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Opinion: Throwing potatoes on a painting has left a mark

Alistair Walsh
Alistair Walsh
October 25, 2022

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

Handout photo released on October 23, 2022 by climate mouvement Last Generation (Letzte Generation) shows activists of the group being glued underneath the painting Les Meules by French artist Claude Monet
A Monet painting was the latest target of climate protesters in a series of controversial actionsImage: Last Generation/ABACA/picture alliance

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 — and criminal — acts have cut through the public fatigue around climate change protests, igniting public discourse with wild success.

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.

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. Their 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.

Just Stop Oil protesters pose in front a soup-covered painting
You may not like their methods but there is no denying their effectivenessImage: Just Stop Oil/PA/dpa/picture alliance

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 no action is taken.

Just Stop Oil protest. Protesters from Just Stop Oil climate protest group, glue their hands to the frame of John Constable's The Hay Wain after first having covered the painting with their own picture inside the National Gallery, London
The group, Just Stop Oil, want the UK to stop granting new licenses for the exploration and production of fossil fuelsImage: Kirsty O'Connor/PA/picture alliance

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.

The National Museum, London Detail from a photo published in 1914 (before the repairs) showing damage done to Rokeby Venus by Mary Richardson
The painting "Rokeby Venus" was slashed by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914Image: Gemeinfrei

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.

Radical flanks of various protest movements have hastened change in the past, simply by making mainstream protesters seem reasonable in comparison and by increasing pressure.

You may disagree with the climate protesters' tactics, but they have succeeded in leaving their mark.

This opinion piece by Alistair Walsh has been edited since its original publication.