Why did Van Gogh’s ‘sunflowers’ protest inspire such a hysterical response?

On Friday, two young climate activists threw a can of tomato soup at the protective glass of Van Gogh’s famous “Sunflowers” painting, and the video of their protest instantly went viral, sparking widespread condemnation and outrage.

The painting was completely unscathed (only the frame was damaged by the waterfall), but the visceral impact of seeing a priceless work of art splattered with soup was meant to draw outrage and media attention. In a statement, one of the activists, Phoebe Plummer, said:

“Is art worth more than life? More than food? More than justice? a can of soup. Meanwhile, crops fail and people die in overfed monsoons, massive wildfires and endless droughts caused by climate breakdown. We cannot afford new oil and gas, it will take everything. We will look back and mourn all we have lost if we don’t act immediately.”

The protesters are right; Climatologists have been warning humanity for decades of the apocalyptic consequences of continuing on our current path. Of course, Van Gogh’s “sunflowers” are a unique and priceless work of art, and if it’s damaged there’s no replacement – but why isn’t Earth’s ecosystem treated? with the same level of deference?

Social media lit up with anger at the protesters, as media pundits, culture warriors and progressives briefly united, in a rare show of solidarity, to condemn the protesters, accusing them of ” alienate” the public and harm the environmental movement.

Michael Mechanic, editor of Mother Jones tweeted“They sure know how to get attention. And while their passion is admirable, their tactics are repugnant.”

YouTube celebrity chef Jerry James Stone tweeted: “What an awful way to express an important cause. This is beyond stupidity, immaturity and alienation. Grow the f**k.”

While only the staunchest climate change deniers would disagree with the activist’s message, many saw the waterfall optics as flawed, potentially causing more harm than good.

Other commentators noted the bitter irony of the stunt, which highlighted the public’s strong distaste for property damage and apparent indifference to planetary destruction.

The outpouring of outrage eventually sparked a left-wing conspiracy theory, which has spread like wildfire on Twitter and TikTok, proposing that the stunt was deliberately engineered by Big Oil, in an attempt to make activists of the ridiculous climate.

On TikTok, creator Tom Nicholas posted a video debunking the claim, but the fact that the conspiracy theory spread so easily highlighted the public’s negative view of the protest.

Whether or not you agree with the activist’s methods, there’s no denying that he’s managed to garner a huge amount of attention for his cause (only one video of the stunt posted on Twitter received over 48 million views).

Despite the terrifying increase in catastrophic weather events, which are wreaking havoc across the world, the actions of climate change protesters are often derided or even ignored. Last April, on Earth Day, activist Wynn Bruce set himself on fire outside the Supreme Court to protest climate change; his fatal self-immolation didn’t receive a fraction of the attention the can of tomato soup received.

Indeed, an NFT enthusiast recently destroyed one of Frida Kahlo’s drawings as part of a publicity stunt. He didn’t pretend to destroy it – he set the drawing on fire and turned the sketch into 10,000 NFTs (the creation of which is incredibly wasteful and energy-intensive). The stunt did not attract the same level of vitriol as Van Gogh’s manifestation, which again did not damage the painting.

Young people today are growing up in a dark and surreal time, charged with the knowledge that the Earth’s ecosystem is being ravaged, that these record summers will continue to get hotter and hotter, that wildfires will continue to burn and nobody seems to do anything about it.

In the face of overwhelming existential terror, pretending to damage a famous painting seems like a relatively tame move.

About Timothy Ball

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