnam War. He later died from his injuries. 

Where was the media outrage then? Where were the people screaming about that man’s life being as important and priceless as a painting? The soup protest was meant to bring attention to the fact that so many people care more about a piece of art than human life, and the protesters succeeded in doing just that. The public death of a man resulted in barely any social or political change, not to mention the thousands of lives that climate disasters have already taken. Film critic Noah Gittell puts it well in his tweet: “The response to the soup/Van Gogh incident kinda proves the activists’ point. People had an immediate emotional reaction to the desecration of art, but we let the daily desecration of our planet slide.”

Anyone who cares about climate change and is so quick to defend a literal panel of glass in favor of what they think are more effective forms of activism need to either suggest a truly better way to get the world’s attention, or take a step back. Decades of peaceful marches, political campaigning, protestors chaining themselves to the equipment of oil corporations, and even a man setting himself on fire has landed us here: in 2022, with millions of displaced, homeless, and dead people globally due to the effects of climate change, and an even grimmer forecast for natural disasters in the near future. Maybe humanity can afford to take a little damage to an old wooden frame if it means the world actually starts paying attention to climate activists.