Art attack: contextualising the latest trend in climate activism

Climate activists have embraced a new polarising form of protest: vandalising art. Anthropologist Tijo Salverda talks about the goals and perceptions of these protests and the role of radical action in activist movements
Two activists from Letzte Generation throw oil on the painting "Death and Life" by Gustav Klimt at the Leopold Museum in Vienna | Photo: Alamy

By Laura Lamberti

Laura Lamberti is a junior reporter at The Parliament Magazine

20 Jan 2023

While Van Gogh, Monet and Klimt did not belong to the same artistic movement in life, they certainly, albeit unwillingly, are part of the same protest movement in death: the attack on art to win the war on climate change.

In the aftermath of a series of stunts by young climate activists targeting iconic artworks around Europe, which saw a slew of substances including tomato soup, mashed potatoes and black oily liquid being thrown on the paintings, Laura Lamberti spoke with anthropologist Tijo Salverda, who has extensively researched and taught on transformation processes, with a particular focus on power dynamics between actors with competing interests, to contextualise the latest trend in climate activism. Their conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Could you speak about the evolution of climate-related protests? What are some of the key events in this timeline?

While climate change protests are relatively new, protests against the demolition of national habitats have a long history, tracing their roots back to the 1980s or even the 1970s in Europe. At that time, in the Netherlands people were protesting the demolition of forests to build a motorway, while in the 1990s in Germany they were protesting nuclear transport by train, resulting in big clashes between protesters and the police.

I would say these gallery protests follow a similar kind of notion, but they target the issue less directly. Obviously, the problem with climate change is that it pervades all spheres – it’s not transport you want to stop, or a forest you want to protect, it is something in society you want to change to stop the temperature from rising. This is what makes it different from previous protest movements.

To throw stuff at paintings in the 80s and say: “We should stop demolishing our forests,” wouldn’t have made much sense because people would just ask: “Well, why don’t you go to this forest and stop the machinery from going in?”

Now, of course, there are some larger narratives they can create. They can say: “There will not be any sunflowers left if we go on this path.”

I think we are here because of frustration over things not changing and criticism of previous protest movements – like Extinction Rebellion – for not being radical enough and not being effective.

What do you think this specific form of protest – defacing art to advocate for policies addressing climate change – is about? Is it connected to the concept of art as a reflection of the status quo in a society that does not value taking decisive climate action? Or is it a critique of iconic art being more highly valued than environmental needs? Or is this just the best way to garner the most media attention with the least effort in a public space?

I think to the protesters it’s about all three, but that’s a difficult message to get across. In some cases, protesters are making an argument against the sponsoring of arts or museums by fossil fuel industries or corporations. That is definitely a critique of the art world, but that is not the message reaching the masses.

To some extent these protests are successful in that they get a lot of media attention, both negative and positive, with minimal human effort. It is the element of visual confrontation, which is amplified by the media, that resonates with the public.

In the case of the Van Gogh painting, underlining that people worry more about a painting of sunflowers than the fact that there will be no sunflowers left if we don’t take action against climate change, was an interesting argument, and one most probably people can relate to.

Obviously, there is a bigger debate about whether these protests have a negative or positive impact on the larger movement. When factions of large protest movements become more radical, what you often see is other, more moderate factions garnering more influence.

Many people have said they still believe in the urgency of combating climate change but do not support attacking art. Given the controversy around the perception of these protests, is it possible people might be discouraged from engaging in organised action to advocate for the cause?

Based on my work on other protests, my sense is this would depend on the types of alternatives available. Say tomorrow large protests are organised all around European capitals. Even those who disagree with the violence will still go down and protest when there are enough alternatives that they support.

If there are more moderate options, or ones that use different means of protest, then people would not hesitate to join. If the whole movement was very radical, and there were no valid alternatives, at that point people who have a more moderate opinion might not feel the urge to join because they cannot identify with any group.

Do you think radical climate activists are interested in encouraging people to join the movement? Or have we reached a situation where activists on the radical side of things are disinterested in people joining the cause if they are not willing to go to the same extreme lengths?

These activists are obviously driven by their opinions and the belief that they cannot keep silent. As a result, they take steps which might not be as strategic as those taken by moderate factions whose aim is to get politicians and corporations on their side as well.

Moderates think in terms of how to get equal amounts of attention and support. Radicals might care less, but ultimately, they are not completely oblivious to it. However, I think their wish is to gain support from people who think as radically as they do, who don’t want to make compromises. From my analysis of other movements, all factions have a role to play, we need this kind of action as well, even if we disagree with it.

There is something counterintuitive about this type of uncompromising radical action that does not actually damage the art – they know it is protected by glass. Curators are warning of possible damages, but ultimately, they are not throwing paint on a marble statue. However, the mere concept of an attack on art is being met with fierce opposition. What do they gain from this type of action besides increased criminalisation of protests and media attention?

It’s all relative. They disagree with other groups in the movement, I think especially Extinction Rebellion, which they believe don’t get nearly enough attention by blocking a road. That is why they opted for more radical action.

What might happen is, if in half a year they see no changes taking place by “fake damaging” art, they might take an even more radical position and really damage it. This possibility should not be excluded.

It all comes back to the willingness of different actors to compromise. I think the fact that they do not actually damage the art is the reason why a lot of people can probably sympathise with this action. They are getting so much attention that there is no need to actually damage it for the time being.

The fact that they do not actually damage the art is the reason why a lot of people can probably sympathise with this action

Time Magazine recently cited a survey about the effects of these non-violent, disruptive actions which found younger respondents (18 to 29) were less likely to decrease their support to address climate change compared to the oldest (65 and over) respondents. But ultimately, all age groups showed decreased support for the movement. How do protests that shaped different generations impact the perception of what is and isn’t a radical form of protest?

Over the years demonstrations have changed, especially with the rise of social media, so while there are definitely different perspectives on different kinds of protests, I think the perception of the older generations does not revolve around whether this type of protest is or isn’t radical enough, but rather whether the target is legitimate or not. And this constitutes a huge difference.

I think that many from the generation who witnessed the kidnappings and killings of the Red Army Faction (RAF) in Germany in the 1970s don’t think activism should take this path and probably don’t really see the purpose of targeting art in the fight against climate change. But other than that, I doubt whether the support for addressing climate change will decrease as a result. Even if one disagrees with the form of protest, climate change will remain, after all.

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