The eco-mob is at it again. Members of the protest group Just Stop Oil have progressed from blocking fuel terminals to disrupting the British Grand Prix and gluing themselves to the frames of paintings in galleries and museums across the country. To which anyone with even the vaguest recollection of the traffic-stopping stunts of Insulate Britain must sigh, 'Not very original'.
Last Wednesday, a pair of activists stuck themselves to the frame of a nineteenth-century landscape by Horatio McCulloch at Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow. The following day, another pair selected the decidedly more famous ‘Peach Trees in Blossom’ by Vincent van Gogh at London’s Courtauld Gallery for the sticky-fingered treatment. Further attacks have since followed on a J.M.W. Turner at Manchester Art Gallery, a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ at the Royal Academy, and on one of the nation’s favourites, ‘The Hay Wain’ by John Constable, at the National Gallery.
Beyond their desire to express frustration with the general lack of progress in tackling climate change, the protesters, many of whom are in their early twenties, have set out two main objectives. They are calling on the government ‘to immediately halt new oil and gas licenses in the UK’. And on ‘the directors, employees and members of art institutions to join the Just Stop Oil coalition in peaceful civil resistance.’
Why anyone working in the art institutions to which they refer would want to join them after this is a mystery. The activists may not have done anything as drastic as Mary Richardson, the suffragette who attacked Velázquez’s ‘Rokeby Venus’ with a meat cleaver in 1914, but they have caused damage to the frames and spray-painted several walls and floors. It would appear that the environmental impact of aerosols and glues, many of which are petroleum-derived, doesn’t bother them very much. It’s only lucky there’s been no discernible splashback of the substances on the actual canvases so far.
The point they’re trying to make is that the beautiful landscapes captured in these frames are on course to be destroyed as a result of our continuing consumption of fossil fuels. As they’re discovering, however, the frame-grabbing isn’t helping them to put this point across very clearly to the public. Onlookers could be forgiven for wondering whether it’s the artists’ materials they’re objecting to – the historic plundering of trees for wood and use of ‘oil’ paint, traditionally made from linseed – or something about the morality of the artists themselves. The resulting confusion may explain why one group decided to do something more explicit and cover over The Hay Wain with a picture of a dystopian landscape with aircraft and dead vegetation.
Their selection of pictures, besides, does little to bear out their environmental message. Why choose the Last Supper, for example, apart from the fact that it’s iconic and likely to attract attention? The exercise is tediously self-defeating. On the one hand the protesters consider art powerful enough to convince us of the beauty of the world we’re at risk of losing. On the other they present their actions as a demonstration of the pointlessness of art in the face of world destruction.
The biggest surprise is that the gallery activists, several of whom have now been taken into police custody, have so far stopped short of protesting against the corporate sponsorship of exhibitions by major oil companies. The British Museum has come in for particular criticism in recent years for its sponsorship deal with BP. Its current exhibition, ‘The World of Stonehenge’, is just one of many shows the oil giant has supported. Perhaps Just Stop Oil is keeping this up its sleeve for the London march it’s planning for later this month in conjunction with Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘Peace & Justice’ project.
It's a shame that the kind of activism that is currently taking place alienates many who are on board with the general message. There’s no defence for the continued reliance on fossil fuels. Everyone recognises the need for us to clean up our act. Why our immediate environment should be ruined with spray paint, glue and chaos to reinforce this, however, is something very few will understand.
All Just Stop Oil has really done so far is to highlight the inadequacy of gallery security. Stunts that put art at risk seldom succeed because people care too much about it. We love our landscapes, not because they show us what we’ve got to lose, but because they capture the world as it was at a particular moment in time. Everything changes. We all long to save the earth from destruction. But in trying to give the planet a future, these eco warriors are running a very real risk of destroying the past and present efforts to preserve it.