On being … seen … and (hopefully) heard

By Ingrid Sapona 

A couple weeks ago I heard a snippet on the news about two people pouring a can of tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Like many, I was shocked and worried that the famous work of art might have been damaged. The report I heard was pretty vague, but it said the two who did it were protesting climate change. It seemed odd to me at the time, but once I learned the painting was not harmed (it had a protective glaze, apparently) my thought about the protest was simply, “whatever”. 

A couple days after the incident my sisters and I happened to be in London on holiday and we passed the National Gallery. I knew that entry to the National Gallery is free and it was a weekend day, so I assumed that explained the long queue. Later, however, someone who lives in London told me they suspected the line was moving slower than usual because maybe the Gallery was letting fewer people in at one time, given the recent Sunflower/soup incident. I knew what they were talking about, but I didn’t realize the incident had happened at the National Gallery. 

Later, at the hotel, I saw a news photo of the incident showing soup dripping off the painting and two protesters in tee shirts that read JUST STOP OIL. That was the first I heard about them also gluing their hands to the wall. The incident didn’t really move me one way or the other. I just thought they were looking for attention and they got it in a pretty harmless way. 

Then, a couple days later we were in a town in Gloucestershire and we saw this poster in a local art shop. I was impressed with how quickly someone had put that together, so I snapped a picture. I assumed it was tongue in cheek, but when I downloaded it, I noticed the MR BRAINWASH caption. I really didn’t – and still don’t – know what to make of that. 

Anyway, on our last night in the UK we heard a news report about climate protesters throwing mashed potatoes on Monet’s Grainstacks at a museum in Germany. Again, the main detail about the incident that I heard was that the Monet was undamaged because it was under glass. Then, this morning I read that climate protesters had done something to Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earing while it was on display at a museum in The Hague. Again, the painting was unharmed because it too was under glass. 

Ok, the third time in two weeks means this kind of a protest is clearly a “thing”, right? So, I decided I needed to understand it. I knew they were climate protesters – and climate change is a topic that’s really important to me – but I didn’t really see the connection to fine art. 

Both the Van Gogh and Vermeer protesters were connected to Just Stop Oil, a group that wants to stop oil and gas extraction in the UK. During the incident at the National Gallery the protesters asked visitor whether they “are more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?” In an interview after the incident, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil said the group’s intention was to generate publicity and create debate around the climate crisis and the actions needed to stop it. 

Then finally, I read a New York Times article about the most recent incident – the one involving the Vermeer. Apparently, as the protesters were gluing themselves to the painting and gallery wall, gallery patrons were aghast. The protesters assured them the painting was protected by glass. That explanation didn’t appease everyone, however, and several people were heard to tell the protester to shut up and one called the pair obscene. 

Once they were done gluing themselves, one of the protesters said to the onlookers, “How do you feel when you see something beautiful and priceless being apparently destroyed before your eyes? Do you feel outraged? Good. Where is that feeling when you see the planet being destroyed before your very eyes?” Wow, I thought… now I get it. 

A comment attributed to one of the Van Gogh protesters in an on-line meeting hosted by Just Stop Oil about a week after the incident was along the same lines – and equally moving, I thought. She asked, “Where’s that emotional response when it’s our planet and the people that are being destroyed? Where’s that shock when we are set to lose our real sunflowers?” Good point, eh? 

The sound bites and news briefs about these incidents did say they were carried out by climate protesters, but without more explanation, it’s easy to dismiss them as mere stunts. But in learning more about it – and them – I am quite impressed. I think the idea of comparing destruction of the planet to destroying a work of art is quite profound. I take my hat off to them for trying something new and different to get attention while doing no actual harm. I applaud their effort and feel that the least I can do is stand with them by writing about it. 

Unlike a work of art hanging in an art gallery, we can’t protect planet earth by putting it behind glass. So, it’s incumbent on all of us to take a stand – and take action – to prevent climate change before it’s too late. I don’t know where you stand on the protesters’ methods, but I hope it stirs you to at least join the climate change discussion. 

© 2022 Ingrid Sapona


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