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Climate protesters campaign by throwing food at art, but does it work?


From cake slathered on the ‘Mona Lisa’ to soup splattered on ‘sunflowers’, recent climate protests in art galleries have grabbed international headlines, but also raised questions about the effectiveness of these tactics of highly publicized guerrilla warfare.

Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring was the latest painting to fall victim to art-based activism, which has seen environmental activists target famous works of art, almost always with cheap food, to draw attention to the use of fossil fuels.

Two men wearing ‘Just Stop Oil’ t-shirts jumped the rope separating the priceless 1665 Dutch masterpiece from the public at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague on Thursday. Video posted to Twitter showed one of them pouring a can of a red substance over the other, who then appeared to attempt to stick his head in the glass-protected paint.

“How do you feel when you see something beautiful and priceless being seemingly destroyed right before your eyes?” said one of the men, who has not yet been identified, with his hand glued to the wall. “It’s the same feeling when you see the planet being destroyed,” he said later.

Like the other artworks targeted, the painting was not damaged by the stunt, which came a day after a United Nations report revealed the world is on track to increase gas emissions greenhouse gases – widely believed to be responsible for human-caused climate change. — by 10.6% compared to 2010 levels.

“The point of a lot of these actions is to get a platform that thousands of people or more are watching so they can communicate very clear lines – that the climate crisis is happening, that’s bad, and we need to wake us all up,” Chris Saltmarsh, a climate activist and author of “Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice,” told NBC News on the phone on Friday..

Saltmarsh, who was not linked to the protests, said they had an immediate payoff in terms of successful media coverage, but he questioned their long-term effectiveness.

“It’s superficially radical and disruptive, but it’s not part of a coherent long-term strategy to build communities and power,” he said.

But Colin Sterling, assistant professor of heritage and museum studies at the University of Amsterdam, said the protests had the potential to stay in the public consciousness for a long time.

The “Rokeby Venus”, repeatedly slashed with a butcher’s knife by women’s rights activist Mary Richardson at the National Gallery in London in 1914, “is still discussed today”, he said.

He said the picture of the break Diego Velasquez’s painting was “on the covers of books as a moment of iconoclastic protest.”

The annual United Nations climate change conference, known as COP27, to be held in Egypt in November this year, has been something of a galvanizing force in many different dimensions of the climate movement, Sterling said, adding that There was “still a slight uptick in stocks” at the time of the conference.

But he said the war in Ukraine, the cost of living and energy crises had added urgency to the protests.

While politicians took note of the protests, they tended to criticize the way they were carried out.

“Protesting is a good thing and everyone has the right to put forward their point of view. But please: leave our common heritage alone. Attacking defenseless works of art is not the right way,” Gunay Uslu, the Dutch Minister for Culture and Media, tweeted on Thursday.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was more blunt after activists threw soup at Van Gogh’s ‘sunflowers’ at London’s National Gallery earlier this month.

“Let’s stop giving these attention-seeking adult toddlers the coverage they clearly need,” he said on Twitter.

The British government on Wednesday passed a Public Order Bill aimed at making protests, such as those seen in art galleries and disruptive actions on the roads, more difficult for activists who will face harsher penalties if prosecuted.

But Saltmarsh said he doubts the legislation will be effective.

“What we’ve seen from Extinction Rebellion and other climate activist groups is that they’re very ready to go to jail,” he said.

“Having a lot of environmental activists in jail is strategically important,” he said. “It’s a way to build support and create a crisis for the government.”

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