On Friday, two climate activists went to the National Gallery in London and threw two containers of soup at Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”. The group is from Just Stop Oil, which issued a statement saying the protest was timed “to coincide with the planned launch of a new round of oil and gas licenses” in the UK. The police arrested the two women.
NOW – Climate activists defile Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery and stick to the wall.pic.twitter.com/XgRDqyEqUO
— Disclose.tv (@disclosetv) October 14, 2022
“Which is worth more, art or life? one said, in a video recording of the incident. “Are you more concerned about protecting a painting or protecting our planet and people?”
The reality of climate change inspires dramatic action. In fact, in some cases, it might even justify it. If you take the scientific consensus seriously, and there’s no real reason not to, our planet becomes more and more unlivable. Of course, you don’t have to take the scientists word for it anymore. You can just read the news or, in many parts of the world, open a window and look outside. Rising oceans, turbulent weather and deteriorating air quality are no longer a prediction. This is the reality, and it is coming to all of us faster than even the most cynical experts predicted.
Given these heartbreaking stakes, it’s no surprise that some people — especially young people, who face the heaviest toll of previous generations’ inaction — are choosing to step up the campaign to reverse the tide. You can’t help but wish them luck. But the hindsight here is not about the need for dramatic action, but about what kindly dramatic action. Because the answer to the question “what is worth more, art or life?” is not as simple as it seems.
A famous scene in Star Trek Traveler finds the character Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) stuck in one of the franchise’s ethical dilemmas. Three other characters have been assimilated into the Borg (Star Trek’s creepy robotic hive mind) and she can either leave them there to survive as a soulless cog in a nameless, faceless cybernetic organism, or she can break the connection, freeing them to live life as individuals. but leaving them only a month to live. In the end, Seven of Nine chooses to free them from the Borg, sentenced them to a few weeks to live – but to live free. “Survival is insufficient,” she determines.
Survival is insufficient.
Of course, life is worth more than art. But art is also part of what makes life so interesting. We’re not protecting the planet so we can just have a piece of habitable rock in the solar system with oxygen and edible food. We want to save the planet from the rapidly deteriorating climate so we can thrive as people, fall in love, eat big meals, go for walks, serve each other, fall in love, and yes, create and enjoy. art. In other words, in the fight against climate change, art is On our side.
Van Gogh’s painting was behind glass and, according to a museum statement, suffered no permanent damage from the protest. So no harm was done, although it’s hard to imagine that this protest changed their minds. Direct and dramatic action is a valid and even essential tool in any movement, especially one with such high stakes. But it is essential to focus this action on real targets – systems in need of transformation and, in some cases, abolition. And at least some actions should be saved to preserve the things we want to save, like a reminder of why movement is so important. And if Van Gogh’s paintings aren’t worth saving for future generations to marvel at on a hospitable planet, then what is?