Welcome to the Art Angle, a podcast from Artnet News that delves into the places where the art world meets the real world, bringing each week’s biggest story down to earth. Join us every week for an in-depth look at what matters most in museums, the art market, and much more, with input from our own writers and editors, as well as artists, curators, and other top experts in the field.
In recent months, headlines around the world have blared the news of a startling new trend of activism where protesters physically attack famous artworks with paint, food, and glue. The activists are trying to draw attention to global issues of climate change and museum ethics, and agree or disagree, you can’t argue that their tactics are making waves and fines or jail time aren’t stopping them. This week we’re re-airing a conversation that delves into this complicated issue.
On October 14, two activists, Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, walked into the National Gallery in London and threw a can of tomato soup on Van Gogh’s while wearing shirts that read JUST STOP OIL. The action was part of a larger cycle of disruptive occupations and direct action by environmentalists in the UK, demanding dramatic action to cut fossil fuels in the face of climate change—but the Van Gogh soup attack by far drew the most media attention. Indeed, the tactic of using attacks on artworks to get their message out has caught on with campaigners this year, with environmentalists in at least half a dozen countries making headlines with spectacular actions in museums—gluing themselves to famous pieces, spray-painting the walls around them, or throwing food at artworks.
These actions have, in turn, touched off a fierce debate among observers and activists alike about the art-attack tactic. Is it the kind of desperate move needed to shock the public into action when nothing else seems to work? Or do the actions repel otherwise sympathetic observers, isolating a movement that needs to scale up dramatically?
London-based art journalist Farah Nayeri is a frequent contributor to the , and the author of the recent book , which looks at how the digitally empowered activism of the last ten years has changed what the public expects from a museum. In an essay for Artnet News responding to these new museum actions, she wrote about the long history of vandalizing art for a cause, from suffragette Mary Richardson slashing Velazquez’s more than a century ago, to protests within British museums against oil giant BP’s sponsorship over the last decade.
This week, we’re revisiting Artnet News’s national art critic Ben Davis conversation with Nayeri about this history, and what the stakes of the new protests truly are.