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Art tells stories of activism for generations. Climate gang defacing Van Gogh doesn’t get it

When you choose an object of both personal and public affection like art, you’re putting your activism into jeopardy.

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Environmental movements are important. And ultimately, it’s art and history museums that will tell and preserve the story of green campaigners to future generations. Art is a storyteller. Look at Picasso’s Guernica and its signal to the Spanish Civil War. Art is activism. It isn’t lazy intellectualism.

That’s why defacing Vincent van Gogh or Claude Monet or Mona Lisa in the name of climate activism is so infuriating.

Just when we thought some of the anger around two German protesters splashing mashed potatoes on Monet’s 1890 painting ‘Grainstacks’ settled, it got re-energised — another set of activists smeared custard pie on King Charles III’s wax statue at Madame Tussauds in London Monday. The museum has gotten temporarily shut.

“Just stop new oil and gas. It’s a piece of cake!” shouted one of the activists, affiliated with Just Stop Oil, a UK-based environmental activist group, BBC reported.

What’s worth more: Art or life? That’s a debate I have no intentions of getting into. But vandalising works of art — even ‘symbolically’ — is empty tin drum beating paraded as rage activism.

Also read: Rasgulla, Taj Mahal, Sanskrit—What if I told you to pick one object that represents India

Discrediting legitimate protests

Climate change is bad, I get it. But worse is alienating neutral — and malicious — entities by carrying out ‘violent’ acts. Sure, no rights were won by smiling at governments, and I’m not against angry movements. But when you choose an object of both personal and public affection like art, you’re putting your activism into jeopardy.

One, it discredits legitimate protests. How? A work of art acquires cult, if not sacred, value over time. Vandalising it perverts its intellectual and artistic sentiment. Because you’ve made it a battle of sentiments, I’m throwing logic out of the window: I see climate activists as angry, young Gulabi Gang equivalents. And because climate activism is still a relatively new phenomenon, yet to be dissected for nuances, I wouldn’t give a damn.

Two, it polarises opinion like the Red Sea. Either the supporters howl and hoot, proud of the attention it gathers. Or neutral and malicious entities nurture the hate — The Sun called the German protestors ‘eco-idiots’, some went further to classify them as ‘terrorists’. Right after Just Stop Oil activists hurled tomato soup at Van Gogh’s  ‘Sunflowers’ in London early this month, a survey conducted showed that while 58 per cent in the UK supported the demands, 57 per cent were against the group itself. These are tricky divisions that might just cost environmentalists the nuances they didn’t see coming.

The point is, broadly trying to increase awareness is less effective than it was in previous years, experts say. The ‘attention-deficit’ model of climate politics has been stretched wide enough. Everybody knows. But sadly, we dislike a good movement that depresses us or doesn’t immediately affect us. What we need is concrete policies, negotiations with big corps, climate literacy in both media and institutions, and working with the State and not against it. And what we definitely don’t need is annoying and triggering people into hate, because, let’s be honest, people loved art way before they loved climate.

Three, ask: To what end, really? The trend started in May 2022 at Paris’ Louvre Museum when a man, disguised as an elderly woman, jumped out of a wheelchair and hurled cake at da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Thereon the confidence of these so-called ‘direct action’ activists grew. From cloaked attackers vandalising glass-encased paintings, now it’s proud names defacing the unprotected Charles III at Madame Tussauds. Going by current developments, climate is likely to get worse — and so will the rage. Then we ask again: To what end will we vandalise artwork? How long till it materialises into actual damage to private possessions? Because what’s art worth in front of life?

Perhaps, more importantly, do the big corps even care if art is damaged?

Again, it isn’t about where the balance tips in the art-versus-life debate. This campaign is disappointing because of its bad optics and entitled assumptions. If the point is to enrage average museum visitors and doomsday scrollers on social media like me, you need to go beyond that. Tell me how to start small if big corps aren’t listening.

And, politics aside, at least don’t assault my love for Monet and Gogh’s impressionist art that made me love nature in the first place.

Views are personal.

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