Dave – the editor
On Friday 14th October, a couple of activists threw the contents of a tin of tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the National Gallery in London: Just Stop Oil activists throw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers 14.10.22. Before we go any further, it should be noted that the painting was behind glass and there was only minor damage to the frame. It should also be noted that before the two activists started their performance, the media were in attendance, cameras poised ready to record the action as you can see here. The act was intended to draw attention to the harms caused by the fossil fuel industry. The act performed by the two activists certainly grabbed the headlines and generated a lot of reaction but, when they eventually pause to reflect, it didn’t end up drawing attention to the issue of continuing to rely on fossil fuel.
We follow a wide variety of people on Twitter across the political spectrum. Away from an element of activists who favour performative acts, this stunt has gone down like the proverbial lead balloon. The attention of most people following this is on the performative act of chucking soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and the background of the two activists who performed this act. It is most definitely not on the future of fossil fuels and what will replace them. To put it bluntly, this act backfired. It backfired because the activists involved are too wrapped up in their own bubble and not in touch with what most ordinary people think and do.
The activists were arrested by the cops and taken into custody. At the time of writing, it’s not clear whether charges will be pressed or not. The fact that Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was intentionally picked by the activists because the painting was protected by glass may well turn out to be a mitigating factor. Perhaps if this ever does get to a prosecution and a trial, the two activists can claim that their act was ‘conceptual art’? Whatever it was, it was performative and considered by a fair few people as little more than a tantrum.
Protest has always involved disruption. Over the years, we’ve been on protests that have been very disruptive. The best disruptive protests have been the ones followed up by more militant direct action aimed at getting s**t done, the fight against the Poll Tax being one example. Direct action, when done right, is incredibly disruptive. That’s the whole point of direct action whether it’s shutting down an arms factory or screwing up a hunt. Direct action is about getting a result. Okay, as in the valiant attempts to stop environmentally destructive road and other infrastructure schemes, direct action doesn’t always succeed but generally. it’s pretty bloody clear what the intention is.
We’re about supporting action that gets s**t done. This ranges from grassroots community projects that aim to start building the new world we want in the here and now through to direct actions that shut an arms factory or stop an environmentally destructive infrastructure project. It also takes in the kind of direct action that reverses a government policy such as the fight against the Poll Tax or the rattling of rip off energy providers that Don’t Pay UK are starting to achieve.
With the kind of prefigurative grassroots activity that’s aiming to build a new world in the shell of the old, the public generally respect what’s being done. That’s not just because of the benefit to the community but also because people see activists willing to put their money where their mouth is and actually do their best to build an alternative. While actions to frustrate the construction of infrastructure projects such as HS2 or a new road don’t always get the support of the majority of the public, at least it’s pretty clear what the target is! This stands in stark contrast to the blocking of roads by Insulate Britain or chucking soup over a painting where there’s a massive disconnect between the issue and the action that’s supposed to draw attention to it.
As the system starts to fall apart, the super rich whose interests it has served are becoming more desperate to hang onto their wealth and privileges, regardless of the cost to us plebs, let alone the planet we live on. That means we are going to get increasingly screwed over. There will be a rising tide of resistance, that’s for sure. The point is, it has to be genuine resistance from the people at large, not performative tantrums by a privileged minority of so called activists. This is why we feel that the stunt of chucking a can of soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers has to be called out for being performative, not to mention a waste of soup which should have gone to a foodbank.
If meaningful, radical change that brings power down to the grassroots is to happen, hearts and minds have to be won over. If they’re not won over and a certain class of ‘activists’ end up achieving their world vision, then one form of authoritarianism predicated on preserving the material wealth of the super rich will simply be replaced by another aimed at modifying and controlling every aspect of the behaviour of us mere plebs. That kind of vanguardism, as history should tell us, is a recipe for human misery. That’s not the future any right thinking person wants…