The Misguided Attacks on Art in the Climate Crisis

(From Just Stop Oil)

In July, climate activists glued themselves to a copy of "The Last Supper" at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and received a sympathetic response from some. However, as the attacks on artwork escalated with protesters throwing various substances at famous paintings, the condemnations also grew. The director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum called the protests "nihilistic" and the culture minister of France called them "absolutely absurd." The International Council of Museums released a statement expressing their "deeply shaken" response to the risky endangerment of the artwork. While the attacks have caused minimal damage to the protected works, the protesters risk diminishing their impact and appearing as a parody.

Mark Pasnik, chair of the Boston Art Commission, pointed out that it is possible to condemn both environmental and cultural vandalism at the same time. Pasnik is also concerned about the potential damage to the climate cause as it becomes "radicalized in a way that makes it easy for people to dismiss it." The use of shock tactics to draw attention to societal issues is not new, with examples ranging from the 1914 slashing of "The Rokeby Venus" by a British suffragist to the recent toppling of Confederate monuments. However, it is more effective when the targets are clearly connected to the harm being protested.

Contemporary artists, including Maya Lin, are creating powerful works about the climate crisis that use art as activism. Lin’s "Ghost Forest," a climate change memorial in a New York City park, is one example of this. The climate activists who attack artwork may believe that the pace of reform is too slow, but they dismiss the efforts of the millions of people working on the issue. Instead of attacking artwork, these activists should focus on concrete steps that can bring about real change, such as advocating for policy reform and supporting organizations working to address the climate crisis.