Does smearing the “Sunflowers” help the environmental cause? – The post


Does smearing the “Sunflowers” help the environmental cause?  – The post
Written by aquitodovale

After the demonstration with which two girls threw tomato sauce at a Van Gogh painting, many have wondered if initiatives of this kind really help activists to support their causes or if they are not trivially a distraction from these last. It is a question that cyclically re-emerges every time similar initiatives are organized, especially since the Internet and social networks make it possible for them to be more visible with photographs and videos of the demonstration acts that are taken up by thousands, sometimes millions, of accounts and later by the media. of traditional communication.

On October 14, two activists from the environmental group “Just Stop Oil” (literally “Stop the oil and that’s it”) entered a room in the National Gallery in London, took out a can of tomato sauce and smeared one of the versions of the ” Sunflowers “, one of Van Gogh’s most famous works. The two activists then each glued a hand to the wall where the painting was hung, arguing that the initiative was to raise awareness of some measures of the British government, which would have had a strong impact on the environment and on future generations.

Van Gogh’s painting was protected by a glass plate e it was not damaged, except for a few slight stains on the wooden frame. The two activists were arrested shortly after the demonstration act and the painting was returned to its place a few hours after being cleaned and checked for any damage.

“Just Stop Oil” then made it known that before launching the tomato sauce, the activists had made sure that the glass protection was sufficient, so as not to cause permanent damage to Van Gogh’s painting. online, arousing the indignation of countless people who believed the painting had been ruined forever. Even when it became clear that the painting had not suffered damage, the criticisms continued: according to many, staining a work of art is not a shareable choice to pursue requests, even very important ones such as those for the preservation of the environment.

In the past, “Just Stop Oil” had already organized similar initiatives. Last July, two activists glued themselves to a John Constable painting at the National Gallery, while at the same time others glued themselves to a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Lately, works of art have returned to being targeted by activists who want to attract attention for various causes. On July 22, a group of “latest generation” activists stuck to the glass that protects Sandro Botticelli’s “La Primavera”, then showing a banner with the words “No gas, no coal”. Botticelli’s painting – exhibited at the Uffizi in Florence – had not suffered any damage, while the three activists had received a complaint for interruption of public service, resistance to a public official, unauthorized demonstration and defacing and soiling of things.

In general, demonstrations of this kind arouse great interest, but often for reasons other than those expected by activists. Especially in the case of initiatives involving works of art, the reaction of most people is against and outraged, while fewer sympathize and show that they share the methods of protest.

In the case of the “Sunflowers” and the tomato sauce, we spoke almost exclusively of the demonstration act, of the risks involved in the framework and of the consequences for the two activists, while the issue of preservation of the environment remained in the background. , almost marginal in the public debate. Those who support the usefulness of these initiatives, on the other hand, point out how they serve to make people talk and give relevance to groups that otherwise would not have visibility, and who believe they are conducting campaigns to improve the world. Now more people know what “Just Stop Oil” is than before October 14, and thus the demonstration act has served its purpose.

It is difficult to assess how much and if the dirt at the National Gallery communicated something about the important claims supported by the activists, and possibly if it did so in the right way. It is very likely, for example, that several days after the episode, few know that “Just Stop Oil” was protesting against the “inaction of the British government” in taking action against the high cost of living and the climate crisis, and that in particular the protest concerned “a new series of concessions for oil and gas.”

In an opinion article on the New York Times, the political analyst Ross Douthat has caught some contradictions in the modalities and contents of the protest, pointing out how to ask that energy be cheaper and at the same time that fossil fuels are not used in this period is very difficult. In Europe, many governments have had to reopen polluting coal-fired power plants, for example, to make up for reduced gas supplies from Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. While maintaining their commitment to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, they have had to temporarily do something else, also to prevent the price of energy from rising even more.

On Washington Post, art critic Philip Kennicott wrote: “It is ridiculous to attack art in the name of survival, since art is a survival tool. But acts like these suggest a new way of thinking about art, in terms of the climate, which could help deepen our sense of closeness to both art and the environment ». Kennicott recalled that the acts carried out so far have also been symbolic and not intended to destroy works of art, although becoming more common could increase the risks of more drastic actions, which could irreparably ruin a painting, a sculpture or an installation.

And the emulators could be favored precisely by the great attention of the media for acts such as that of the National Gallery: the demonstrative gestures would receive further attention, but also probably much more severe condemnations from the people, as has already been seen in the minutes immediately after. the launch of tomato sauce against Van Gogh, when few knew that the painting was protected by a glass.

Kennicott concludes by acknowledging that “tossing tomato sauce at a Van Gogh will not make me feel more passionate about saving our planet, nor will it help me think more pragmatically about what we should do. But I understand why young people, faced with the scenario of their own destruction, are looking for a way to get noticed to tell us: let’s stop throwing everything away ».

James Ozden, a former activist who now studies the movements and advises them, has instead pointed out that some studies in the social sciences have shown that radical and non-violent groups are good for advancing certain causes. According to these researches, their activities do not alienate people from the principles for which they are fighting and, if anything, they favor their approach to the less radical currents of the movements. In a certain sense, non-violent demonstrative acts give greater visibility to the organization, then fostering an interest in its more moderate parts, which are able to communicate their needs more effectively.

Based on that research and other evidence, Ozden writes that “radical and non-violent tactics make it more likely that support for more moderate groups will increase, in a way that increases the opportunities for an entire movement to achieve its goals. “. Studies in these areas of the social sciences are not easy to carry out due to the numerous variables, not least those determined by the disposition and behavior of individuals, but still suggest that conclusions such as “by doing so you antagonize those who might support you” are sometimes simplistic .

Demonstrative acts, not necessarily linked to art, existed well before the Internet and social networks, of course, and have given their contribution to bring forward certain requests, even if we do not always keep a memory of them. Many have in mind the image of Thích Quảng Ðức, ​​a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in the street in Saigon in protest. However, few remember that he did it against the dictatorship of Ngô Đình Diệm, the Catholic dictator who in the first half of the sixties pursued policies to oppress the Buddhist religion in Vietnam. And also in that period Martin Luther King Jr. was not well regarded by the majority of the American population, although today he is considered one of the protagonists in the struggle for emancipation of the African American community in the United States.

Staying out of museums and art galleries, frequent sit-ins have recently been organized by movements and activists calling for more incisive action by governments against global warming. Ultima Generazione and Extinction Rebellion, for example, blocked the Grande Raccordo Anulare at the beginning of the summer, stopping some of the traffic around Rome for a few hours. The protest had received numerous criticisms from motorists directly involved, while it had received less negative reactions on social networks than the Van Gogh. heat engines are among the main responsible for the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (one of the main greenhouse gases).

Similar initiatives have been carried out in other European countries and in the United States, with similar reactions especially from motorists. Some have railed against activists, reminding them that a sit-in on the street harms ordinary people, but not policy makers who should take new and stronger measures against global warming. However, some observers have pointed out that it is everyone’s responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that therefore events of that type are important on several levels.

Those who participate in sit-ins give similar responses to those who throw tomato sauce on the paintings or try other demonstrative acts: in the absence of these initiatives, the attention towards the existence of activist groups and movements is almost absent from the media and of the population, consequently the only way to arouse a little interest is to do something radical, while remaining non-violent.

As has become evident in the most recent cases, radical initiatives carry with them the risk of exposing their authors more than the causes they support. The consequent risk is that the objectives are lost sight of, re-entering an activism that is often defined as “performative”, in which a certain act is performed precisely to obtain greater visibility and have a higher social capital, leaving the cause in the background for which was done. Social networks have amplified some variations of this phenomenon, for example with the so-called “click activism”, in which we basically limit ourselves to sharing a tweet or a video of social commitment, not only to make it circulate, but to show others to be sensitive to certain causes. The commitment for many ends with a few clicks with the mouse, without continuing in the actual activism, with greater involvement.

Performative and click activism are almost always described in negative tones, yet not all observers are convinced that they do not play a role in advancing the demands of particular groups or movements. However, these gain visibility that otherwise they would not have on the Internet, thanks to those dynamics, gaining and then maintaining a certain relevance in the public debate. Not to mention the 21 paragraph articles that end up talking about it, like the one you just finished reading.

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