Throwing food on famous art distracts from protestors’ cause

by Tyler Michals

The worldwide debate over climate change is descending into a political food fight. Last Sunday, climate activists threw mashed potatoes on Claude Monet’s famous “Les Meules” painting, which is housed at the Barberini Museum in Potsdam, Germany. This is the latest in a series of incidents in which activists are smearing food on famous artwork to help stave off a climate crisis.

Talk about throwing the kitchen sink at a problem. Earlier this month, a pair of young climate activists threw tomato soup on the Vincent Van Gogh painting “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London. In May, a protester at the Louvre Museum in Paris disguised himself as an elderly woman in a wheelchair. After getting close to the Mona Lisa, the protester abruptly rose and threw cake at the priceless painting.

So far, none of the paintings has been seriously damaged. But it’s not hard to foresee that, if the trend continues, irretrievable damage could be done to some precious piece of art.

It’s perilous to suggest to someone the “right way” of protesting: “Please do it only in a way that doesn’t bother me.” Historically, protests have taken innumerable forms. But it’s hard to see the food-throwing campaign in the same light as, say, self-immolation by Tibetan monks or sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters during Jim Crow. The act of covering a Monet in mashed potatoes lacks the same indicia of self-sacrifice.

Therefore, it’s worth asking whether the strategy brings the sort of attention that climate activists desire. Being purposely provocative has certainly gained the climate activists international attention. But this would hardly be worth the cost if that attention alienates the public. The concern, then, is that the method of protesting will overshadow the cause.

Take Colin Kaepernick’s protests. As the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, he began kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games to draw attention to police brutality and racial injustice in the United States. This triggered a political firestorm, and many believed that he was figuratively trampling on the American flag.

Of course, he was simply kneeling on the grass, and the only thing at risk of being sullied was his knee pad — and as it turns out, his football career. Within a year, Kaepernick was out of the league, and the national anthem protest fizzled out soon after.

The problem with kneeling for the national anthem was that the method of protesting became the focal point. It inflamed passions on both sides and encouraged everyone to dig in their heels. The national conversation became less about how we create a society that is more just toward minorities and more about whether it is appropriate to kneel for the national anthem. In that respect, it often distracted from the very issue that Kaepernick sought to bring attention to.

Garnering attention to a cause is one thing but creating a movement to bring about that change is another. Climate change is already among the most discussed issues in politics throughout the world. It’s not for lack of awareness that more green laws haven’t been enacted but for lack of political consensus.

Regardless, property damage is no substitute for argument, and causing outrage is not the same as building a governing coalition. Conservatives are not likely to be persuaded by the tactic of defacing rare art. Even liberal politicians will likely be compelled to denounce the vandalism while also paying lip service to the protesters’ passion. Meanwhile, the world’s largest carbon emitter, China, will not be swayed in the least.

The activist group responsible for the latest incident in Germany, Last Generation, wrote on Twitter, “If it takes a painting — with #MashedPotatoes or #TomatoSoup thrown at it — to make society remember that the fossil fuel course is killing us all: Then we’ll give you #MashedPotatoes on a painting!” Yet it’s far from clear that throwing food on paintings will move the needle on climate policy. In fact, people can be forgiven for missing the message altogether.

As with any work of art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some may view the protest and feel galvanized to take action on climate change. But most people, I suspect, will just see food strewed across an irreplaceable painting.

Tyler Michals is an attorney in Chicago.