Soup protesters captured the world’s attention. But was it effective? | Stephen Duncombe

TheLast week two activists from Just Stop Oil Who threw tomato soup On the landscape painting by Vincent Van Gogh in the National Gallery and then glued themselves to the wall, symbolizing, Well, ah… I’m really not quite sure.

The scratching separation between the activists’ tactics and the message they were trying to convey — linking oil to the climate crisis, in case you hadn’t understood it — was widely discussed, ironically, in the media.

One defense of the work I heard was that its irrational nature was the sentiment the activists wanted to convey. The ability to shock, especially within a liberal society that can understand, and then succinctly reject, more traditional forms of activity such as petitions, assemblies, and marches is exactly what is necessary to awaken the public from its slumber.

A comparison might be drawn, fitting because of the museum’s environment, to the Dadaists who during World War I used the nonsense of their poems and art installations to criticize the common sense that allowed the irrational violence of a world at war. The danger with this approach is that what is often communicated and remembered is the value of the shock, not the message.

This is not a problem if you are an artist looking to get a bad name for yourself and your art movement. But it’s about the activist trying to get people to think about their cause and act on it. I believe the Just Stop Oil activists’ intentions were sincere and their work was not intended to be self-serving, but a week after their intervention, what is being discussed: the activists’ actions or the causes they support? (Middle East and Africa neglect.)

My goal here is not to judge tactics as right or wrong. Any tactic can be the right technique to use in the right context. Our planet must be saved by any means necessary. If that requires gluing itself to a museum wall, so be it. If required throw food on plate, bravo. It might even necessitate burning down an entire museum. (This is something famous artist Alfredo neighbor once did in Skoghall, Sweden in order to stimulate citizens’ desire to claim a real museum – and it worked!)

But the means must always lead to the desired ends. Using tactics without thinking about how they will be understood by your audience and the impact it will have on achieving your goals is, at best, a waste of time and energy, and at worst, counterproductive.

The general rule of successful activity is: The tactics used to convey the message need to be delivered. Rosa Parks’ refusal in 1955 to give up her seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus was a bold act of resistance and a cleverly crafted message of what the fight was for: the right of blacks to sit wherever they please on public transportation.

When activists of the environmental group Liberate Tate reclined in the lobby of the Tate Museum in 2011 and poured oil on themselves, the contrast between the white marble floor and the aesthetically flowing black oil astoundingly demonstrated the cultural establishment’s toxic relationship with British Petroleum. (Although given the location, the ingenuity of the intervention runs the risk of being appreciated as just another piece of art.)

The tactics used need to produce the necessary emotional and physical impact to challenge authority and save the planet. Without this interest and attention, the activity becomes just an active activity. Avant-garde artists can shock the bourgeoisie, activists need to win as many of them as possible to our side.

It is not clear if Just Stop Oil has succeeded on that front.

  • Stephen Duncombe, lifelong activist, professor of media and culture at New York University and co-founder of the Center for Artistic Activism, a nonprofit organization that trains artists and activists around the world to become more effective and effective. The impact of his upcoming book will be on assessing the impact of arts and activism.

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