When young children in non-western parts of the world are sung the praises of Leonardo Da-Vinci or Monet, they are met with skepticism. There is little access to resources that communicate the real brilliance of these masters, often no access to books or online journals while teachers also tend to repeat second-hand opinions. There is also the underlying dissonance between the art and design we see around us and the art and design we are told is top tier.
The first time I saw a Da-Vinci in person was at the age of 17 and a Monet at 26, both times I was blown away; and I know it truly was the work itself, because I dont bother reading the label till much later. It was Saint Jerome in the Wilderness by Da-Vinci that left me speechless and The Chicago Picasso by Picasso that left me obsessed.
Yet the thing is, young children in non-western parts of the world are living in political unstable, climatically volatile countries of the global south and they tend to be a little more dismissive of such cultural icons. This may arise from their own cultural and historical distance to these greats or it may be that their everyday physical and mental well-being depend on real word political decisions and policies – so when Just Stop Oil teaches its young members to throw liquids at priceless paintings and glue themselves to the frame to tract attention to oil-related climate atrocities being committed by government-backed corporations, your first thought is “well, why not?”
Its important to note that no paintings have actually ever been damaged. All the works that were targeted by these activists were covered by glass and were back on display within a few hours. The idea behind these actions was clearly never meant to cause permanent damage and sure this may also be so that no member has to face very serious legal issues but the question is, why is political protest resulting in jail time at all. There is legal precedent that political protest without intention to harm property has helped the defendant but as we have seen, over the years policy and police have gotten harsher and harsher on environmental activists. In recent news, eight journalists were arrested in their coverage of non-violent protests by Just Stop Oil in Great Britain.
As an Art and Design student myself, I fully understand the outrage that comes with from the Art world against these acts. I’m not sure I fully agree with the method of protest either but there is no doubt that they have created the kind of awareness they set out to make. The average public knows who they are, what they do and perhaps even see the level of desperation they have reached since their other democratic pleas have been so often ignored. And it has made me wonder why climate destruction is so easily ignored but the temporary defacing of, frankly, just very expensive property.
One problem with activism is that either you sugarcoat it for the viewers discretion and have them forget your message or make an impact that may cause a controversy big enough that also overcomes the original message. The other problem with activism is that extreme actions mean anyone can take them. So if one kind of extreme protest is correct, so is another kind; one that may not have the most liberal, left, ‘woke’ world view. Will I personally have the same casual curiosity about soup on priceless paintings if it was an act of protest by a pro-american interventionist or will I be more upset?