Friday, March 31, 2023

“What is worth more, art or life?”: My thoughts on protest methodology in the era of climate change

Mosaic“What is worth more, art or life?”: My thoughts on protest methodology in the era of climate change

Staff Reporter

As visitors at London’s National Gallery perused paintings, van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” usually yolk-yellow, began to drip red. Climate activists affiliated with Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup on the Vincent van Gogh painting to bring attention to their mission: putting an end to licensing that allows the development and usage of fossil fuels. After gluing their hands to the wall beneath the painting, one protester asked onlookers, “What is worth more, art or life? Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice?” 

While the answers to these questions came easily to me, my thoughts on the protestors’ methodology were not so unambiguous. Was vandalizing a work of art the right vehicle for the protestors’ message? Is there even a correct way to draw attention to pressing matters that are quite literally life or death? 

My initial reaction to the protestors’ actions was shock, which was their intention. When interviewed after the incident, Just Stop Oil protestor Phoebe Plummer said that the goal of the protest was to bring visibility to the corporate exploitation of people and resources that perpetuate climate change.

“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,” Plummer said in the interview.

After hearing Plummer’s perspective, I was able to find merit in the protest. I believe that it is undeniably true that material change cannot occur without great discomfort or active resistance against the systems of domination that we currently exist within. 

Plummer is correct in saying that protesting has historically been effective in creating change. From the myriad of liberation movements of the 1960s (e.g. Black liberation, queer liberation, women’s liberation, etc.) to contemporary movements such as the Audre Lorde Project, Indigenous Women Rising and Sister Song, people have always worked toward and created substantial change in the lives of gender-oppressed people, queer people and racialized people. I find it profoundly comforting that organizing in the name of justice and liberation is neither an old nor new phenomenon, but a constant, ever-present force in the body politic.

As I was able to find value in the protest, so too was I able to understand the perspective of those that found the protestors’ actions to be disrespectful, even divisive. Before I learned that the painting was encased in glass, I winced at the thought of fine art being defaced; the thought of Van Gogh’s work — often the outlet for and visual manifestation of the mental illness he suffered with — being irreparably damaged was especially unsettling. As I wrestled with how to feel about fine art being the target of protests, I remembered Plummer’s query to those at the museum about whether art or life mattered more. 

Countless nations ascribe great cultural value to art, and for good reason. Art and the humanities are often delegitimized for not having practical value, but I know that there is value in the media we consume and the crafts we use as means of expression beyond how practical or lucrative they are. The awe I feel when seeing the brushstrokes of a centuries-old painting up close or the ache that creeps up my throat when noticing lingering fingerprints on ancient pottery may not be based on logical reason, but they are visceral and real.

Over time, art’s value has become somewhat bastardized; the art world, with its capitalist and colonial foundations, furthers art’s commodification, making it inaccessible to communities without generational wealth and industry connections. The art world and the material value we place on art, rather than the cultural value, deserve criticism. 

Despite the art world’s faults, art’s importance should not be dismissed when discussing the Just Stop Oil protest. As the group threatens something with ascribed cultural value without destroying it, we can see how we often ignore the larger systemic issues, such as climate change, that tangibly affect individuals, communities and the planet as a whole. 

As discourse regarding the protest continues, whether you are for or against the protest’s methodology, most people will deduce that justice and life deserve prioritization over the exploitative art industry, and even over physical pieces of art themselves. If our planet is not conducive to life, we will lose all that inclines us to make art; what is decaying and melting at our feet is the producer of all that we are inspired by. 

Maintaining revolutionary optimism and organizing to combat the systems of oppression that continue Earth’s destruction is how we will maintain art, our valuing of it and the natural beauty that allows us to create it.




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