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14 October 2022

Van Gogh would have loved his soup-covered Sunflowers – and so should we

Safe protest stunts raise the profile of the climate crisis and ask us to think about the bigger picture.

By India Bourke

Ill-considered, juvenile “vandalism” by “philistine barbarians”. This was how critics sympathetic to the environmental cause described two young Just Stop Oil activists when they threw a can of tomato soup over Vincent van Gogh’s famous sunflower paintings. But I have a niggling sense that Van Gogh would have embraced his newly soupy Sunflowers – and so should we.

It’s important to clarify that the 134-year-old painting is unharmed. The National Gallery has confirmed there is minor damage to the frame but none to the painting, which is protected by a glass panel. Just Stop Oil campaigners have also confirmed to the New Statesman that those involved knew this to be the case.

Safe, creative activism needs all the support it can get after the protest crackdown in the government’s Public Order Bill. This particular protest has of course caused some minor cost and disruption to the gallery, but the shock factor is what makes a good stunt. I imagine the National Gallery will more than recoup in free publicity the cost of the frame repair.

Art is not and never has been separated from the turmoil and struggle of everyday life, even if the rarefied atmosphere of galleries can sometimes make it feel as such. Van Gogh understood this; it is arguably central to what makes his work so beloved.

Van Gogh was a radical. By advancing abstraction and experimentation, his paintings asked contemporaries to look afresh at the world they lived in. Alongside sunflowers, he also made depictions of poverty a recurring feature of his work; “I want to make figures from the people for the people,” he wrote. Similarly, today’s protesters are asking art lovers to look again at the links between everyday objects, like soup, and the wider energy and climate emergency. As one said after the act in a video of the protest: “The cost-of-living crisis is part of the cost-of-oil crisis; fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup.”

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Climate activists have a keen understanding of the value and vulnerability of our natural world, as did Van Gogh. Sunflowers, irises, wheatfields, almond blossoms: nature was a source of inspiration and solace to an artist plagued by mental ill health. “If I felt no love for nature and my work, then I would be unhappy,” he once said.

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Today, however, the escalating climate crisis means we are mourning the loss of natural abundance, alongside the harm caused to human communities. Just this week the WWF and the Zoological Society of London announced that we have reached a new high for global species loss, and warned that the destruction of Amazon rainforest habitat in particular is approaching a point of no return. “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” the activist asked.

It might be argued that the specific choice of painting or gallery has about as much relevance to the protesters’ cause as the particular flavour of soup. Unlike campaigns groups including Art Not Oil and BP or Not BP, there does not appear to be a specific call for the National Gallery to renounce any sponsorship deals; Shell ended its National Gallery funding in 2018, and the National Portrait Gallery’s ties with BP were severed earlier this year.

But artworks and the spaces in which they are exhibited should still be sites of protest. Art demands that we think, and challenges us to question the status quo. And nothing demands challenging more right now than the world’s continuing reliance on fossil fuels. It would be wonderful if every protest could be a masterpiece of its kind, yet at this time of rising emergency, well-meaning and peaceful acts of expression should surely be applauded not stamped out.

Those who complain that the Just Stop Oil protesters are immature, misguided or simply too cryptic, need to think about the bigger picture. Safe protests such as this alert us to the urgency of our ever-worsening climate crisis, and the complacency and complicity of our government. So let them throw soup.

[See also: Mondrian’s upside down masterpiece is a reminder that art is completely subjective]