A couple of weeks before Halloween, two climate change activists stormed into the London National Gallery with a purpose: to make a statement at the expense of Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” one of the Gallery’s most popular tourist attractions.
The two women hurled a can of tomato soup at the painting and glued their hands to the wall beneath it as part of their staged protest. The symbolic message was clear: Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” are fake, while the ongoing threats to the planet’s ecosystem are very much real. From their point of view, it was time for humanity to sever its relationship to artificial representations of flora and divert our full attention to breathing, existing greenery instead.
Luckily, the painting was protected by the glass covering, and no lasting damage was caused. But the event sparked international outrage, and rightly so. Yes, climate change is a pressing issue that affects all our lives, but why vandalize an iconic still-life to make such a point? When did a single, innocent painting of sunflowers become the scapegoat for a global crisis? Where does this kind of hostility towards Art come from?
Perhaps, the two activists didn’t know that Vincent van Gogh was a poor man. Whose Art was his greatest (and often only) consolation through a harsh life of poverty and loneliness. He was painting his “Sunflowers” when his turbulent relationship with his friend Paul Gaugin was falling apart. Clinical depression was darkening the infamous Yellow House in which the two men lived. When people visit his “Sunflowers” in the London National Gallery, over a century after it was painted, it’s not necessarily because they don’t care about climate change. It’s because they care about a fellow human being.
Perhaps, the two activists didn’t know that Vincent van Gogh was a poor man. Whose Art was his greatest (and often only) consolation through a harsh life of poverty and loneliness.
Let’s face it, the genre of Art has been underestimated longer than these activists have been alive. Theoretically, a standard appreciator would say Art is an act of creation—a core experience of what it means to be human—but something that doesn’t produce anything essential to survival. You can’t eat a painting. You can’t drink sculpture. And sure, a quilt doesn’t need to be ornate to keep you warm in the winter.
Additionally, there’s the constant conversation on whether being an artist produces a steady income or if artists are always, indeed, “starving.” Some people even outright loathe seeing money, time, and energy funneled into the Arts. Hence governments constantly cut funding for arts programs. Hence how some anxious parents steer their children towards STEM careers instead of music, dance, the visual arts, or authorship. Hence the tomato soup.
What people, especially factions like the activists who splattered Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece with that can of soup, seemed to underestimate is that Art may not be essential to survival — but it’s necessary to (I’d argue) humanity’s mental well-being and personal growth.
I can testify in defense of the arts with my own experiences. Art can be a source of income, and it is crucial to preserving the very best qualities of our species. My journalism career began with a university assignment on Leonardo da Vinci’s “Ginevra de’ Benci,” an early portrait of a Renaissance poet, culminating in an eleven-page essay and a long-life fascination with uncovering the history of forgotten women in Art and literature. I have proudly and happily made it my life’s work. It can be done. It should be done, or else we face a disheartening future where we forget that people have always made Art.
No, it cannot directly impact climate change, but art functions as a critical reminder of what it is about humanity and the planet we live on that is worth saving.
Artwork is not the enemy. It is meant to be our ever-present, every-friendly companion to uphold us through our struggles and provide us with a support beam on which to lean. We work to put food on the table. We work to pay rent. And yes, we still enjoy music, watching films with our friends, doing crafts with our children, reading poetry, and traveling the globe to understand outside our little worlds. Art is the great connector between the eras. It does not hang on the walls of a museum as a mocking emblem zapping the prosperity of the upcoming generations. It is not, and never will be, why we’re facing a catastrophe. What it could be is our source of comfort as we move forward into a perilous new age.
Perhaps, that can of soup was poorly aimed.