Why art? Why now? 

A Q&A on soup throwing on Van Gogh Sunflowers

Q: On Friday 14 October, two young Just Stop Oil supporters entered the National Gallery and threw a tin of tomato soup over one of Europe’s most famous and beloved paintings: Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

The painting is unharmed –  the action was planned knowing it was properly protected. But there’s still been a huge outcry with people asking: why attack art? Why go after something as precious as human creativity, culture and beauty? 

A: Yes – art is precious. We share that love deeply. What we want to do is salvage a future where human creativity is still possible. We’re terrifyingly close to losing that, so we have to break the rules. And that means pushing cultural buttons to provoke, challenge and shock. There’s no other way. 

This action makes people confront what is a justified response to the threats we now face, what is sacred and what should we do to protect it.

It enables a conversation – you are outraged about this, where is your outrage of 33 million people in Pakistan losing their livlihoods, 1000 million crabs gone from our oceans, the fire service pushed to breaking point due to 40C heat. What should we protect, the conditions that allow humanity to make art, to be creative – or the masterpieces that will have no one to gaze on them.

Q: This action came after 14 days of Just Stop Oil roadblocks around the capital. So why the sudden shift to an art action? Aren’t Just Stop Oil supporters already pushing enough buttons by disrupting traffic around London?

A: We had a choice to make. We could have relentlessly stuck to the roadblocks – hoping that by dint of sheer repetition our message would cut through. The Met Police, the Home Office – all these people were starting to talk about us and discuss what to do. Relentlessness is definitely a viable strategy. It’s how Greta eventually got her message to land so powerfully. 

But we were still only hitting page eight or nine of the national press. We needed to switch things up and take the media by surprise. The art action was exactly the change of pace we needed. It shocked people as it was so unexpected. 

Most of all, it shocked people as attacking art is a huge act of cultural transgression. It breaks a taboo. Art is sacred in our culture – to attack it feels almost blasphemous. 

Q:  But why attack what is sacred for people? Isn’t that really hurtful and alienating?

A:  Actually, attacking what people really care about pushes them to ask hard questions. For example: do I really care more about a work of art than about the basic planetary support systems that make art possible in the first place? Does that make any sense? There’s an apocalyptic, climate-driven famine in Somalia, which hasn’t pushed me to say anything. But I’m venting my anger now over a work of art in a gallery. Does any of this add up? What do I really value here?

These are hard questions but we’re all asking them together of each other, and of ourselves. In fact, one of the biggest intended audiences for this action was allies – as well as adversaries! Our allies and supporters were fine with the idea of disrupting oil terminals and traffic, but many were still outraged by this action. 

What we’re trying to do is push them further – asking them to question their own comfort zone, and what they really feel the stakes are. If you claim to value art so highly, what are you doing to protect it?That’s one of the big questions we want people to ask. Look at this tweet, from Professor Julia Steinberger: she’s asking us exactly that –  to question whether we have our priorities right.

Q: People have accused Just Stop Oil of being stupid and ‘philistine’ over this action, not really getting the true value of art. What would you say to this?

A: Well, there’s actually a long history of people (including artists themselves!) “attacking” art in galleries. Art is about communication and change, as well as contemplation and beauty. Van Gogh himself was a disruptor and a rebel. Art galleries aren’t just places to admire pretty pictures: they should challenge our comfortable view of things. Especially at a time like this where staying in our comfort zone will lead to the destruction of everything we value.

Q: The two supporters involved in the action were young people in their early 20s. Isn’t Just Stop Oil exploiting them and ruining their future by putting them up to an action which has seen them held on remand?

A: They stepped up to do this – after all, climate breakdown will wreak more havoc on their future than a police record. But with this kind of argument, you have to realise that no matter what your age or social class, hostile journalists will attack you for it. If you’re an older person, you’ll be attacked for being a privileged retiree. If you’re working class, you’ll be called ‘knuckle-boned’ (yes, this really happened to one of our spokespeople). If you’re young, you’ll be called vulnerable and exploited. There’s no way around this one: hostile journalists will always find an angle to get at you. 

Q: What about the argument that civil resistance is a numbers game – all about getting more and more people into action because ‘they can’t arrest all of us’? If these kinds of actions drive people away from Just Stop Oil,isn’t that counter-productive?

A: You have to look at where people are. For some people who are put off by an action like this, it could be that they’re not ready for what we are saying. Many people are still in a place where they want everything to be OK and to keep going as it is. Unconsciously many of us still hope someone else is going to come and sort it all out, so we don’t have to go to these extremes.

Recognising that’s not the case is a hard step to take. No-one is coming to save us, so we need to push every cultural button we can to get our message through. And these buttons need to be as transgressive as possible, within the framework of non-violence, to get us to wake up and save ourselves.

Q: Thank you and finally, if people are inspired, what should they do next?  

A: If you’re new to Just Stop Oil, you can find out more about non-violent direct action (NVDA) at one of our regular on-line meetings. Or if you’re already in a regional team, get yourself on an NVDA training day. We also need funds to keep our actions going, so  if you can donate, fantastic.

You can also meet us every day, 11am, at Downing Street, to join our call for no new oil and gas. We won’t give up until the madness stops.