Why Are Climate Activists Throwing Food at Million-Dollar Paintings?

In the most recent stunt, protesters tossed mashed potatoes at Monet’s “Grainstacks” in Germany

Two people with hands stuck to wall under painting smeared with potatoes
Last Generation protesters throw mashed potatoes at a Monet painting in Germany.  Letzte Generation

Wearing neon orange vests, two climate activists splattered mashed potatoes on the protective glass that covers Monet’s Grainstacks at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany. They then glued their hands to the wall below the painting and began to speak. 

“People are starving. People are freezing. People are dying. We are in a climate catastrophe and all you are afraid of is tomato soup or mashed potatoes on a painting,” protester Mirjam Herrmann said. “When will you finally start to listen and stop business as usual?”

This is the latest stunt in a long string of art-related climate protests across Europe. Earlier this month, activists with the group Just Stop Oil, a United Kingdom-based coalition, threw tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London. In June, members of the group glued themselves to the frame of van Gogh’s Peach Trees in Blossom. And a man disguised as an elderly woman smeared cake on the Mona Lisa's protective glass in May. Climate protesters have also hit museums in Glasgow, Florence and the Vatican, as well as multiple London galleries. 

In all instances, the art was unharmed, though some frames sustained minor damage.

"Wann ist der Punkt erreicht, an dem ihr hinhört?" - Kartoffelbrei an Monets "Les Meules" [23.10.22]

This week’s mashed potato protest was led by Last Generation, a German sister organization of Just Stop Oil. Members of the group have previously set up blockades on roads across Germany and glued themselves to frames of art hanging in Dresden, Berlin and Frankfurt. 

The stunts are dramatic, even “ridiculous,” as 21-year-old Phoebe Plummer, a Just Stop Oil activist arrested after throwing soup at Sunflowers last week, admits in an interview with JOE. But, Plummer says, they’re meant to spark a discussion about climate action.

“We're not asking the question, ‘Should everybody be throwing soup on paintings?’” Plummer tells JOE. “What we're doing is getting the conversation going so we can ask the questions that matter. Questions like… ‘Is it okay that fossil fuels are subsidized thirty times more than renewables [in the U.K.], when offshore wind is currently nine times cheaper?’”

Stephen Duncombe, co-founder of the nonprofit Center for Artistic Activism that trains people to campaign for change, tells the New York Times’ Cara Buckley that he questions whether this strategy is effective.

“Are they talking about food being thrown at art, or are they talking about how carbon-based fuels are going to extinguish life on the planet?” Duncombe tells the publication. “If the message getting across is activists doing crazy stuff, does it help the cause or not?”

Last Generation has two demands listed on its website. The first is a 62-mile-per-hour speed limit on German highways, which the German Environment Agency has calculated would save 5.4 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Their second demand is a flat-fee rail ticket, which is believed to decrease emissions further by encouraging public transit use. In June, July and August this year, the country experimented with charging a monthly flat rate of €9 ($9) for a ticket to ride all local and regional public transit in Germany. 

Just Stop Oil’s goals differ slightly. The group is demanding a statement from the U.K. government saying it will “immediately halt future licensing and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the U.K.,” per the organization’s website

Alex De Koning, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil, tells Euronews’ David Mouriquand the group has been inspired by past nonviolent civil resistance movements. 

“Massive resistance is how women got the vote, how African Americans got the vote, how we got health and safety laws in the U.K., as well as gay rights,” he tells the publication. “The suffragettes slashed paintings and quite violently destroyed them, while we’re just throwing soup at a glass pane but still trying to get the message across in the same way and make people question their own comfort zones.” 

Road blockade
Last Generation protesters block a road in Berlin.  Letzte Generation

Olaf Zimmermann, the executive director of the German Cultural Council, condemns the Last Generation members that glued themselves to art in a statement, per Deutsche Welle’s Stuart Braun. 

“As much as I can understand the despair of the climate activists, I say clearly that the actions of sticking oneself to frames of famous works of art are clearly the wrong way to go,” he says in the statement. “The works put in danger belong to the world cultural heritage and need to be protected as well as our climate.” 

But Corina Rogge, the vice president of the American Institute of Conservation, tells Artnet NewsSarah Cascone that she’s more sympathetic and that the actions are relatively harmless. 

“They’re worried, rightly so, that many governments are not taking climate concerns to heart,” she tells Artnet News. “Because museums preserve our shared humanity, it’s really understandable that activists are using them to try and bring awareness of how climate change is threatening humanity.”

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