Soup and mash: why are environmental activists targeting museums?

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Soup and mash: why do environmental activists target museums?

Environmental activists have intensified their latest shock actions in museums in Europe, where they have targeted works, thus generating their share of reactions. But does the message manage to break through the barrier of indignation?

Letzte Generation activists threw mashed potatoes at the board The millstones< /em> by Claude Monet at the Barberini Museum in Potsdam, on October 24.

Dressed in orange bibs that contrast with the decorum called for by a visit to the Barberini Museum in Potsdam, two activists take off before pouring large jets of yellowish mash on a painting from the Meules series of the Impressionist painter Claude Monet, depiction of conical structures of wheat that dominated the landscape of the Normandy countryside in 1890.

We are in the midst of a climate catastrophe, recites one of the activists after sticking her hand to the wall, squatting in front of the French painter's masterpiece estimated at more than 110 million dollars. And all that scares you is tomato soup or mashed potatoes on a painting, she says.

The two authors of the coup, affiliated with the pro-climate civil disobedience movement Letzte Generation, echo the question posed by Just Stop Oil activists ten days earlier. Is art worth more than life? What food? Than justice?

On October 14, two young members of the British organization opposed to the financing of fossil fuels raised the ire of the public by sprinkling Sunflowers by Van Gogh with a tin of Heinz soup before sticking to the wall.

If this action quickly went around the world, it is part of a series of stunts organized by environmental activists who have invested museums in recent months, from the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, via the Museo del Novecento in Milan.

For each of these militant actions, the same modus operandi: a hand stuck under the canvas, on the frame or directly on the work. The tactic of lock-on, which activists resort to in order not to be able to leave the place of protest on request, is revisited; super glue replaces padlocked chains.

Food has been part of the arsenal of activists in the most recent strikes. high-profile shine.

Two young Just Stop Oil activists threw a can of tomato soup at The Sunflowers of Van Gogh, painting exhibited at the National Gallery in London, October 14.

Targeting museums to urgently demand concrete action from governments to fight climate change is not trivial, according to Charles de Lacombe, member of the Federal Council of Friends of the Earth France and Alternatiba activist.< /p>

“Art is really used as a launching pad, a tool to gain visibility. And it is clear that, from this point of view, it works very well. »

—Charles de Lacombe, board member of Friends of the Earth France and Alternatiba activist

If it is destabilizing to see activists attacking masterpieces, the choice is no less thoughtful. Van Gogh, Monet, Botticelli and Picasso are not responsible for climate change, and environmental activists know this very well, underlines Mr. Lacombe in a paper co-signed with Nicolas Haeringer, director of campaigns for the NGO

This action, which can recall the artistic performance usually observed in these cultural institutions, is thought to provoke, they write. That we are disturbed is not secondary [nor] the consequence of a poorly thought out and too quickly organized action.

By disturbing the public, activists try to attract attention to his indifference to the inaction of leaders to limit global warming, when all the lights are red.

Abnormal situation, abnormal actions, they sum up, taking up much the same speech as Phoebe Plummer of Just Stop Oil, author of the throwing of the soup, who immediately recognized the absurdity of the gesture.

We don't ask the question: should people throw soup on paintings? What we do is make sure the conversation continues, the activist explained in a video posted on social media after the stunt at the National Gallery in London.

Members of Ultima Generazione, civil disobedience movement in Italy, stuck their hand directly on < em>Spring by Sandro Botticelli, at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, July 22, 2022.

In an interview with CBC, Dana R. Fisher, a professor at the University of Maryland who is interested in environmental movements, recalled that the activists did not expect a call from the Prime Minister once released by the authorities. They tell themselves that, if they are lucky, people will debate on Twitter and the media will talk about them, she summarizes.

Like the other shock actions that took place in museums, the works were not damaged, the activists having made sure beforehand not to jeopardize the targeted pieces. Protected by glass, Monet's canvas Les Meules suffered no damage, while minor damage was found on the frame of Tournesols < /em>by Van Gogh.

The approach behind these actions may have been explained by members of environmental groups, but has it made its way to the public? In the wake of the soup and mash attacks, reactions on social media showed both outrage and incomprehension at the gestures.

This are actions that are very divisive, recognizes Charles de Lacombe, who himself participated in 2019 in a pro-climate campaign aimed at winning portraits of President Emmanuel Macron in the town halls of France in order to denounce the climate change. state inaction.

I'm not saying that these are perfect actions […] but the fact is that we have a battle to fight, he adds, referring to the environmentalists who have used their platform to distance themselves from the operations carried out by Just Stop Oil, Ultima Generazione or Extinction Rebellion, or even to discredit them.

Charles de Lacombe believes that it is too early to judge the success – or not – of these bursts. This success and failure will depend, he says, on how the media and activists comment on these actions, helping to shape public opinion.

The specialist in questions of environmental geopolitics, François Gemenne, professor at Sciences Po Paris and member of the IPCC, is among those who are concerned about the consequences of these actions, that “alienate”, in his view, “much of the public to the climate cause”.

The house is burning. Everyone realizes this, and the climate itself is responsible for reminding us of it. It seems to me that there is no longer much point in shouting fire – even with soup or mashed potatoes – and that we must now seek to extinguish the fire, he said on Tuesday on Twitter.

Activists from UK organization Just Stop Oil stick their hand to the frame of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, at the Royal Academy in London on July 5, 2022.Two members of Just Stop Oil protest by sticking their hand to the frame of The Hay Cart by John Constable, at the National Gallery in London, on July 4, 2022.Two members of Letzte Generation, a German organization advocating civil disobedience, stuck their hand to the frame of Raphael's Sistine Madonna, at the Old Masters Gallery in Dresden, Germany, on August 22, 2022.Two Extinction Rebellion activists stick their hands to the painting Massacre in Korea by Pablo Picasso at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne on October 8, 2022.1/4Activists from Britain's Just Stop Oil organization stick their hands to the frame of La Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, at the Royal Academy in London on July 5, 2022.Photo::PA via Associated Press/James ManningSee previous imageSee next image

To find out whether this type of action can rally the most skeptical, researcher Dana R. Fisher points out that the studies on the effects of climate activism, which are not very detailed, do not necessarily point in this direction. Most of them indicate that supporters of the cause are likely to be the most receptive to the message.

I study climate policy and activism since the 1990s and nothing has changed [despite the mobilization of activists], which may in particular explain that activists are becoming more provocative, she argues.

By dint of repeating actions that arouse less and less public interest, the environmental movement has come to “innovate” in order to generate “these media spotlights”, adds Charles de Lacombe.

The fact remains that the idea of ​​investing in places of culture is not new. The wax statue of King Charles III encrusted by members of Just Stop Oil at London's Madame Tussauds on Sunday is reminiscent of the sculpture of Vladimir Putin vandalized by a member of Femen at the Grévin Museum in Paris in 2014, he gives as an example.

History will have dictated that young activists denounce the harsh reality of “millions of families” who don't even have the luxury of “warming up a can of soup” in the same museum where Canadian Mary Richardson slashed Diego Velazquez's Venus at Her Mirror, there are more than 100 years, demanding women's suffrage.

Contributed by Jaela Bernstien, CBC News

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