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Art Culture

Throwing Tomatoes: is shock-value worth it?

How does one gauge the effectiveness of activism? 

On Saturday 15th October two Just Stop Oil activists made international news in London’s National Gallery for throwing two cans of tomato soup onto Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The two women, who proceeded to superglue themselves to the wall beneath the painting, have been charged with criminal damage to the painting’s frame. A video of the incident immediately hit Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and basically every mainstream news site. The public’s response? Anger and confusion.

Any publicity is good publicity, right?

Vincent van Gogh – Sunflowers [1888]” by Gandalf’s Gallery is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The two women were acting on behalf of Just Stop Oil, but their message was muddied by their target. Defacing one of the most recognisable works of art by one of the most beloved artists in the world seemed to cause more outrage than conversation surrounding Big Oil and climate change. But, any publicity is good publicity, right?

Vandalism in the name of a cause is not new (think Anna Wintour and Joan Rivers’ paint-covered sable), and it is almost always controversial. However, more often than not, the target is easily understood and the message comes across to the general public. That is where the thrown can of soup falls short. 

There are plenty of museums across Britain, and plenty of museums across London, that partner with oil companies. However, the National Gallery ended its partnership with Shell in 2018 and has since stopped accepting donations from oil companies at all. Just Stop Oil’s desire for an end to the global reliance on fossil fuels could have been better expressed through protests elsewhere. The British Museum, long criticised for its glorification of the British colonial empire, has also been under fire from climate activists for its continued partnership with BP. A more effective protest may have been one that targeted a more controversial work or institution.

How does one gauge the effectiveness of activism?  While the video has reached millions, the public has been largely unsupportive of the two women. Just Stop Oil, the organisation with which the two women acted on behalf of, has been staging protests across London for weeks–   with another woman arrested the same day for dousing Scotland Yard’s sign in yellow paint– but none of their other demonstrations have garnered this amount of attention. When an act of protest or activism attracts this much negative attention, the organisation must fear that it is alienating the public from its cause.

A Heinz Cream of Tomato soup thrown on a painting, rather a painting hidden by a layer of glass, is hardly the end of the world. Sunflowers went back up on display later that day. However, what could have been a rallying cry to more tangible climate protection action has become a three-day internet moment, soon to be forgotten whenever the next episode of the Kardashians comes out, further buried by the new Taylor Swift album, and one day brought up in casual conversation between friends in the National Gallery. As a viral moment, it was a great one. As climate action, it was a misstep for a cause that needs all the help it can get.

Image “Tomato soup” by kevin dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.