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#TomatoSoup, Just Stop Oil Attack on Van Goth’s ‘Sunflowers’: Vandalism or Civil Resistance?

For two weeks, around the beginning of October 2022, activists from Just Stop Oil have been staging sit-down protests on roads around central London. This has infuriated commuters and drivers but then actions by the activist group escalated and involved an attack that affected the art world.

On the 14th of October, two Just Stop Oil activists headed to the National Gallery with some canned soup and glue, just to throw the soup on ‘Sunflowers’ by Vincent Van Goth. Following the tomato soup splashing, the activists removed jackets to reveal Just Stop Oil T-shirts before gluing themselves to the wall beneath the artwork, which is one of the gallery’s most important treasures.

National Gallery staff quickly cleared the room. In a statement released after the protesters’ activity against this world-renowned art treasure, the gallery has confirmed the painting was not harmed (as it is protected by glass). There was some minor damage to the frame, but the painting has remained intact.

The reason for all of this is that the cost-of-living crisis is part of the cost of oil crisis, fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup.

OK, but the question here would be: is it justifiable to act within the art world and possibly damage a piece of human heritage for the purpose of raising awareness and shocking people?

The truth is that art treasures have been subjected to attacks and possible damage for a long time: The ‘Mona Lisa’ has been the subject of vandalism several times over – twice in 1956, in 1974, in 2009 and in 2022. It’s not a great surprise – after all, Leonardo da Vinci’s 14th Century masterpiece is arguably the most famous painting of all time.

Also Auguste Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ (1904) was damaged in 1970 by a bomb. Thankfully, no one was hurt but according to the Cleveland Museum, where the sculpture was showcased, the explosion irreparably damaged the sculpture. There were ten casts made of it: the reason why you may have seen a fully formed statue during your last visit to the Rodin Museum in Paris.

Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937) was spray painted with the words ‘Kill Lies All’ when it was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art, and Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Urinal’ (1917) was smashed up by Pierre Pinoncelli, a 77-year-old French artist, in 2006.

This all because, for sure, art has that kind of magic aura and appeal that one can also recognise in mega-celebrities…attracting the attention of stalkers, delusional and psychologically affected people. However, this is not what was behind the actions at the National Gallery earlier this month, as stated by Phoebe Plummer, one of the attackers:

“I want to make one thing perfectly clear, we did not damage the painting whatsoever. (…) We’re using these actions to get media attention to get people talking about this now and we know civil resistance works, history has shown us this works. (…) I’m standing here as a queer woman and the reason that I’m able to vote, go to university, and hopefully someday marry the person I love is because of people who have taken part in civil resistance before me.”

We are not here to judge, and for sure this is a peculiar way of talking resistance, but what matters is that these activists were aware that it would be hard to damage a work of art behind a glass shield…and there are so many other ones at the National Gallery that are not protected in this way.


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