Climate change activists throw soup at famous paintings

On Oct. 14, two climate change activists threw tomato soup onto one of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, titled Sunflowers, and glued their hands to the wall to protest against the climate crisis in London.  They are part of the British activist group Just Stop Oil, which has engaged in similar public protests, such as blocking off multiple British streets throughout all of Oct. and smearing cake on a wax figure of King Charles III on Oct. 24.  Although the group has previously engaged in similar acts of vandalism and continues to do so, they especially gained traction amid the “soup incident.”  The painting itself was unharmed, although its frame did suffer some damage. 

Phoebe Plummer of Just Stop Oil was one of the participants in the protest.  They claimed the group’s goal was to “draw attention to the cost of living crisis,” which is “part of the cost of the oil crisis” in an interview with NPR.  Plummer also said in the interview that they chose the Sunflowers painting because it was a beautiful work of art that was being ruined by tomato soup, similar to how Earth is being destroyed by global warming. 

This protest has prompted global uproar, and many have begun to debate how to properly protest and whether or not this act of vandalism was even effective. 

“It makes sense, but was completely unnecessary.  I understand that climate change is a huge issue, and by going after the painting, they are trying to prove that the public cares more about inanimate objects than our planet. I feel that there are many different – and better – ways to go about it,” said junior Daya Gomez. 

There have even been claims that this form of protest is contradicting its cause.

“[Vandalism] alienates many people we need to bring into the fold.  People who are natural allies in the climate battle but will draw negative associations with climate advocacy and activism from such acts,” said University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael Mann, in a WBAL press conference. 

Many people feel that these protests, while they are drawing attention, are only doing the opposite of their goal. 

“[Just Stop Oil] may be trying to get people to think about these pressing issues, but all they end up doing is getting people annoyed and angry,” said an anonymous witness for The Guardian.  

The main concern about this protest is diverging people away from its cause, in that the painting does not correlate at all with the issue at hand. 

“I understand where these activist groups are coming from, because I agree that more needs to be done about climate change, and more people need to be aware of it.  But I don’t agree with what they did because the two don’t correlate, and it doesn’t make sense to me. Why would they try to ruin famous artwork to make a statement on the climate?” said senior Sarina Scaffidi. 

Another argument against this protest was that it served as an act of dramatization, for the purpose of seeking attention towards the protesters rather than climate change. 

“I think it was pretty silly what they did. There are plenty more ways to advocate for the planet that don’t risk the safety of important art pieces.  Most people probably didn’t even know they threw tomato soup for these reasons.  The main conversation about this just seems to be about the painting, so it didn’t really achieve their goal of gaining traction toward their movement anyway.  It only seemed like a strategy for attention,” said sophomore Zoë Lucas.

Just Stop Oil’s stunt in London has sparked multiple similar protests across the rest of Europe.  On Oct. 23, two German activists threw mashed potatoes at Claude Monet’s Mueles, and the painting was not damaged.  Just four days later, more advocates threw tomato soup on Johannes Vermeer’s iconic Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was also left undamaged.  This occurred again on Nov. 4, where an Italian climate change group also threw soup on Van Gogh’s The Sower and glued their hands to the wall.  Thankfully, the painting was protected by a glass screen and was not damaged.  These stunts all had similar reactions to the original demonstration by Just Stop Oil. 

There have been positive reactions to the protests, in that they have raised awareness for the oil crisis.  The main reaction, however, has been negative, mainly because these stunts put important paintings at risk, that have little correlation to the environment, and are ineffective at persuading people to its cause.