"As time goes on the voices demanding change will only grow louder, from both inside and outside the gallery walls, writes Giles Mitchell about developments in climate activism that now see art institutions and venues at the front and centre of debate. “Every justice movement in history has faced the exact same pushbacks and the discussions always seem to follow a similar pattern whereby people will claim to be sympathetic to the cause but just disagree with the methods used or the manner in which it is conveyed.”, he notes about the criticism this genre of activism will see from the climate moderate.
Just Stop Oil activists, Anna Holland and Phoebe Plummer who threw soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers are due to face a crown court trial hearing on January 9th 2023 for criminal damages. This is despite assurances from police that the painting was “unharmed”. The artwork was reportedly protected by a sheet of glass. Photo: Screenshot from @damiengayle.
In 2022 the art establishment was shocked and bemused to find itself at the centre of climate crisis debate, and many are wondering if there will be more political shots fired in 2023. It’s clear there has been a noticeable shift in gameplay with climate activist groups such as Just Stop Oil and Animal Rebellion now choosing to stage their headline grabbing stunts at famous art galleries or luxury high-end restaurants rather than target perhaps more obvious “baddies” like oil rigs or slaughterhouses. As climate activism starts to encroach on the spaces we inhabit and target the precious treasures we hold dear, it becomes harder to ignore their cries. Maybe that’s the point. In this new 2023 era of climate politics nothing is off-limits and symbols of power and wealth are considered fair game. Despite the grumblings of pompous art critics and restauranteurs, this new strategy seems to be working for the environmentalists in their mission to grab headlines. Even the most hardline climate change deniers must admit, it is a smart move. After all, who is going to take notice about a couple of soup cans being thrown at an oil rig? But at a Van Gogh painting, now that’s a story, that’s an image.
But why art, Why us? The audible gasps and metaphorical “clutching of pearls” as unwashed teenagers storm their way into the marble floored culture palaces of fine dining and fine art is quite mesmerizing to observe. However, as art connoisseurs know all too well, grabbing people’s attention is only half the battle. What exactly do you want to say once you’ve got a captive audience? What is your message? That’s the real kicker. Without any substance, all you’ve got is another tiresome student art project. In the case of Just Stop Oil they would argue their demands are clear: for governments to stop all new oil and gas projects. When Animal Rebellion activists occupied Gordon Ramsay, Salt Bae and Heston Blumenthal restaurants at the end of last year, they even came prepared and printed their requests on green menus demanding a shift to a “plant based food system” or a “plant based future”. In the early days of Thunberg’s Skolstrejk för klimatet or Extinction Rebellion (remember when Dame Emma Thompson climbed on a giant pink boat and confused everyone?), the demands were always a little wishy-washy and hard to pin down exactly. It seems at least the latest brand of environmental groups have done their homework in making the demands more articulate and specific.
Drawing by Corina Wahlin
So if those are the demands, then the inevitable next question that everybody seems to want to ask these days, is – Are these stunts actually effective? Do they help bring about this change and deliver their message effectively? Or are they actually pushing people further away? This seems to be the most popular criticism. Many such critics will say something along the lines of “I agree with the cause but not with their methods”. This kind of “climate moderate” position seems to get the most enthusiastic applause. The climate moderate wisely tends to avoid criticism of the activists’ arguments, and instead just suggests that the activists should go off to do their protest somewhere else. Presumably in a corner somewhere nobody can hear them? Or find some other more deserving target? Or come back at a more convenient time? If all this sounds strangely familiar...it is. Every justice movement in history has faced the exact same pushbacks and the discussions always seem to follow a similar pattern whereby people will claim to be sympathetic to the cause but just disagree with the methods used or the manner in which it is conveyed.
Martin Luther King once shared his frustration over the “white moderate”-
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a more convenient season. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
If there’s something we can learn from this, perhaps it’s that we shouldn’t be so quick to congratulate the popular yet painfully unoriginal criticism over the methods of direct action.
Other veteran activists like Peter Tatchell (as shown in the eye opening LGBTQ+ rights documentary “Hating Peter Tatchell”) also remind us that those standing up against widespread injustices were not really likable figures at the time, that comes with the territory of disrupting societal oblivion with inconvenient truths. So the individuals asking for change might be easy for us to tear down as unlikable, irritating or even sometimes hypocritical, but that doesn’t necessarily make their arguments on the matter itself less valid.
Art and politics have always been inseparable so there’s no point hoping this disturbance will just go away, it won’t. As time goes on the voices demanding change will only grow louder, from both inside and outside the gallery walls. So maybe the art world could instead try to be a better ally to climate activists. In 2022, we saw how the National Portrait Gallery in London finally decided to end years of British Petroleum sponsorship, perhaps in 2023 we can expect to see more artistic establishments cut ties with their fossil fuel sugar daddies. Climate politics has already arrived, so rather than pull up the defenses, why not just embrace it as an opportunity for discourse? Perhaps find new ways to give activists a voice in galleries at a time when the media is letting them down. Gallerists and curators could stop serving animal products in their cafes and art openings. And if all that doesn’t work out, at least try to be more outraged by the lives on this planet destroyed by the climate crisis rather than the precious objects.
Giles Mitchell is an industrial designer and a writer from the UK with a passion for the arts, climate and animal rights. He spent 14yrs working in Tokyo and now works in Stockholm.