Caitlin Barr defends direct action for all to enjoy masterpieces
Almost two months after their infamous tomato soup escapade, Just Stop Oil held a ‘solidarity rally’ in London in December. With speeches from the Barclays 7 (who in January received suspended sentences for smashing the windows of Barclays’ HQ in London), friends and family of imprisoned Just Stop Oil activists, and representatives from Global Women’s Strike, Kill the Bill and Pregnant Mothers in Prison Group, the non-violent climate activism confederation is making it very clear that they intend to carry on with the civil resistance they have come to be known for. They have previously said that, in the face of further crackdowns on public protests, the only thing that will stop them from continuing their activism is a “death penalty”. Public polls recently showed that 66% of the public support non-violent direct action to protect the environment, even if Keir Starmer backs strong sentencing for those who block roads in the name of the planet.
Since the group’s naissance in February 2022, its activists have undertaken action as wide-ranging as oil terminal disruptions, spraying orange paint over buildings, road blockages and even occupying beds in Harrods to protest fuel poverty. However, it is probably their actions related to art that have earned them the most airtime – whether it was throwing tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, trying to glue their heads to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Hague, or sticking a reimagined version of Constable’s The Hay Wain, complete with factories and a defunct washing machine, over the original.
The group’s utilisation of masterpieces to get their message across has brought them acclaim from some and derision from others. Jonathan Jones complained of the “ridiculously false debate” conjured by the tomato-soup-gate instigators’ line of questioning: “What is worth more? Art or life?” Many pundits grumbled that the activists were damaging art that celebrated the natural world and inspired people to look inside themselves. However, I believe that analysis like this fails to grasp the point. In her speech given at the time of the action, Phoebe Plummer raised what then became the dominant discourse in the coming days: the shock at damaging a painting versus the complacency at the damage to natural life that climate change is already wreaking.
Civil resistance is not supposed to be polite. It is supposed to disrupt. The sentiment that comes around every time a group like Extinction Rebellion or Just Stop Oil blocks a road or throws some paint or soup – that these people are selfish, foolish or downright nefarious – is the same that we hear each time unions announce strike action: “Why can’t they think of me, the average person, who needs to get to a wedding/send a parcel/admire art not obstructed by Heinz?!” This misses the fundamental point of direct action – it is working for a better world in which workers are paid fairly and people’s livelihoods, homes and existences at risk from the catastrophic effects of climate change are protected.
Just Stop Oil is trying to ensure that we have many, many more years of enjoying masterpieces, both on canvas and in our own natural world. In the face of bosses hoarding money and governments refusing to tackle the climate crisis, we must ensure that we act in solidarity with those putting their freedom on the line for our collective future.