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On Soup Throwing and Other Bad Ideas

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[Note: this piece is cross-posted from my Substack Macrocosm Climate Report. If you’re interested, check it out and think about subscribing! – meso]

“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” – Nietzsche

A new front of climate activism has opened up in recent years with frequent, high-profile disruptions by activists seeking to bring attention to the cause. In the last few weeks alone, activists have thrown soup on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery, thrown potatoes on a Monet in Potsdam, squirted an unidentified liquid onto a Toulouse-Lautrec painting in Berlin, climbed the largest complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex in Europe, and, as I was writing this piece, blocked the A100 in Berlin, preventing an emergency vehicle from reaching a woman bicyclist who had been run over by a cement truck.

Of course, that the climate crisis demands urgent attention is not in dispute. We are not doing enough, and the resulting loss of life and destruction to the ecosystem could be catastrophic. The UN no longer believes that there is a credible pathway to limit our global temperature increase to 1.5° C as stipulated by the Paris Agreement, and our current trajectory of 2-3 degrees may mean disaster.

That being said, these actions deserve engagement on both a moral and practical level, and here I have to say the response within conservation and climatology circles has been disappointing and inadequate, and totally incommensurate with the increasingly-radical nature of these actions. There may be a case to be made for such activism, but to my knowledge, that case has not been made, and the issue has largely remained unexamined.

I follow a large number of activists and conservation groups, and I haven’t seen a single serious critical analysis of these actions. I believe this represents a serious failure, and an abnegation of the responsibility of the climate community to monitor the legitimate parameters of its own engagement.

Every single moral defense I have seen of these actions has been an obvious equivocation, without exception. Typical arguments include: “If you think what they have done is bad, how much worse is it to despoil the ecosystem for profit?” “Do you believe that a couple of paintings are worth more than preserving all life on Earth?” “Nothing else was working, so they had to do something.”

Two wrongs make a right? We are justified in risking irreparable harm to our cultural heritage as long as we hold our cause to be just and urgent? Better to do the wrong thing than to do nothing? These arguments can’t be taken seriously, and offer not so much of a defense as a statement of the speaker’s refusal to engage critically with the activists.

I am reluctant to bring yet more attention to these antics, but given the paucity of serious discussion about the implications of such action, I would like to offer a provisional critique of this approach, focusing especially on demonstrative attacks against art. And because the discussion so far has been entirely inchoate, I’d like to ground my criticism in basic theories of political activism, of art, and of conservation.

But first I want to take a quick detour to consider the objection that these actions shouldn’t be judged to harshly because they are merely performative and do not cause real harm.

“They’re not actually hurting anything”

The substance of my critique does not actually depend on any explicit or implied threat of destruction , but it’s nevertheless worth noting that this defense is neither persuasive nor particularly comforting. Thus far, activists have depended on the ability of panes of glass to defend artworks against whatever stew they throw, and the likelihood of accidental damage grows with every incident.

But the greater threat is that as soon as this news cycle cools and these actions no longer elicit the intended shock, activists will escalate and do actual damage. Do we think this is unlikely? In response to widespread criticism of the road blockade that delayed emergency vehicles from reaching an accident victim, one activist Tweeted “Shit, but don’t be intimidated. This is climate struggle, not climate cuddle, and shit happens.”

There is a further danger that the repetition of such acts establishes the strategy as a general tactic for any political cause that one wants to publicize. As it is, the frequency of these tactics has accelerated significantly since the Van Gogh incident captured global headlines. We could eventually find museums a battleground for activists clamoring for or against the right to choose, for or against racial or economic inequality, or to bring attention to this war or that humanitarian disaster. And every time we object, we will have to be prepared to answer the question “What’s more important, a couple of paintings, or racial justice?”

How does one answer such a question? How do we tease apart for a hostile audience the several layers of misunderstanding embodied by the question itself? How do we explain that the question only exists because this false choice has been arbitrarily forced upon us, by them? Or explain that many things have value, and the world is complex?

The political logic that absolutizes one’s own particular issue directly undermines our ability to have a free and open society, which depends on certain norms to regulate behavior. Open societies are always open to countless avenues of attack by their very nature, and we rely on things like people not knocking down street lights to sell their copper wire, and if we can’t, well, then we won’t have any street lights.

What is at issue is not “just” “a few paintings,” it is our consensus that certain types of political speech or advocacy are off limits, and that includes holding our open institutions hostage by implied threats.

Finally, there remains a deep question of what exactly its means to say that “no damage has been done.” As Judith Butler points out in her recent illuminating book on nonviolence, the notion of what constitutes “violence” is itself strongly contested. Is it “violent” to destroy a work of art? To threaten a work of art? To destroy a Confederate statue? To force the cancellation of a speech by phoning in a phony bomb threat? Do economically-discriminatory policies rise to the level of “violence”? Censorship? These questions are nontrivial, and they can be applied en masse to the problematize the concept of “damage.”

Simply giving people a pass without considering some of these issues appears to my eyes to be little more than intellectual laziness. Why have I seen no defense of museums among activists? Do they not have the right to operate without being made into battlegrounds for disruptive political actions that have nothing to do with them? Do we care nothing about museums, but museum administrators, donors, ushers, guards, and visitors?

I submit that people, certain institutions, and works of art have their own autonomy that must be respected, and that we have a moral obligation to regard them, as Kant urged, not merely a means to our ends, but as ends in themselves. That means their rights cannot be arbitrarily and unilaterally abridged – this is the basis of our entire concept of rights, and under certain conditions, this concept may be extended to cultural treasures. The International Criminal Court, for example, convicted Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi for destroying religious and historic buildings in Timbuktu during an occupation by Al-Qaeda, and many have argued that Russia’s intentional assault on cultural artifacts in Ukraine constitutes a war crime. This is a reflection of how we see and value works of art, and it is not wrong.


The strategic thinking underlying these attacks on art is so poorly conceived that you could literally construct a working theory of political activism by simply taking the negation of all the key principles.

Let me suggest a few general principles for activism that I think are persuasive enough on their face to border on axiomatic. I think the relevance of these principles to our topic should be obvious.

1. Activism should be strategic and should work to advance concrete, achievable goals.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference is a great example of this. In the 1960s, it successfully fought against segregation and disenfranchisement in the southern United States by carefully organizing and executing a long-term campaign of strategically-related actions that targeted concrete objectives. These actions collectively raised public awareness and put enormous political pressure on state and local governments to change course.

By contrast, the actions by groups such as Last Generation and Just Stop Oil have no stated objective other than to garner publicity and to provoke. The actions are disturbing by design, but how are we supposed to respond? What are their demands? How do we demonstrate to Just Stop Oil that we’ve learned our lesson and are taking climate seriously, so they will stop throwing soup on paintings?

The EU recently passed a ban on the sale of internal combustion engine cars by 2035. But that did not stop Last Generation from blocking the A100 and disrupting emergency vehicles in life-saving work. Why did it not stop them? What more do they wish to achieve? Their nominal goal is to raise awareness of excessive use of car communing, and action has been taken. Was it the wrong action? Not enough? What kind of progress do they demand, on what timeline?

2. Actions should persuade, enroll, and enlist.

Climate change is an issue that affects all of us, and it needs to be a bipartisan, mainstream issue, as much as that is possible. Barricading roads and vandalizing art galleries clearly risks marginalizing the issue by leading a lot of folks on the fence to associate it with disturbing fringe political movements. The actions are intended to disturb.

P. T. Barnum is supposed to have said “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” This may be true for circus magnates, it is not true for political activists trying to drive broad consensus on complex political issues. A clear example of this fact is Greenpeace’s humiliating public apology after their activists trampled on ancient artwork left by the Nazca culture, which rightly caused international outrage. I doubt Greenpeace has done anything in the last 25 years that has garnered an equal amount of publicity, and it was incredibly negative.

Thus far, at least, the actions do not appear to be popular, even among the groups’ own supporters. The New York Times recently reported, for example, that Just Stop Oil, the soup-throwing group, took a poll of its supporters for what actions they should focus on in the future, and targeting art came in second to last.

3. There are two legitimate sites for disruptive actions: the public square, and the site of injustice. Collateral damage against innocent bystanders should be avoided for moral and strategic reasons.

The attack on the Toulouse-Lautrec painting and the shut-down of the A100 have one thing in common – they both took place within a few miles of a municipal coal-fueled power plant. Why not protest the power plant? Why not protest outside a PR firm working for a fossil fuel company? Why not protest outside the FDP office or the CDU office, where party leaders dismiss climate concerns and oppose sensible reform and policies?

The autonomy of art: a painting has rights

We looked briefly above at the fact that works of art enjoy a recognized legal status in the international community. They are afforded a special role in societies because of what they mean to people.

Before you start appropriating artwork into your didactic stage show of political theater, you have a moral obligation to at least consider the meaning of art. And this digression is worthwhile, because it is relevant to the question at hand, and to the related question of what conservation is fundamentally about.

One could easily spend a lifetime trying to answer the question “what is art?” and I won’t try to do that now. Instead, I will sketch a quick theory of how it functions, based mostly on a few milestones in the philosophy of art from the twentieth century.

Before asking what art is, let’s consider how it functions. I’m going to follow Joseph Campbell in this, who liked to explain the effect of art by relating an Chinese Buddhist koan or story called “The Flower Sermon.”

One day, the story goes, the Buddha’s disciples gathered for a teaching. The Buddha took his teaching seat and said no word, but held up a single flower. The assembly was puzzled, but at last his student Mahakashyapa smiled. “You alone have understood the essence of my teachings,” Buddha told him.

How are we to take this? The students were looking for a doctrine, for something they could understand, but what Buddha offered them was the thing itself, an image of life itself, and they were not to understand it, but to respond to it. You do not understand a flower, you enjoy it.

Art functions in a similar way, which helps to understand why it is notoriously difficult to explain. You cannot explain a Van Gogh painting, you can only respond to it, as an image of life.

The literary critic Walter Benjamin said something similar in a celebrated essay on Goethe which includes an important discussion of “criticism.” Benjamin sees proper criticism as itself a kind of art, one which does not explain, but which illuminates the life of the work. He opposes this conception of criticism to what he calls “commentary,” which is a factual or didactic explanation of art, like the footnotes in a Shakespeare play.

What then is criticism? He explains:

If, to use a simile, one views the growing work as a burning funeral pyre, then the commentator stands before it like a chemist, the critic like an alchemist. Whereas, for the former, wood and ash remain the sole objects of his analysis, for the latter only the flame itself preserves an enigma: that of what is alive. Thus, the critic inquires into the truth, whose living flame continues to burn over the heavy logs of what is past and the light ashes of what has not been experienced.

The work of art is not the thing but the experience occasioned by the thing – a living experience shared by the artist and the audience. The actual painting or what have you is the occasion for the experience of art, like the log is the material base for the living flame. And the work of an art, in Benjamin’s terms, is an enigma that cannot be reduced to a simple, factual explanation. As a great many artists have insisted, if you try to explain a work of art, you kill it.

We could not find a more perfect example of this idea of art than Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” Painted in Arles in the south of France in 1888, the painting is one of a series of natural studies he made with dizzying speed during this period, and they explode with life. Consider his famous “Starry Night,” a veritable “buzzing, booming confusion” which challenges the viewer to see the world as a living system of connected beings, each with its own vitality and purpose.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote two important essays differentiating what he, like Benjamin, took to be two different modes of experiencing the world, the technological and the artistic.

In his “The Question Concerning Technology,” he makes much of the fact that in German, as in English, the word griffen (grasp) means both “to take hold of” and “to understand.” In Heidegger’s view, most of the time our interaction with the world is a kind of mechanical process of interpreting the things we come across in terms of their use. We see a hammer, and we perceive it not as a thing with its own essence and character, but as “something for hammering,” and the actual being of the hammer remains distant.

He opposes this to the mode of experiencing art, which he examines in his essay “On the Origin of the Work of Art.” In this work, he says that the mode of perception of art is one in which we “let beings be.” Through art we recognize things as they are in themselves without the overlay of our utilitarian goals. A key example he provides is Van Gogh’s paintings of peasant shoes. These are commonplace objects, but the way that Van Gogh relays them to the viewer imbues them with a kind of numinous intensity, and this intensity we perceive is, at least in a limited way, the light of their being, or their intrinsic being. We see them as they are instead of putting them on and forgetting about them.

The life of conservation

This brings us back to Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” which, like the Buddha’s flower, offers a luminous image of life itself, asking us and allowing us to see the flowers not as things for us, but things with their own purpose, their own complexity and depth. They are not for us to use and discard like trash.

Having come full circle, I think you can probably understand why I believe throwing soup on these flowers as a political gesture is a rejection of everything that great art offers that borders on obscene.

And by trampling on the autonomy of art, the activist uncritically replicates the very stance toward life that has brought our climate to the brink of disaster – the attitude that the things of the world are here for us, and to serve our ends. It is Heidegger’s “technological” modality.”

Conservation is ultimately rooted in the human heart. We don’t just do the math and decide that destroying the Great Barrier Reef would be too expensive because of the lost tourist revenue. The beating heart of conservation – its enigmatic life – lies in understanding that the coral reefs and everything in them have the right to their own autonomy and their own destiny, and that this is an end in itself. Because we live in the world, sometimes our needs need to come first, but to ignore the intrinsic worth of life is ultimately to undermine the conditions of our own survival, as we have learned to our sorrow.

The political logic that would pave over the life of things and just appropriate them is abhorrent to me, and I despise the facile, totalizing attitude that reduces the world to a collection of tools to be deployed in service of one’s agenda. It is the opposite of respect and reverence for life.

And finally, I hate that this approach to promoting conservation is stupid and ugly. Its methods are coercive and brutal, and its goals are incoherent. These actions could not be more perfectly engineered to provoke ten thousand Tweets but little nuanced discussion, to get people shouting but not listening. And I hate the fact that so many in conservationist circles have tacitly or explicitly endorsed these actions without giving any real thought to any of this.

Written by Mesocosm

November 2, 2022 at 7:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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