Oh, It’s the Gallery You’re Worried About?

Gavin Chisholm
February 1, 2023
Illustration by Mary Duncan-Sain of DG+Design

An opinion article on the recent museum climate demonstrations from DG+'s Gavin Chisholm.

In November, President Biden flew to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt to convene with other global leaders at the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP27). This conference of United Nations figureheads comes once every year, and for the most part, the annual pledges and promises have had about as much of an impact as a New Year’s resolution. And, while the parties did agree in November to establish a Loss and Damage Fund, which will allocate money (enough, I hope?) for communities already in the crosshairs of climate disaster, it remains to be seen if developed nations around the world are yet ready to commit to their claims. 

And that is exactly how young people across the world see it: another false promise after another foreboding climate projection; leaders have failed to address the horror that could befall our youth in the future. So, weeks before their respective leaders traveled to Egypt for COP27, climate activists began demonstrations in art galleries around the world. In London, Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland hurled tomato soup onto Van Gogh’s essential ‘Sunflowers’ in the National Gallery. Bonnie Cassen scrawled across and glued her hands to Campbell’s Soup I in Canberra, Australia. A Monet piece in Potsdam was doused in mashed potatoes by members of the Letzte Generation.

Onlookers shouted “Oh my gosh!” in abject astonishment, unable to fathom the horror of museum employees having to scrub some dried soup off of the frame’s protective glass, certainly not remembering in that moment that it’s so hot and dry that trees are literally dropping dead. Shouts from the internet peanut gallery decried the actions as misguided, claiming they would do nothing to solve the problem, even though history would say otherwise. There have been countless instances of destructive activism having wrought results. Take, for example, the M’ikmaq people of the Elsipogtog First Nation destroying fracking equipment and setting cars ablaze in New Brunswick – fracking on their territory did not occur. 

And where do you direct your anxiety, your disappointment, your anger, when even the most platformed, articulate among us fall on deaf ears? This is a generation that may choose not to have children because of climate change. This generation is paying more and more for basic food necessities because of climate change. How can you fault them for their frustration? 

Even describing these acts as outbursts of frustration is reductive; R.H. Lossin asks in their essay In Defense of Destroying Property, “But what if property destruction is more than an understandable lapse of judgment and loss of control? What if it is not a frustrated, emotional reaction but a reasonable and articulate expression in itself?” 

The activists involved in these demonstrations knew these paintings were protected by glass, and in some cases chose certain paintings because of their depictions of consumerism and capitalism – the perpetrating economic systems of climate change. Targeting these symbols is a mechanism of their protest. Later in their essay, Lossin suggests that peaceful protest cannot exist without the possibility of “an actual threat to order.” There are times when action beyond peaceful protest is necessary, and I simply don’t feel that any of us are in the position to leverage the kinds of criticism I’ve seen being aimed at these activists.

“Why don’t these kids do something meaningful?” They are, first of all. Endless amounts of data show that Millennials and Gen Z are the most climate-conscious demographics among us, and are pouring into the environmental job market like water through a broken dam. 

“Why can’t they actually contribute to solving the problem?” Yes! Why don’t they invest billions of dollars into renewable energy technology, or cut fossil fuel subsidies, or write progressive, climate-forward legislation - all things that are so very much within their power? Obviously, they can’t.

Meanwhile, our leaders in the position to do so seem to sense no urgency at all. It seems very plain and clear to me that the activists carrying out these demonstrations are doing the hard, frightening work of bringing attention to and urging our governments towards the changes that are so very necessary for our survival. They are risking their education, career, and years of their lives for our and their own sake. 

And it’s the gallery you’re worried about?

Get the soup out of your eyes.


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