How Far Is Too Far? Environmental Protesters Attempt to Destroy Famous Historical Art Works

Nicole Martin, Senior Copy Editor

Back In late May, pieces of cake were thrown at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” In the past few weeks, soup has been thrown at Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” and Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” has been subject to red paint and glue. These are just a few of the artworks that have recently undergone public vandalism. Instigated by environmental climate protesters, these attempts to vandalize famous artworks have raised conversation about how effective they are in achieving their message. 

Ultimately, there comes a level of understanding as to why climate activists are so adamant about sparking conversation through headline-making actions. However, when it comes to destroying priceless pieces of artwork that not only opens eyes to years of history and has influenced the understanding of why art is so important in the modern world, but also reflects the hard work and imagination of the artist. These activists are not only doing a disservice to these artists and other artists all around the world but also doing nothing to protect the planet.

Take for example Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” Van Gogh is characterized as a mentally-ill artist who spent his life marginalized by the very town he lived in due to his poor mental health. Despite Van Gogh’s tragic life, he deeply loved nature and viewed the world around him through a beautiful imagination. Thus, “Sunflowers” is important because it not only encapsulated Van Gogh’s artistry in its purest form but also became a universal symbol of gratitude. When Van Gogh tragically died due to suicide, his love for sunflowers lived on and people brought them to his funeral to honor his life. 

So why is this so important in the context of environmental activism? Throwing soup on the painting created by a mentally-ill man who adored nature and famously painted his surroundings dishonors Van Gogh’s legacy and narrative as an artist. Furthermore, when taking into account the context of the painting, it achieves the opposite of what environmental protesters are trying to get across in their demonstrations.

“Sunflowers” has not been the only painting subject to environmental protest. Since many famous historical artworks continue to be the target of protests, it begs the question of why?

Phoebe Plummer, one of the two activists who targeted “Sunflowers,” asked “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?” This question is counterproductive to her point because both art and the environment matter. Art is not the reason for the climate crisis. However, apart from this, one of the main components these targeted artworks have in common is the theme of the representation of natural beauty and regeneration  — which, in theory, symbolizes exactly what could be destroyed if the climate crisis were to take over. By throwing soup on these paintings, it potentially symbolizes the destruction of the planet if society were to ignore the Earth’s call for help.

The paintings involved in the protest experienced minimal damage since a glass glaze protected them. But, there has been some damage to the frames, which poses the concern that moisture from the substances thrown may seep into the painting’s surface underneath the glass glaze.

Overall, while there is some validity to the message environmental protesters are attempting to set forth, how activists are trying to achieve it steers people away from supporting their ideas. For those who love art and the environment equally, such as myself, seeing one of my favorite paintings, painted by one of my favorite artists, almost destroyed brings me no curiosity on how I can save my planet. In seeing this, I am not asking myself “how can I help my environment?” but rather, I am filled with anger, questioning which artwork will be targeted next. 

To environmental protesters, trying to destroy the “Mona Lisa” is not going to benefit the Earth in any way. But there are multiple other actions to be taken that could.