Art is Not as Valuable as Our Planet – An Artist’s Take on the Soup Protest

Maddie Genoways, Staff Writer

A little after 11 a.m. on Oct. 14 at the National Gallery art museum in London, England, two young women enter gallery 43 mostly unnoticed by other museum-goers.  

Suddenly, both young women reach into their pockets, and pull out two cans of Heinz tomato soup. Onlookers watch in shock and horror as the women rear back and splash the glass covering Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” with a thick coat of soup. People begin pulling out their phones, and someone hesitantly calls “security?” 

The women quickly get to work spreading superglue onto their hands and cementing themselves to the wall beneath the now soup-gilded painting. Their shirts read “JUST STOP OIL” in bold writing, and they begin to deliver a speech about the dangers of oil production. Before security arrives to arrest the protestors, they leave the crowd with a heavy thought: “What is more important: art or life? Are you more concerned with the protection of a painting, or are you more concerned with the protection of our planet?” 

These protestors are 21-year-old Phoebe Plummer and 20-year-old Anna Holland. The two are activists protesting on behalf of Just Stop Oil, a U.K.-based coalition whose mission statement is to “ensure that the government commits to ending all new licenses and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the U.K.”  

Just Stop Oil makes frequent use of less than civil protest methods, and just a few days after the incident at the National Gallery, protesters set up roadblocks along major London roadways in another disruptive strike. 

Plummer and Holland were soon removed from the wall and arrested. No damage had been done to the actual painting, but their message had already begun to spread. Outside the gallery, supporters and denouncers alike had begun to gather. Among them was Just Stop Oil spokesperson Alex de Konning, who described the point of the protest to the Guardian. “These two young activists were furious at the way our government has treated the climate crisis,” Konning said. 

Konning references the British government’s September announcement that they would dispense dozens of new licenses to drill for oil and natural gas in the North Sea.  

“The government should not be opening up 100 new fossil fuel licenses while its citizens are in a cost of living crisis,” Konning said. “People are going to have to choose between heating and eating, which could be easily avoided if we switched to renewable energy sources.” 

Now, I want to preface my thoughts on the protest by giving you a bit of background about me. I’m an art major and a modern art history geek. I’m almost annoyingly entranced by the life and work of Vincent van Gogh – literally as I type this I am wearing a “Starry Night” sweater and sitting beneath my print of his “Cafe Terrace at Night.”  

I believe art is a human necessity, alongside shelter and companionship, and that humans will naturally create art as long as we have hands, eyes and mouths. But in order to enjoy the wonders of art and creation, we need to first sustain our planet. 

You may not agree with the methods Just Stop Oil uses, but you can’t argue with the fact that they have drawn nation-wide attention to our rapidly-escalating climate crisis. And it is a crisis.  

“We are on a fast track to climate disaster,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in the 2022 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Climate Report. “Major cities underwater. Unprecedented heatwaves. Terrifying storms. Widespread water shortages. The extinction of a million species of plants and animals. This is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies.”  

Quite simply, if we don’t stop fossil fuel usage and production, then our Earth will die. Not even historical works of art can change that. 

When it comes to uncivil methods of protest like those preferred by activists with Just Stop Oil, there’s another quote from Guterres I’ll sing over and over again: “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.” 

Let’s be real. Most of the folks clutching their pearls over the protest don’t give a damn about the preservation of art history on any other day of the week. Most outcries center around the radical protest style and the seeming irrelevance of throwing soup at a painting of flowers. Climate activists have attempted civil disobedience for decades, but the progress they’ve made hasn’t pushed the dial far enough in the right direction. No one would be throwing soup at paintings and blocking freeways if writing letters and holding signs did the trick. 

And yes! This does seem like a pretty stupid way to protest climate change! But didn’t it make you think? You see the name “Just Stop Oil” and you remember the ladies who threw soup at a painting in broad daylight. It was an outlandish headline with a famous title in it: the perfect mix to draw attention to a global crisis. 

The actions taken by Just Stop Oil were outrageous and potentially damaging to art history, but there’s a much greater threat to public safety than protestors who block the roads and vandalize art. We cannot afford to worry about the success of a protest style when we have the impending threat of the poisonous cloud of CO2 amassing in our atmosphere from the continued mass use of fossil fuels.