top of page

Performance Politics

DeWitt Cheng

Just Stop Oil activists through tomato soup over Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery, London

Environmental activists enraged by the revival of oil drilling in response to Russia’s oil export embargo, have declared their own campaign against art and art museums. The embargo was meant to punish Europe for its sanctions on Russia in response to the Ukraine war. The activists are vandalizing famous artworks in hopes that the high visibility of these attacks against iconic assets, filmed for widespread internet dissemination, will change public opinion towards our toxic petroleum energy. I cite below a few of the more high-profile attacks.


October 15: Two Just Stop Oil protesters threw Heinz cream of tomato soup onto Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” (1888) at the National Gallery in London. The youthful protesters, who asserted that the soup symbolized the inability of impoverished Britons to heat themselves or their food, glued their hands to the walls and hectored museum guards and visitors: “What is worth more, art or life? Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice?” 

Gustav Klimt’s “Death and Life” at the Leopold Museum, Vienna, after Last Generation Austria activists spilled oil on it.

October 23: German protesters from The Last Generation flung mashed potatoes onto “Les Meules” (1890) one of Monet’s Haystack paintings, at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, taunting onlookers and security guards: “All you are afraid of is tomato soup or mashed potatoes in a painting!” They glued themselves to the painting’s frame, declaring, "People are starving, people are freezing, people are dying.”

Just Stop Oil activist glue his own hear to Jan Vermeer’s “Girl

with a Pearl Earring at Mauritshius, The Hague, Netherlands

October 27: A Just Stop Oil protester tried to glue his hand — or bald head — to Jan Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (ca. 1665) at the Mauritshius in The Hague. A confederate poured tomato soup on the glass-covered masterwork. 

November 11: Norwegian Stop Oil Exploration activists tried to glue their hands to the frame of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893) at the National Museum of Norway in Oslo. 


November 15: Austrian activists poured an oily fluid on Gustav Klimt’s “Death and Life” (1910-15) at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, stating that “new oil and gas wells are a death sentence for humanity.”


November 24: Activists pasted large dystopic images of contemporary life onto John Constable’s “The Hay Wain” (1821) at London’s National Gallery, temporarily transforming the bucolic image of pre-industrial England into an “apocalyptic vision of the future.” Apocalyptic visions predate oil, of course: Hieronymus Bosch indicted greed in his triptych of the same title, made around 1516. Its heavily laden cart of hay in the central panel rolls toward hell in the right panel, surrounded by a crowd abandoned to lust for straw, the medieval artist’s metaphor for gold. 


Other artworks targeted for attacks have included Sandro Botticelli’s “Primavera,” in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence; Goya’s clothed and unclothed “Maja” paintings at the Prado Museum in Madrid; van Gogh’s “The Sower” (1888) at the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam; and Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa,” at the Louvre in Paris.

Fortunately, these actions so far have only caused reparable damage, since the works are protected by glass due to earlier attacks predating petroleum activism. Here’s hoping that the performative pseudo-iconoclasts manage to maintain that safety record in any future actions; their assurances to the contrary, such zeal may escalate over time. If the revolutionaries of the past are any indicator of how things progress or regress, that is a distinct possibility. Alex Greenberger’s “25 Famous Artworks That Have Been Vandalized” details historic vandalization of works by Picasso, Velasquez, Michelangelo, Rembrandt. Mondrian, Malevich, Rothko, and even Duchamp’s “Fountain.” 

Last Generation climate protesters throw mashed potatoes on Claude Monet,

“Les Meules (Haystacks)” at Germany’s Museum Barberini in Potsdam

The activists argue that the seriousness of the problem, with the fate of the planet in play, legitimizes their extreme tactics. The ends justify the means. It’s the specious argument that criminals and warmongers use to justify the unjustifiable and reprehensible. In the meantime, museum and government authorities have filed criminal trespass and criminal damage charges against the perpetrators, pointing out — quite reasonably, in my opinion — that endangering beloved artworks is more likely to antagonize the general public than to make converts to the cause of climate change mitigation. The headstrong anti-oil groups are correct about the urgency of the danger, but wrong about tactics and targets. Performative cultural terrorism should not be the price we pay today for the greener tomorrow that so many of us have desired for fifty years. Activists should be helping to preserve culture and the human spirit, not subjecting them to the radical excesses of unhinged utopians. There are better options.

TDC DeWittC450.jpg
bottom of page