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Is Attacking Art for Climate Action ‘Vandalism’? Experts Explain

A controversial trend in Europe has drawn attention as activists shift their climate change tactics from traditional approaches like petition campaigns to more unorthodox methods, including attacking works of art in museums and galleries. While some view these actions as a legitimate form of protest to draw attention to climate issues, others criticise them as acts of vandalism.

In a recent and unprecedented series of acts, environmentalist activists targeted major artworks by Van Gogh, Monet, and Vermeer to raise awareness about the climate emergency and protest against new fossil-fuel projects. The incidents, which involved splattering tomato soup on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at London’s National Gallery, smearing mashed potatoes on a painting from Monet’s “Grainstacks” series at the Barberini Museum in Germany, and gluing a man’s head to Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” in The Hague, garnered widespread attention and sparked debates about the effectiveness and ethics of using art as a vehicle for protest.

Two protesters threw soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s famous 1888 work Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. They caused no damage to the glass-covered painting.
Two protesters threw soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s famous 1888 work Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. Courtesy: curbed

The eco-vandalism, carried out by activists from groups like Just Stop Oil, aimed to pressure world leaders to take radical action at the United Nations climate summit. While the videos of the attacks were seen by millions worldwide, including leaders, they also elicited concern from the public about potential art damage. In response, directors of major museums issued a stern statement, raising questions about whether art-based protest is truly effective.

In the U.K., Climate Protesters Are Gluing Themselves to Art - The New York  Times
In the U.K., Climate Protesters Are Gluing Themselves to Art. Courtesy: The New York Times

The topic of art and protest was discussed at the Art for Tomorrow conference in Florence, Italy, where Clare Farrell, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, defended the acts of vandalism. She argued that the art was not physically damaged, and the protests were necessary to draw public attention to the urgent climate crisis.

The incidents have ignited a debate on the role of art in activism. Some believe that using renowned artworks as protest platforms can attract widespread attention to critical issues, forcing leaders to take notice and act. On the other hand, critics argue that such actions risk undermining the value of art and may alienate sections of the public who support climate action but disapprove of vandalism.

While the activists may have succeeded in creating a media spectacle, the effectiveness of their actions in driving concrete policy changes remains uncertain. Some experts argue that for protests to have lasting impact, they need to be complemented by well-thought-out policy proposals and constructive engagement with decision-makers.

Building Public Awareness or Creating Antipathy?

Levent Kurnaz, a professor at Bogazici University’s Center for Climate Change and Policy Studies, acknowledges that these actions may attract media attention, but questions their effectiveness in building positive public awareness of the climate crisis. He believes that such methods could create antipathy rather than sympathy, potentially deterring people from engaging with the issue. Kurnaz emphasises the importance of finding more impactful ways to communicate the urgency of climate change and elevate it above mundane daily routines.

Levent Kurnaz, professor at Bogazici University’s Center for Climate Change and Policy Studies. Courtesy:aa

Art as a Channel of Communication

Engin Beksac, head of the Art History Department at Trakya University, notes that works of art hold significant value in European culture, making them attractive targets for climate protests. He points out that while destroying art is not right, the activists’ discourse is a critical issue to consider. Beksac highlights that the protests have been directed at artworks behind protective coverings, preventing permanent damage and challenging the label of “vandalism.” He suggests that these actions utilize art as a tool of communication to spread their message and raise awareness, without diminishing the value of art in people’s eyes.

Engin Beksac, head of the Art History Department at Trakya University. Courtesy:aa

Generational Factor in Climate Protests

Vehbi Bayhan, a social psychology expert at Inonu University, highlights the generational factor in the protests, with most activists belonging to Generation Z, born between 2001 and 2020. Being digital natives, this generation is more globally connected and sensitive to issues like climate change and environmental concerns. Bayhan draws parallels with the young people who participated in the 1968 protests and emphasises that today’s youth wants their voices heard. However, he cautions against environmental movements losing focus on their main purpose and becoming a mere trend to gain attention.

Vehbi Bayhan, social psychology expert at Inonu University. Courtesy:aa

The Debate Over “Vandalism”

The central point of contention surrounding these actions remains whether they should be labeled as “vandalism.” While some experts do not categorise the attacks on art as vandalism, they do question the efficacy of such methods in addressing climate change issues. The activists’ intentions and the attention-grabbing nature of their actions raise ethical and strategic debates within the climate movement. The debate showcases the complexity of climate activism and the various viewpoints on how best to effect meaningful change.

The diverse reactions to the climate protests involving art attacks highlight the complexity of climate change advocacy. On one hand, defenders of these unorthodox actions argue that traditional methods of communication have failed to adequately address the urgency of the crisis. As international climate talks often yield insufficient results, such protests can serve as wake-up calls to both governments and individuals, forcing them to confront the gravity of the situation. By disrupting the status quo and targeting art, which has a powerful and symbolic influence on society, these activists aim to amplify their message and trigger collective action.


On the other hand, critics caution that resorting to aggressive tactics may alienate some members of the public and draw attention away from the core issues. The effectiveness of these protests in achieving concrete policy changes is also debated, as it may inadvertently polarise stakeholders and hinder productive dialogue. Instead, experts propose alternative methods that foster a more inclusive approach to climate activism, bringing together diverse voices and encouraging collaboration. In this rapidly evolving landscape of climate activism, the key lies in striking a balance that maximises impact without sacrificing longevity. While dramatic protests can momentarily capture attention, sustaining a movement requires more comprehensive strategies. Constructive engagement with all segments of society, especially the youth, is vital for building a broader and more committed coalition of climate advocates. Utilising social media, education, and grassroots organising, climate activists can channel their passion into fostering a long-lasting commitment to addressing climate change.

Is Attacking Art for Climate Action ‘Vandalism’? Experts Explain

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