Opinion: Why it's OK to throw mashed potatoes on a painting

By, Delhi
Oct 26, 2022 12:08 PM IST

A series of sensational protests have reignited the conversation on climate change. Their methods may be crude but the spectacles cut through the general public's apocalypse fatigue, writes DW's Alistair Walsh.

You may profoundly disagree with the tactics of the climate change protesters throwing mashed potato or tomato soup on paintings— but the very fact you're reading this means their tactics are working. Their sensational acts have cut through the public fatigue around climate change protests, igniting public discourse with wild success.

A Monet painting was the latest target of climate protesters in a series of controversial actions. (Last Generation/ABACA/picture alliance)
A Monet painting was the latest target of climate protesters in a series of controversial actions. (Last Generation/ABACA/picture alliance)

Almost every conversation I've had about these protests — and there have been a lot — has begun with, "of course we need to do something about climate change, but this is not the way to protest.”

But what is the right way to protest? Hunger strikes, peaceful marches, targeting of fossil fuel infrastructure, and lobbying efforts take place every week. They are probably all effective in their own way but they no longer make headlines or go viral on social media. Our eyes glaze over.

Needed: A wide variety of tactics

Effective protest movements invariably employ a whole range of tactics, from writing letters, all the way up to criminal acts. And each protest action targets a specific audience and has a specific goal. (Also Read | Cartoonists tackling climate change through webcomics)

In the case of the art gallery protesters, they are targeting the vast number of people who broadly agree that some sort of action to remedy climate change is necessary but who are waiting for someone else to do something. The goal is to reignite the conversation around climate action and instill a sense of urgency.

As much as we may condemn their tactics, they have clearly succeeded at thrusting climate change back into the front of people's minds. Let's not forget that climate change, without any doubt, is the single greatest threat to humanity. Immediate and significant action is needed to secure the survival of our species.

The attacks were simulations

The faux outrage of tabloid commentators — the very same commentators who valiantly argue against funding for the arts — misses a crucial detail: The paintings weren't even damaged.

The targets were all deliberately chosen because they had protective glass or plastic coverings over them, rendering the attacks purely symbolic. The Van Gogh painting was back on display shortly after the incident.

The choice of target may seem incongruous. What did Monet do to deserve this? But I would argue there is a poetic beauty in the protesters' choices. They are simulating an attack on irreplaceable works of art, just as humanity is vandalizing our irreplaceable planet.

The billionaire owner of the Monet painting has since lamented that he is protecting the $100 million (€101.5 million) Monet painting for future generations. But he's ignoring the fact that there may be no future generations to appreciate his collection if we don't take action now.

No comparison to fascist movements

Some of the more extreme criticisms have stooped to comparing these acts to the history of fascist oppression of art.

That topic is deservedly sensitive in Germany, where the Nazis "purified" galleries of "degenerate art" and oppressed artists — but to compare the two is disingenuous.

Notwithstanding the fact that these attacks were simulations, the Nazis had fundamentally different motives. They sought to stamp out dissent as they seized power, culminating in genocide and attempts to take over Europe. By contrast, climate protesters are the dissenters, fighting to stop those in power inflicting mass suffering.

There is actually a long history of democratic protest involving even more damage to artworks. The British suffragettes had a campaign of slashing paintings with meat cleavers, Denmark's Little Mermaid is frequently targeted with paint or even decapitation. The destruction of art is even carried out for artistic expression — like Robert Rauschenberg erasing a Willem de Kooning drawing, or Banksy shredding his own work. There is a precedent here.

Embrace the radical flank

So-called radical flanks of various protest movements have hastened change, simply by making more mainstream protesters seem more reasonable in comparison and by increasing pressure.

But if, after reading this, you still disagree with the protesters' tactics, then go out there and redouble your efforts, getting involved in protest actions you do agree with. Write letters if you want, lobby your local member of parliament, donate to environmental groups, invest in renewables.

But just don't sit there and wring your hands about those who are doing what they can to save the planet.

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