Photograph courtesy of Martin Pope/Getty Images
Can you name the largest protest in history? Neither could I. It turns out to be the anti-war protests of February 15 2003, in which between six and ten million people took part in various marches across sixty (mostly European) countries over a single weekend. The one in Rome involved around three million people and the BBC estimates that up to a million people marched in London to protest the American invasion of Iraq. The USA, of course, would only pull out of the country a decade and a half later, when all the oil ran out. Only yesterday London witnessed its as-of-yet largest-scale protest in support of Palestine, with just over 20,000 people marching through the West End demanding a ceasefire. As of time of writing, you will note that Israel is still very much firing. Similarly, young black men in America are being shot by police at much the same rate as they were before the Black Lives Matter/George Floyd protests of 2020, and to everyone’s shock the bright pink ‘pussy hats’ of the 2017 Women’s March did little to dissuade the American government from eventually repealing Roe-v-Wade.
All of this is to say that the West’s protests haven’t really done much to change its societies since the storming of the Bastille. You can generously attribute some minor legislative changes during the Vietnam War to the 1963 March on Washington, and the French have gotten some good gaffs in over the last few decades, including their own student riots of the 60s – although, again, to minor effect: in state terms very little came of the infamous Mai ‘68 protests (the proposed Grenelle Agreement reforms were never fully implemented by De Gaul) and the pension-related changes brought about from the gilet jaunes movement in 2018 were effectively repealed in July of last year (never a nation to be disheartened by such technicalities, they have now taken to spraying politicians homes with agricultural manure). One might cautiously suggest that the closest the West has come to a genuinely impactful protest in recent years is the working-class Capitol insurrection of January 6th 2021, but that's a frightening proposition in its own right and even then, the ripples were more cultural than political.
It is tempting to say the same of the recent slew of art-focused protests that have been cropping up around Europe: starting in October 2022 with activist group Just Stop Oil hurling soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National in response to a perceived growing climate crisis, with the most recent soup-based antic coming from French environmental group Riposte Alimentaire doing the same to the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Typical pearl-clutch responses have varied from "how could you do this to capital-A Art?" (all of the works targeted so far have been protected from damage by glass and frankly the museums can afford the restoration costs) to “this makes me reluctant to support climate change activism at all” (one wonders how weak-willed your support was if all it took to shake it was a few soup stains). Like all modern Western protest, these acts are well-meaning, allegorical and utterly harmless. What is often left out of the conversation is the following: a harmless protest is a useless one.
Let’s start with the obvious: genuinely effective protest involving public art is usually the consequence, not the cause, of social and political change. Think the toppling of Soviet statues after the dissolution of the Union, or the fall of the Berlin Wall after miscommunications of new travel regulations. In comparison, these modern stunts - aimed to create rather than reflect reform - are very sweet; but they mean little and do even less. It would be cruel and lazy to suggest that this is the fault of protesters themselves; and I do believe that many of the organisers of these exploits have genuine faith that their efforts will somehow affect how governments approach various issues. The vast majority of us, however, know this to be untrue - but the sentiment is noble and the actions it spawns should not be dismissed merely because of their proponents naivety. There is perhaps something to be said for the overt visuality of these acts in the age of social media, but even the Edwardians understood the impact of a good stunt: the Rokeby Venus was slashed by meat cleavers by feminists in 1914, and targeted in a similar fashion by Just Stop Oil in November 2023.
From left to right: Just Stop Oil Protesters, Kristian Buus/Getty Images, Achille Beltrame, The aberrations of Womens Suffragism (1914)
That being said, the most common defence of these acts (often coming from their proponents) is that they at the very least provoke “discussion and debate”. This argument is infantile and irrelevant. It is a neoliberal myth that debate solves anything and Big Oil is not checking Instagram comments for insight into their next move. It is perhaps true that it brings public “attention” to the cause - but, as has been proved countless times, raising the average persons awareness of issues like climate change or food scarcity does remarkably little in both the long and the short run. The only attention that should be sought in situations like this is that of the state, and it would be laughable to suggest that the only reason there isn't enough climate regulation is because governments simply missed the memo. The Royal Dutch Petroleum Company is not sucking oil out of the earth because someone forgot to tell them it wasn't great for the planet, and conservatives like Therese Coffey are not suggesting British citizens cut back on food because she doesn't understand there isn't an alternative.
I will not linger on the asinine idea that some of these protesters are actually paid actors by Big Oil whose efforts are "funded by big oil to make climate activists look terrible in the public’s eyes". It’s unclear where the conspiracy originated from, but one of the earliest suggestions that Just Stop Oil is in fact a psy-op by Shell designed to reduce popular support for climate movements justifies by pointing out that... one of the protesters has dyed hair, as apparent evidence of the organization's status as a mercenary operation for the petrol company. I am the last person to turn my nose up at a good art-world psy-op theory (Brad Troemel’s “the FBI is responsible for artspeak” being one of my favourite) but if we start accusing left-wingers of being in cahoots with Big Oil for dying their hair we may as well give up believing anything in earnest at all. A heavy dose of skepticism is always healthy; blind paranoia is not.
Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing some actual carnage. Governments do not respond to a few soup splatters - but they do respond to the threat of damaged tourism. How much money would the French government stand to lose if even a quarter of their tourists decided the Louvre wasn’t worth the visit? How many Euro-tourists would stay home if Guernica or The Kiss were damaged beyond recognition? How quickly would climate legislation (indeed, any legislation at all) change if Western politicians felt it would be more beneficial to do so than to risk losing cultural standing? Call me when they start firing caustic acid at the Sistine ceiling. If we claim to care about things like the climate, or food scarcity, or any other social issue that would be resolved via legislative change, we must also support those willing to actually disrupt the powers that be. This doesn't necessarily include the limp-wristed efforts of groups like Just Stop Oil, but it's a good place to start.
Should historical art have to suffer in order to get governments to listen to their people? I believe I am legally required to say no, and that you really shouldn’t consider throwing bleach-tipped darts at The Last Supper — but then again, Louis XVI probably didn’t want people throwing stones at the Bastille.