I am deeply concerned about the climate change issue. I come from a family background of protest, but over the decades I’ve learned which forms of protest are effective and which tend to fail. Being on the right side of history doesn’t guarantee that you will achieve your desired outcomes—in fact, if you blindly assume that the merit of your cause will justify any action, this can lead to unintended consequences that actually undermine your cause.
On 1 January 2023, Extinction Rebellion announced a “shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic.” XR activists will now “prioritise attendance over arrest” and “relationships over roadblocks.” They’ve learned what kinds of protest can be counterproductive and are focusing on directly challenging government.
Other eco-activist groups, however, still remain committed to public disruption and stunts like attacking famous artworks are part of a long history of misdirected activism.
Over the past year, artworks by the following artists have been targeted: Goya, Munch, Toulouse-Lautrec, Carr, Vermeer, Monet, Picasso, Raphael, Boccioni, Botticelli, Constable, Turner and da Vinci. There have been acts of “reversible vandalism” of four separate Van Gogh paintings. The most recent painting under attack was Gustav Klimt’s 1908 Death and Life, housed in Vienna’s Leopold Museum.
All these actions have been merely symbolic, as the artworks are behind glass and have remained unharmed. Nevertheless, this strategy—adopted by Just Stop Oil, Italy’s Ultima Generazione and Germany’s Letzte Generation—is backfiring. It fails to consider art’s emancipatory role in human history, and is damaging the ecologists’ cause.
Lessons from Occupy
One of the mistakes that led to the undoing of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011–2012 was that the protestors ceased to physically occupy Wall Street. Rather than disrupting the flow of global capital by shutting down New York’s financial district, the activists allowed themselves to be relocated to Zuccotti Park, a privately owned public space. The protests then became focused on the park itself, on the protestors’ right to maintain an encampment there and the daily difficulties of camping without toilets or fresh water. The original protest against global banking had lost sight of its target.
In many cities across the world, the same thing happened: police moved Occupy protestors to public parks and their right to camp there then became the overriding issue. The activists found themselves protesting against local councils and city bureaucrats, departments of parks and recreation and sanitation while, miles away, the bankers kept on trading uninterrupted.
The entire global Occupy movement was led down a cul-de-sac and fell apart because it no longer impacted the centres of global capital.
When Just Stop Oil and other related groups target public art, they put forward the confused message that publicly owned art collections and national galleries are connected to CO2 emissions and climate change. But only some of the museums targeted receive funding from the oil and gas industries and it requires a convoluted explanation to link art museums to their governments’ ecological policies. So, the core message is incoherent. These activists are starting out from exactly the point at which the Occupy Movement sadly failed: their protests are focused on the wrong location.
So, what should their real target be?
The Great Global Omission
It is not well known, even among some climate activists, that between a quarter and a third of carbon dioxide emissions are caused by corporations that produce factory goods in CO2-polluting nations such as China, and then ship those goods over vast distances. Long-distance freight accounts for 30% of all transport-related emissions and 7% of all global emissions, according to the International Transport Forum. (By contrast, total CO2 emissions from all activities in the UK amount to only 1.03% of the global tally.)
The ITF calculate that the carbon emissions from globalised freight trade will increase more than fourfold to eight billion tons by 2050, which “would seriously undermine climate goals.” That means that the carbon imprint of distant factories and the container ships, planes and trains that transport our goods across the globe will negate the carbon savings that individual nations make.
But we don’t hear about this from climate activists because they are not targeting multinational retail corporations or international freight systems.
Multinational corporations attempt to pass themselves off as green by deliberately failing to itemise the carbon costs of externalities such as mining, cheap manufacture in developing nations and global shipping. International freight is not the responsibility of any single nation, which allows those responsible to evade accountancy. Studies that show emissions by nation also fail to take it into consideration.
The national heads of state did not talk about the carbon impact of global trade at COP 27. Instead, they focused on blue carbon and on granting compensation to countries affected by rising sea levels. They failed to mention the carbon imprint of international trade liberalisation—perhaps because their growth economies are dependent on distant manufacture, international supply chains and carbon-intensive freight. There was no mention of the vast projected growth in international freight between now and 2050 due to globalisation, including a 332% increase in freight from China (causing a 403% increase in emissions); a 195% increase in freight from Europe (with a concomitant 208% increase in emissions); a 315% increase from the Indian Ocean region and a 715% increase in freight from Africa.
Instead, our national leaders talked about reigning in and policing their citizens’ domestic use of electricity and gas, through such devices as household carbon footprint calculators.
International freight is the major omission in their calculations.
Could nations cut back on international imports? Could countries grow their own food, manufacture their own goods and reduce their dependence on these wasteful, polluting practices? Could globalisation itself be the main cause of anthropogenic climate change?
Eco activists could attack the root causes of climate change by targeting multinational corporations; they could superglue themselves to the doorways of branches of Apple, Next, H&M, Walmart, Home Depot, Nike and other corporations that depend on overseas factories and international shipping. Activists could fasten themselves to the vast container ships that each carry 15,000 shipping containers—just as Greenpeace campaigners once risked their lives to confront mid-ocean whaling vessels.
They would then be on target.
France’s Dernière Rénovation group has demonstrated that this is possible. When they blocked access to the tunnel at Mont-Blanc for two hours in December 2022, they successfully—if briefly—drew attention to the issue of international freight at border controls. Attacking artworks, on the other hand, only detracts from the real issue.
The eco-protestors have also failed to draw attention to another of the largest causes of global CO2 pollution: cement manufacture. Protests against cement manufacturers have been small scale and therefore generally ignored by the press.
The activists are faced with a difficult choice, then: target the real material causes of pollution and receive little media attention; or attack art and create a media spectacle, but compromise your message.
Spectacle versus Spectacle
In his radical book and film, The Society of the Spectacle, theorist Guy Debord—who was influential in the Paris uprisings of May 1968—argues that the modern consumer economy is government by the logic of the spectacle, and that you therefore cannot effectively oppose capitalist society by using spectacular means yourself: i.e. you can’t fight against the corporate media governance system by playing up to the corporate media.
By targeting museums, Just Stop Oil activists are deliberately courting media attention. They select individual artworks not because of any complex historical meanings that those works communicate but simply because they are famous and highly valued objects.
The problem is that such acts of rebellion quickly become repetitive publicity stunts and, after an initial spike in media attention, they will receive less and less publicity with each repeated incident. If you play by the rules of the media spectacle, your cause will suffer when the media moves on to the next spectacular event. If you deal in sensation, media boredom thresholds limit your effectiveness. And, amid the chaos of arrests and the waning shock effect, the protestors’ more meaningful and complicated messages rarely make it into the headlines. In accordance with the logic of the spectacle, only their brand names, such as Just Stop Oil in the UK and The Last Generation in Italy, come across loud and clear: pithy branding phrases that our media-exhausted culture has no time to unpack.
Debord was right: if you act like a brand, you will meet the same fate as other brands do—your issue will go out of fashion. You will have simply become part of the system of the spectacle, which reduces every event to a mere appearance in a fleeting procession of screen images. And it is the multinational corporate society of the spectacle that is ultimately the engine of global CO2 emissions.
You can’t fight the spectacle using spectacular means.
Just Stop Superglue
Just Stop Oil’s message is compromised by the fact that the protests themselves are dependent on oil-based products. The glue that they use to attach themselves to the frames of famous paintings is a cyanoacrylate, a synthetic material made from oil. Their jeans and slogan-bearing T-shirts are manufactured in factories in China and shipped around the world using oil. Their sneakers are made from plastics; the phones on which they record their protests are constructed from parts that come from five different nations and are comprised of rare earth metals (such as coltan from the Democratic Republic of the Congo) which again involves international mining and shipping. The paint they use to spray their slogans is polymer based—made from oil.
The one test of a true believer is that you must live the cause. Vegans don’t wear leather shoes; anarchists refuse to shop in corporate stores; Antifa silence people whom they believe to be fascists. While Just Stop Oil activists rely on oil-based products, and fail to target the corporations behind their global manufacture, trade and shipping, they cannot address our material dependence on oil-based products in our daily lives within consumerist economies. They might make their point better if they removed all the clothes, technology and materials that have been manufactured and shipped using oil from their protests. But since there is no non-oil-based substitute for superglue, the glue would have to go, along with the sneakers and smart phones.
If they organised more naked protests, they might be able to prove how dependent our developed nations have become on oil-based products, and demonstrate that our globalised supply chains are the real problem.
Listen to Žižek
Don’t fall in love with yourselves … We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?
Žižek warned that you mustn’t lose sight of your concrete political objective. If you turn protesting into a festival or a lifestyle, you will fail. Again and again, throughout the history of protest, we have witnessed activism degenerate into first a fashionable and then even a comfortable routine—at the expense of its political objectives. This is how Che Guevara became a popular T-shirt motif in the 1970s; and how the protest camps at Faslane and Greenham Common that challenged the US nuclear bases in the UK in the 1980s, became full-time residential tent cities that lasted decades. These peace camps had zero impact on global nuclear policy, and instead became outdoor experiments in alternative communal living.
It’s easy to get cosy when you have an in-crowd of the like-minded to support you and a vile all-powerful political nemesis to detest. You can quickly begin to scorn everyday people, whom you see as part of the problem. You can build a life around protesting, and the deeper you get entrenched, the more the foundational paradox grows—if the cause you were fighting for were ever resolved, if you were to win, your protest would be over. But your protest must continue; protest is now your lifestyle so you must stick with it! Some part of you wants to be endlessly defeated, so you can keep on protesting.
Truly effective protest has to be strategic, goal-focused and inventive, so that it doesn’t degenerate into a lifestyle that achieves nothing but tokenistic displays of good intentions. As Žižek warned, you mustn’t fall in love with your identity as an activist.
The ecological protests against art objects seem to be approaching this threshold in which activism becomes a lifestyle.
The Ice Bucket Challenge
Protests that go viral can end up resembling other much more trivial social media trends. Over the past five years, there have been a series of strange TikTok challenges. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers from all over the world post videos of themselves acting out specific dares in a process of competitive copycat viral social contagion. There have been frivolous ones—the ice bucket challenge, the no bra challenge, the camel toe challenge—and more dangerous ones—the Benadryl challenge, the milk crate challenge, the coronavirus challenge and the Tide pod challenge. There was even one involving Gorilla Glue (superglue) and a lip-gluing challenge.
The eco-activists’ attacks on paintings have entered the public eye by the same social media mechanisms that caused the ice bucket and Tide pod challenges to go viral—like a kind of glue yourself to the edge of an artwork challenge. This affinity with the form of the TikTok challenge makes the protests easy to dismiss as just another social media fad in which young people do slightly risky things for attention.
Once again, the actual issue they’re protesting against gets lost amid the spectacle. The recent Just Stop Oil protest at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum provides a striking example of this. The protestors attacked a work by an obscure nineteenth-century landscape painter (Horatio McCulloch, 1805–1867) in a museum that has no connection to any fuel companies and is controlled by a progressive local council, in a city with Global Green City status, in a country (Scotland) in which 97.4% of gross electricity consumed is already produced from renewable sources. This seems less like a targeted protest and more akin to viral copycat behaviour.
The Meaning of Artworks
Specific artworks often have unique and resonant meanings; they give our lives depth, providing a sense of historical and existential rootedness. Van Gogh is not just probably the most famous painter in the world, he’s a symbol of the human struggle against mental illness, the conquest of spirit in the face of adversity and rejection. The sensitive, struggling creator who lived and died for his art, although he didn’t sell a single painting during his lifetime, created images of sunflowers and of a sower sowing a field against a backdrop of radiant sunlight. These images hold a great deal of personal meaning for millions of people. But to the protestors who have attacked four of his artworks so far, these paintings are merely a means to draw media attention to their cause.
The protestors treat the artworks as merely famous objects—but you can never reduce an artwork to its fame or market value. When you attack an artwork, the act can also accrue some of the meanings that are associated with that artwork and can be coloured by its history. This was the case when protestors attacked Gustav Klimt’s 1910 painting Life and Death. Perhaps the activists didn’t know this, but Klimt’s artworks were seized by the Nazis and his masterpiece, the ceiling mural at the University of Vienna, was destroyed by retreating Nazi forces in 1945. It’s impossible to shake off these associations, which colour any act of violence, symbolic or otherwise, against a Klimt painting.
Activists might well be advised to study art history to find out which paintings on their hit lists have been censored, confiscated or damaged by oppressive political regimes and which artists were banned, prosecuted or exiled. For example, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, James Ensor, Oskar Kokoschka, Marc Chagall and Käthe Kollwitz were all branded degenerate artists and persecuted by the Nazis, who seized over 600 artworks by these and other painters. It would cross an ethical line if paintings by these artists were targeted by eco activists.
Activists might also want to think twice about attacking Pablo Picasso’s 1937 Guernica, the most powerful and moving anti-war painting in history, or any of the etchings in Goya’s 1810 Disasters of War series—or any other anti-war artworks.
On their don’t attack list, they might also want to include artworks by women, who have been under-represented in the artistic canon. This would rule out Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, Artemisia Gentileschi, Berthe Morisot, Camille Claudel, Gwen John, Suzanne Valadon, Mary Cassatt, Kay Sage, Leonor Fini, Remedios Varo and Dorothea Tanning, among others.
Another painting not to attack would be the Velasquez’ Rokeby Venus (1647–51), the provocative nude that was slashed by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1906. To target that painting now would be to re-appropriate and obfuscate a historic feminist incident.
The activists also need to exclude any paintings that are not behind glass—not unless they want to permanently damage them.
So, only the most famous masterpieces, behind glass, can be legitimate targets—and only those that were not painted by persecuted or marginalised artists.
The activist attacks are likely to have unintended consequences that have nothing to do with ecological policy. Museums around the world will now have to protect their masterworks by putting them into storage or replacing them with photographic reproductions. It is extremely difficult to adequately insure most great artworks and there is some precedent for this: some of Leonardo da Vinci’s works that were on public display have been replaced with photos due to safety concerns.
If artworks do start to be stored away from the public eye, that will be a great loss and would in no way further the aims of eco-activists. This is a consequence far removed from the problems of fossil fuel power stations, cement manufacture and global shipping and has nothing to do with CO2 emissions at all.
Art history matters. Targeting art just because it is famous devalues both the art itself and the human experience that drives us to become artists in the first place—all the devotion and yearning, suffering and skill that has gone into creating art over the centuries. When activists set the idea of a corrupt civilisation that values art against the ecological survival of the species—claiming that we need nature more than we need art—they are presenting a false dichotomy because art is part of our human nature. The Homo sapiens urge to create art predates civilisation. The earliest cave paintings came into existence 45,000–60,000 years ago, long before the first human agricultural settlements (12,000 years ago). In fact, art making even predates anatomically modern humans, as the first art was made by our close cousins the Neanderthals, 64,000 years ago. We are art-making apes. Art shouldn’t be seen as the enemy of our survival, but as one of its strongest allies.
So, this is my plea to activists: please protest against the multinational corporations and the freight systems, target the people and organisations who are causing the problem directly. You not only achieve very little by attacking artworks in public museums, but you might actually be making things worse, by distracting us from the real corporate culprits. And you will never successfully fight climate change if your strategy involves denying our innate human desire to create and conserve beauty.