On Sunflowers and Performance Activism

This painting has been all over the news following an act of protest by two young people from the organization Just Stop Oil. They hurled a tin of tomato soup at it in the National Gallery in London. The painting itself was behind glass and was not damaged by the action. The frame, however, which is an antique, may have suffered some damage.

I will say that I have some sympathy for the activists. Over my lifetime I have been involved in many demonstrations that have not always been greeted with understanding. And sometimes disruption is necessary to get the public’s attention. Blocking roadways or refusing to get up from a seat in a theatre, a restaurant or a bus can be effective ways to protest an injustice and slow the machinery of a brutal system.

Like all of us, the young protesters in London are witness to the continued ravaging of the earth’s fragile biosphere on which we all rely on to survive. They see the web of life unraveling thanks to rampant greed of fossil fuel companies and other lucrative extractive and exploitative industries. And they see apathy and inaction by most world leaders as this carnage continues. They decided to take action.

But I don’t think this act really did anything to galvanize public support or concern. Most people are aware of our existential crisis. Every day we hear of a flood or drought or a monster storm. Famine and species extinction have become normalized. This kind of protest, however, comes across as a kind of preachy performance activism. And it has come to define many climate organizations these days.

Van Gogh’s painting will be fine. No damage was done to it. Ironically, his life’s work was about the veneration of nature. So, he might have even had sympathy for the young protestors. But our anger needs to be focused on the source of this catastrophe, not the few beautiful things humanity has been able to create in spite of it.

We need to focus it against the centres of capital, money and investment, against government agencies which aid these profiteers, against the industries that commercialize everything, including nature, and who reduce life to dollar signs, against the military sector which uses the most fossil fuels and pollutes more than any other industry.

But leave most public art alone, especially the art that is created for all of us. It is a major source of inspiration, particularly for the working class. And it is one of the few things that corporations haven’t entirely stolen from us, yet.

Kenn Orphan, October 2022

*Title painting is from a sunflower series by Vincent Van Gogh, 1887

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