Throwing Food on Art to Protest Climate Change: Performative Activism Done Wrong 

Written by: Ken Wang

As global warming continues to be a salient issue in world politics, and as the conflict in Ukraine continues, energy crises have spread across Europe. To further raise awareness of the scope of the climate change-related energy crises, climate activist groups across Europe have taken matters into their own hands by making dramatic and disruptive statements of protest.

On Friday, October 14, climate activists from the British group Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup on the famous Sunflower painting by Vincent Van Gough and then glued their hands onto the wall of the gallery. Following the suit of Just Stop Oil, on October 23, climate activists from the Letzte Generation (German for the Last Generation) threw mashed potatoes on Jean Claude Monet’s The Grainstacks and then glued their hands on the walls at Barberini Museum in Potsdam, Germany. On November 4, activists from Ultima Generazione (Italian for the Last Generation) threw pea soup on Van Gough’s The Sower before gluing their hands on the wall at a museum in Rome, Italy. 

One week later, on November 11 Just Stop Oil organized a protest that halted traffic in London, with Letzte Generation following suit. In addition to throwing food at the artwork and sitting down in traffic, Just Stop Oil has also sprayed orange paintings on high-end stores such as Rolex and Aston Martin to support their messages. 

Without a doubt, actions from the British, Italian, and German groups have caused public disturbances and resulted in vandalism of public property, but the question remains: to what extent are these actions justified? 

First, it is necessary to examine why the German activists label themselves as the “last generation”. This stems from the idea that the current generation of youth (18- to 25-year-old) is the last generation that could stop global warming in favor of a more sustainable future. Such an idea exists or is deemed necessary because young climate activists, such as Greta Thunberg, believe governments are not doing enough to address climate change. 

Because of the belief that more radical actions need to be taken to stop climate change, climate activists or groups like Just Stop Oil are taking dramatic actions to attract attention. According to one of the activists who threw mashed potatoes, the goal is to get the conversation about climate change going and to ask questions that matter in a manner that is proportional to the necessary response.

Although intentions are important, the activists did commit vandalism. If those artworks were not protected by glass covers, the damage would be astronomical. In my opinion, activists should not use any excuse to cause public disturbance, regardless of how important the cause might be. 

This is not to say climate change is not important; it is an extremely important topic and I am all for advocacy, but it must be done the right way, without harming any person or imposing damage on properties. Although some may argue that the point of these acts is to draw attention, the problem is they draw attention to the wrong thing and muddle their message in doing so. 

When damages occur, whether that is harm done to people or to properties, the actual issue at hand often gets lost in the conversation. Conversations about protests tend to focus on the violence and individual events rather than linking them back to the larger issue. 

When the incidents occurred, most headlines simply said activists threw food on art, and the stories would elaborate on the act rather than the reason behind those actions. More importantly, given the density of events, many news articles treat each of these events as an individual one and failed to connect them to the larger issue of climate change. 

Therefore, most conversations end up talking about the vandalism that occurred, not climate change, or why people should focus more on climate change and food crises related to climate change like the activists intended. However, this is not to say performative activism cannot be done in a less disturbing way. 

Foremost, performative activism needs to be well organized with authoritative figures backing the cause. Well-organized activism can effectively raise the public’s awareness, and with experts of relative fields bringing their expertise, the activists could advocate for a more specific issue with convincing evidence, creating coherence despite different perspectives on one issue.

Another important feature of effective activism is not to create any public disturbance. Peaceful activism draws attention to the issues at hand, rather than violence or dramatic actions, which will help people have conversations. 

Last but not least, there needs to be consistent efforts for an extended period of time. Consistent efforts of advocating for complicated, multifaceted issues like climate change would help keep the issue in the news cycle, gaining more audience. Also, consistent advocacy will show a real commitment and make it easy for the public to track the progress made. 

What climate activists did in Europe was backed by good intentions, but because of the disturbances they have caused, many conversations have transitioned to surrounding vandalism rather than climate change as the activists hoped. To achieve their intended goal, performative activism must be more well-organized, less disruptive, and more consistent over time.

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