Last week, two climate activists were arrested after walking into London’s National Gallery of Art, throwing two cans of Heinz tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” (1888), and gluing their hands to the wall. The museum confirmed that the painting, which was covered by protective glass, was unharmed — but the Internet was set aflame with criticisms, defenses, and a smattering of conspiracy theory.

The two protestors, Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, are part of Just Stop Oil, a group that has made headlines this year for similar stunts. Although members of the group have attached themselves to the frames of other famous works, the tomato soup incident struck a nerve.

This week, after Plummer was released from custody with a criminal damage charge, the 21-year-old protestor finally spoke out about their action in a video posted to TikTok by Free Seed Films.

“We never, ever would have considered doing it if we didn’t know it was behind glass and we wouldn’t do any damage,” Plummer said.

“I recognize that it looks like a slightly ridiculous action — I agree, it is ridiculous,” they continued. “But we’re not asking the question, ‘Should everybody be throwing soup on paintings?’ What we’re doing is getting the conversation going so we can ask the questions that matter.”

Plummer then listed those questions: “Is it ok that Liz Truss is licensing over 100 new fossil fuel licenses? Is it ok that fossil fuels are subsidized 30 times more than renewables when offshore wind is currently nine times cheaper than fossil fuels? Is it ok that it is their inaction that has led us to the cost of living crisis? Where this winter people are going to be forced to choose between heating and eating?”

The October 14 tomato soup action at the National Gallery of Art in London (photo courtesy Just Stop Oil)

The clip went viral and has attracted 1.9 million views. Michael Mezz then posted the clip to Twitter with the caption, “She’s got a point, no?” and the video garnered another 7.9 million views.

Some responses to the initial action discussed the efficacy and necessity of the protest, which Plummer touches on, explaining that the painting’s notoriety made the action successful: “It’s so famous, it worked — it garnered the media attention.”

“We need to get people talking about this now,” Plummer said. “Because we don’t have time to waste.”

Online backlash over the initial action was as scattered as it was intense. Some pointed to the fact that big-oil heiress Aileen Getty co-founded the Climate Emergency Fund that has donated $1.1 million to Just Stop Oil, and conspiratorial outcry called the protest an operation to discredit climate activists, a claim that is unsubstantiated. Others criticized the choice of Van Gogh as an apparent target, which Plummer also addresses.

“Van Gogh was incredibly poor in his lifetime,” Plummer said. “If he were alive today, he would be one of those people choosing between heating and eating.”

In the video, Plummer directs many of their climate questions at conservative former prime minister Liz Truss, who resigned today after only 44 days in office.

The tomato soup protest will likely not be Just Stop Oil’s last inflammatory action. The Climate Emergency Fund’s executive director, Margaret Klein Salamon, told the Guardian: “The next two weeks will be, I hope, the most intense period of climate action to date, so buckle up.”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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