A Can of Soup

A pixel version of a Heinz tomato soup can.

What does the climate crisis, a Van Gogh painting, and a can of tomato soup have in common?

Except for being the opening to a funny joke we’ve never heard – not much. That is, until a couple of days ago, when the organization Just Stop Oil organized a protest unlike anything you’ve probably ever seen. Two activists threw cans of tomato soup at Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ in the National Gallery then glued their hands to the wall in protest of the expansion of oil and gas. The message is that many families already cannot afford to heat their own food, and when we reach the peak of the climate crisis, billions will likely face starvation. The main question posed? Which is more important, art or our lives?

While the painting is fine (it’s covered in a protective glaze), as climate activists and artists, there is a lot to dissect here (way too much to fit in a regular Pixel Planet Today post). We wanted to unpack as much of it as we can, our opinion on it, and ask, “Was this a good thing?”

Too long, not going to read? While we stand with the desperation behind protests like these (“We don’t have time to ask nicely’), there is, frankly, a lot we don’t agree with. Here’s our pros and cons list of the whole ordeal.

Pro: A global message for the global stage
Targeting an ultra-famous painting by an even more famous artist guranteed the message to be heard all around the world. Even if those that are talking about it don’t agree with the protest, the conversation still likely brings up questions about the climate crisis, what this generation is facing, and what can be done about it. Some may entertain the idea that “My life is worth more than an artpiece,” but, more importantly, they are hopefully asking, “Isn’t my life worth more than barrels of oil?”

Con: The question/message isn’t the right one
Some critics have simply asked, “What did that painting do to you?” – but our issues with the message go much further than this one painting. This question of “what is worth more, art or our lives?” puts an inherit blame on something that hasn’t caused any harm, but simply exists. Similar comparisons could be made by burning books, bringing down the Internet, or worse, taking away our pets (stay away from my cat, you fiend). To answer the question simply – yes, our lives are more important than these material things, but that doesn’t mean they are to blame or deserve to become the target of negative attention. The negative attention of the climate crisis HAS to remain on the things that actual contribute to it, otherwise, we put further risk into running out of time to prevent the worst of it. The stunt was made to make people think about what is most important at the end of the day, but the reality is that we don’t have to give up every single thing that makes us human to survive. We only have to give up the self-defeating things like plastic packaging, food waste, and yes, fossil fuels.

We also have to add: There shouldn’t be a battle between art and our lives – they are, and should remain, on the same team. With Pixel Planet Today, we’ve been using art to make environmental news and facts more fun and enjoyable for over three years, never needing to sacrifice one for the other. And we are hardly alone – artivists all over the planet use the most fundamental communication skills to make it easier for others to learn and grow. As we face the climate crisis and other planetary crises, we need to use every tool at our disposal to educate governments, organizations, businesses, and the general public about what we are facing today and what will come if we do nothing.

Pro: The desperation is no joke
One thing that we can absolutely get behind is the desperation you see in this stunt. You don’t run into a museum, throw soup at a painting, then glue your hands to a wall for the sheer fun of it. This message needs to be heard, and activists are tired of waiting for the message to be relayed through levels of government. We simply do not have the time. At no offense to the activists here – what does any pet or child do when they aren’t getting enough attention? Make a scene. And this scene was an emotion-striking, what-the-heck-just-happened spectacle that made everyone take notice. We’re running out of time to play nice and wait for people to understand that Earth isn’t a playground for capitalistic pillaging – it’s our home.

Con: Copycats and Not-so Ultra-famous Artists
Living in an interconnected, everyone-sees-everything world has its own pros and cons list. To cherry-pick from the list of cons: it opens the door to copycats. Again, this particular painting was protected by glass/a layer of glaze, so the group wasn’t charged millions of dollars for ruining the painting. However, what about other activists around the world that see this stunt, want to follow-suit, but entirely ruin an art piece? As artists ourselves, it pains us to think of someone putting in hundreds of hours into a piece, only to have it destroyed by someone wanting to send a message.

Con: A bad name for the movement
At the end of the day, our biggest qualm with the stunt? It casts a shadow on the climate movement as a whole. We understand, more than most people, that time is running out for real climate action – but throwing a can of soup on a historic painting surely can’t be the best solution? The movement as a whole needs to be bigger and better in order to get the support it needs in the areas it needs it in. The stunt may have gotten a message across (in our opinion, not the right one at that), but it also came with a cost. By throwing soup on a highly valued painting (monetary and cultural), the group, and in turn, part of the climate movement, likely lost some of its standing in the eyes of government officials, organizations, and other activists. Don’t get us wrong, the movement is fueled by activists not complying to these same people and demanding change, but in order to be taken seriously, we have to stand taller than they do – not stoop to their (or lower) level.

While we aren’t the biggest fans of the Soup + Van Gogh stunt, we want to know what you think. Do you agree with us, have a different take? We hope to see you in the comments below, or we’d love to hear from you on any of our social media channels!

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