Why Did The Van Gogh ‘Sunflowers’ Protest Inspire Such A Hysterical Response?

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On Friday, a pair of young climate activists threw a can of tomato soup over 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 unharmed (only the frame was damaged by the stunt), but the visceral impact of seeing a priceless artwork splattered with soup was intended to attract media outrage and attention. In a statement, one of the activists, Phoebe Plummer, said:

"Is art worth more than life? More than food? More than justice? The cost-of-living crisis is driven by fossil fuels—everyday life has become unaffordable for millions of cold, hungry families—they can't even afford to heat a tin of soup. Meanwhile, crops are failing and people are dying in supercharged monsoons, massive wildfires, and endless droughts caused by climate breakdown. We can't afford new oil and gas, it's going to take everything. We will look back and mourn all we have lost unless we act immediately."

The protesters are correct; climate scientists have been warning humanity for decades of the apocalyptic consequences of continuing down our current path. Sure, Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” is a unique, priceless piece of art, and if it is damaged, there is no replacement - but why isn’t Earth’s ecosystem treated with the same level of deference?

Social media lit up with anger against the protesters, as media pundits, culture warriors, and progressives briefly united, in a rare show of solidarity, to condemn the protesters, accusing them of “alienating” the public, and damaging the environmentalist movement.

Mother Jones senior editor Michael Mechanic 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 a horrible way to express an important cause. This is beyond stupid, immature, and alienating. Grow the f**k up."

While only the most fervent climate-change denier would disagree with the activist’s message, many viewed the optics of the stunt as misguided, potentially causing more harm than good.

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

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

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

Whether you agree with the activist’s methods or not, it’s impossible to deny that they successfully attracted a huge amount of attention to their cause (a single video of the stunt posted on Twitter received more than 48 million views).

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

Indeed, an NFT enthusiast recently destroyed one of Frida Kahlo’s drawings as 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 are incredibly wasteful and energy intensive). The stunt did not attract the same level of vitriol as the Van Gogh protest, which, again, didn’t damage the painting.

Young people today are growing up in a bleak, surreal time, burdened with the knowledge that Earth’s ecosystem is being ravaged, that those record-breaking summers are going to keep getting hotter, that wildfires will keep burning, and nobody seems to be doing anything about it.

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

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