Responsible Fighters: Activists Against Art

Largely debated, in the present times the climate action topic is at the center of the attention of the media. We’re experiencing pretty tough times in terms of effects of climate changes, and we can not really expect this whole situation to improve too quickly. Clearly, we’re not doing enough to fight climate change and, most likely, we’re not doing it the right way.

But we see someone taking the lead in the attempt to give this fight a voice: we’ll focus on activists’ actions and, in particular, on the way they deliver their message.

Activists and the ‘Hay Wain’ (Credits to ARTNews)

Art at the center

Finally art has a great part in this conversation by not being just “pretty”. It is used for what it is, a tool to convey a message.

The environmental activists attacks in the last months opened big debates. They aimed at well-known masterpieces to raise awareness of this urgent problem. Art was used as a means of communication, a very unexpected one.

As expected, calling attention by destroying art pieces is a move few seem to appreciate. Those who defend the reasons of the activists claim no damage was caused to the works and that all this was necessary to get visibility and to be able to pressure the world leaders to take action. The matter has to be assessed, whatever it takes. After all, they say, it’s just a bit of soup.

However, both sides defend their noble cause. Many people in the art world are very concerned, and ask whether this way of protesting could actually be helpful in any way, since all they’re doing is harming very fragile pieces that must be preserved in the interest of humanity. The costs to fix the pieces are huge, in terms of money and in terms of resources. Not to mention the risk of cultural damage in case they ruined the artworks irremediably.

Why ruin art?

Now all the eyes are on them. Let’s explain a bit the big damage. All the works were covered by glass, so it appears there is no problem: the artworks are safely protected while activists throw things at them. Nothing is ruined… or is it?

Every time a painting is harmed, it has to be restored, like when they threw soup at van Gogh’s Sunflowers. We’re not going to leave a van Gogh like that. The museum needs to pay for specialized personnel, experts and restorers, as well as for tools, materials and special chemical substances.

In Florence an activist sprayed Palazzo Vecchio, a popular and historical building, with orange paint. It was washable. The spray paint was actually washed, but it took 5 thousand liters of water to fix the mess.

We can witness some examples even closer to us. In Milan, the activists struck again and again. They vandalized the L.O.V.E. statue in Piazza Affari, La Scala theater and, more recently, the equestrian statue of Vittorio Emanuele II was soiled in yellow paint, for damages that would go around 200 thousand euros, not to mention that experts found out it’s not washable with just water, so it remains half coloured in the middle of Piazza Duomo.

La scultura L.O.V.E. di Maurizio Cattelan dopo l'imbrattamento. Ph. Achivio Cattelan
L.O.V.E. in Piazza Affari (Photo credits to Archivio Cattelan)

But we could go on and on with flour on Andy Warhol’s car and some blue scribbles on his Campbell’s soup cans, mashed potatoes on Monet’s Haystack, Death and Life of Klimt covered in some black liquid, another soup at Sower at sunset by van Gogh, and all the glue for them to stick their hands to the frames of two Goya’s paintings and to the Laocoon statue in Vatican museums.

The last, fresh, piece of news: some days ago activists stepped in the Trevi fountain in Rome and poured a black liquid in it. 300 thousand liters of water will be needed to clean it.

We want to raise questions? Let’s raise questions: Is this damage any useful? Are they shocking the world enough? Would this convince people to care about climate change in any way? Seeing all this, are we called to action or do we just feel more and more distant from the reasons of these people?

Collaborating with art

Destruction is not the only way someone can get attention from the press. Also, no one convinces no one by threatening something that is public. People have to be affected personally, they have to feel that they risk losing something.

There are countless examples of activists throwing food and paint at paintings, statues, buildings. They could have chosen another way, like displaying installations or hanging signs on the walls. But this was a bit more immediate. Needless to say, there are many, less troublesome, smarter and more creative, ways to catch people’s attention.

Someone thought about this too and came up with a very different solution. We’ve seen so far art and activists as “rivals”, with activists being active and art being passive. Can this relationship be reclaimed?

This news title came up: “A few degrees more will turn the world into an uncomfortable place”. Fifteen selected paintings of well-known artists are hanging tilted on the walls of the Leopold Museum in Wien. This was the piece of news we were all waiting for.

Nothing has been destroyed, something was changed, by just a little… actually, by just a few degrees. Artworks “turned into climate ambassadors themselves” and, by just being presented in a slightly different way, they assumed a new meaning.

We fear the changes in temperature will be permanent, affecting the stability of all the ecosystems. The campaign was made in collaboration with the CCCA (Climate Change Centre Austria). A team of 12 renowned scientists of different faculties calculated the effects that global warming will have on the painted scenery in the upcoming decades and the artworks were tilted by the corresponding number of degrees it would take for the depicted landscapes to disappear completely, for us not to be able to reestablish the situation. They show a metaphor of an environment off-balance, playing on the word “degree”.

Finally, an art museum takes the role of museum as an educational institution, able to influence and make people reflect, by confronting modern topics, presenting other viewpoints and being provocative: human beings have to think in a more active way. After all, we also preserve the past as an example, to be better in the future.

Apart from conserving cultural heritage and teaching, a collection should be inspiring, because museums have the potential to positively impact our future actions. The effort is to make accessible too abstract data and have people confronting the harsh reality. This intervention is particularly effective to get a more visual and impressive sense of the issue.

This solution is not a mere advertisement of the climate problem, it’s a more effective way of protesting that touches our sensibility in a nonconventional way. Consciousness is something that has to be triggered with information and education.

5 Artist-Activists Who Are Changing The World - The Green Hub
(Photo Credits: Green Hub via Pinterest)

It was shown that simply giving some information to people is not enough for them to take action. People have to be involved and interested, so that they won’t just go on with their lives. Something like this collaboration, being presented by a big institution, can offer greater opportunities of engagement with audiences.

This sort of disbelief activists provoke is for now effective in the short run, but they ask for actions that will benefit the environment in the long run, made by institutions, on a higher level.

But changes are slow, especially on this scale, and entail changes in habits and changes in the mindset. The urgency of this problem doesn’t match the time we would need to solve it.

This line of reasoning aimed just at inspiring some reflections upon it. Many questions remain unanswered.

Written by Valentina Volpi