Just Stop Oil's activists glued themselves to a wall at London's National Gallery after throwing tomato soup at Vincent Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" (1888). (courtesy Just Stop Oil)

Last Friday, two climate protesters threw tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s painting Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. The action produced a frenzy of angry responses from comfortable commentators left, right, and center, many claiming that the activists had hurt their cause. Ridiculous conspiracy theories and accusations of privilege popped up. Calls for violent punishment emerged on social media, barely softening when it was revealed that the painting itself was not damaged. 

The two protesters, members of the British organization Just Stop Oil, threw the soup in an effort to draw attention to their demand that the UK government call a halt to new oil and gas projects. And no one should be surprised that young people are performing interventions like this one. 

What else should we expect? Populations of plant and animal life are collapsing through ongoing ecocide. Dramatic climate events — drought, fires, flooding — have become our daily reality, and they continue to worsen. We should all be more upset by this than by a little water-soluble soup on the protective glass over a painting. Young people are fighting for their own future. The two activists didn’t damage the painting, but even if they had, is a single painting actually worth all the ongoing destruction caused by anthropogenic climate change? The exorbitant monetary value attributed to Van Gogh’s painting is ironic, given that he was paid for exactly one painting (not this one) in his entire life. Perhaps it is priceless. But as Just Stop Oil spokesperson Emma Brown said in an interview with Owen Jones, “We’re not going to have any sunflowers, at this rate. We’re not going to have any plants; we’re not going to have any water.” 

The National Gallery action is part of a campaign of interventions that have included art institutions among their many targets. Just as transgressive performance is a mainstay of modern art, nonviolent direct action has a long pedigree within activism. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s used illegal means to gain attention, and it too — though many don’t like to admit it — wasn’t widely approved of, especially among White people. But these actions continue to get results. In 2011, activists climbed a smokestack of the Fisk coal plant in Chicago to paint “Quit Coal” on it. They worked in tandem with a long and dedicated campaign to pressure local elected officials to shut down the Fisk and Crawford coal plants — a goal that was achieved in September 2012. In 2015, following white supremacist Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage in a South Carolina church, the artist and activist Bree Newsome climbed to the top of the flagpole at the State Capitol and pulled down the racist Confederate Battle Flag. Newsome was arrested — and released. The flag went back up. Just as we have seen in regard to the National Gallery protest, people in positions of power claimed that the action was counterproductive. And yet, less than a month later, the flag officially came down.   

It might be argued that these actions were more precisely targeted than soup thrown on a painting. They specifically attacked the source of the problem, rather than an artwork unrelated to their demands. Unlike other protests that have targeted museums’ ties to oil corporations, this one didn’t come with a demand directed at the institution. But museums present themselves as civic spaces. They are repositories of cultural value and visibility, where violations of prescribed behavior have the potential to draw public attention. Just Stop Oil has been doing daily actions that could be described as more “appropriately” targeted — blocking roads, climbing bridges, and throwing soup on government buildings. Which of these is the one we are all talking about? 

The case for the efficacy of this tactic is just that. The target of the action is our complacency — the fact that climate crisis and climate justice aren’t in the headlines every single day of every single week, that governments and institutions aren’t taking necessary action. As Brown explained, the action specifically sought to tap into public emotion, “the outrage and anxiety that people feel when something precious is seen to be under threat.” 

There are many grounds on which we can critique museums, but at their best, they give us the chance to witness extraordinary feats of human creativity, including works by artists whose deep love for the natural world is plainly on view. Listen to Van Gogh himself: In 1876, he wrote in a letter to his brother Theo that he loved “watching the countryside awaken and catching the first notes of the glorious hymn it addresses to heaven; roaming heaths and forests; questioning my soul — and thinking — scrutinizing and admiring the life of plants and animals.” 

Van Gogh set himself to knowing and embracing the world of non-human nature. I venture he would be horrified, not by a little Heinz tomato soup, but by what humans have done to this world. We all should be. And if we have a better idea about how to bring about the change that’s needed, we should do it. Now. 

Rebecca Zorach teaches, curates, and writes about early modern European art, art of the Black Arts Movement, and contemporary activist art.