Climate activism has found a new form of protest: art vandalism. For several weeks there have been regular attacks on well-known paintings. What began in October with the “tomato soup attack” against a van Gogh is now putting museums and galleries around the world on permanent alert.
Whether mashed potatoes on a Monet (Barberini Museum, Potsdam), oil on a Klimt (Leopold Museum, Vienna) or people glued to the frame of another van Gogh (Courtauld Gallery, London) – the protesters are quite creative.
On Tuesday, the two young people who briefly dressed up as Van Gogh accessories in London’s Courtauld Gallery were sentenced to between three weeks and six months in prison or suspended sentences. No sign of regret. Why should it, after all, the actions ensure that the climate crisis is talked about. Just: What does that bring us?
It is a fact that we are in the midst of a real crisis and, as a society, missed the timely exit towards “saving the planet” quite a while ago. Now we have to take measures to hopefully just get the curve. Measures that must hurt, since we are all far too unwilling to adapt our comfortable lives – expressly spoken for the privileged part of society.
Now, one could argue that these attacks on art hurt the privileged—those who can bring about an actual change in thinking—especially. So exactly at this point are correctly placed. The protest reaches its target group, aims at the Achilles tendon of the establishment, finally forces the bigwigs of this world to act instead of just talking.
But it’s not that simple. Art is far more than a status symbol for the rich and beautiful, a jewel of the upper class. Art was and is always itself an expression of protest, of social and political upheaval. Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” (1819), Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937), pretty much everything by Francis Bacon – no era could do without this game of provocation, with the rebellion against “those up there”. Art is democracy in its most immediate form of expression. And cultural institutions are places of democracy, participation, knowledge and discourse.
Art vandalism is as old as the idea of the work of art itself.
Yes, there is – unfortunately – the prejudice of exclusivity. The image of posh people staring at grease stains in museum corners with an arrogant attitude and believing they can explain the world to you. But that is not the everyday life of the art and culture industry.
It consists of school classes and senior citizens who push themselves from picture to picture with audio guides on their ears and small folding chairs under their arms. It consists of educators who carry out important educational work, of artists who, with a deep passion, design works and programs that give us different perspectives on this world.
Museums, like theatres, concert halls or libraries, are places that are absolutely necessary for the survival of discourse and democracy. In the case of museums, it is the works of art that represent our humanistic aspirations and the advancement of society.
Incidentally, it is by no means just climate activists who tamper with works of art to draw attention to their positions. Art vandalism is as old as the idea of the work of art itself. Most recently, it was Attila Hildmann – star chef, corona denier and ultra-right wing – who called for attacks against art in the midst of the pandemic, because he considered museums to be places of worship for satanists.
Iconoclasm, burning books and destroyed cultural sites have always happened. And often driven by people with whom the climate fighters certainly do not want to be compared. Attacks against art are always attacks against our democracy.
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I have been working in the news industry for over 10 years now and I have worked for some of the biggest news websites in the world. My focus has always been on entertainment news, but I also cover a range of other topics. I am currently an author at Global happenings and I love writing about all things pop-culture related.