Discover more from OUT OF THE BOX
Museums as Places of Protest
When are art spaces the right venue for political action?
In the last two weeks, three political protests have swept through art museums across the world. On Friday October 14th, two climate activists flung tomato soup onto Van Gogh's Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. After having sullied the canvas and then glued their hands to the wall beneath it, one of the protestors asked the gasping crowd, "What is worth more: art or life?" They went on, "Is [art] worth more than food? Are you more concerned with the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?"
Eight days later, two other climate activists splattered mashed potatoes across Claude Monet’s Haystacks at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany. According to ARTNews, a spokesperson for the group framed the action this way, “Monet loved nature and captured its unique and fragile beauty in his works.” She went on, “How is it that so many are more afraid of damaging one of these images of reality than of the destruction of our world itself, the magic of which Monet admired so much?”
As these types of protests become more commonplace, it is worth asking: do these venues provide a reliable backdrop for meaningful political action or are they simply a convenient staging area for spectacle? Which causes do museums and cultural institutions have a responsibility to champion and which are outside of their purview?
In the case of these two food-related defacements, I can’t help but notice the false equivalence being drawn between art and climate collapse. The notion of having to choose between art and life, in order to determine which has more value, is anathema to me. Neither is possible without the other.
I understand the impulse to target an institution that people perceive as powerful, wealthy, and indifferent to the suffering of the world. But if one wants to make a statement about climate change, wouldn’t it be more effective to single out an institution that is directly responsible for the catastrophe as opposed to taking aim at one whose mission it is to preserve what is beautiful about humanity? Does damaging a work of art motivate people to better protect the planet? Or, if the cause is just, are these questions irrelevant as long as the activists capture enough media attention to spur effective change?
When Gandhi was developing his philosophy of nonviolent protest, he learned an important lesson early on: if you’re going to risk your life by going on a hunger strike, you have to make sure that there are enough people who care about your cause, who are aware of the action you are taking, and who don’t want you to die. Long story short: the action alone isn’t enough. It must be targeted at those who are receptive to your protest and who will be motivated to intervene as a result.
Consider what happened over the weekend at the Guggenheim in New York (above): an anonymous collective of Iranian artists created a Guerilla installation to draw attention to the death of Mahsa Amini and the ongoing fight for human rights in Iran. In an instagram post about it, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat wrote, “Masha Amini emerged at the Guggenheim museum today!! Proud of a few brave Iranian artists make a surprise protest by hanging this beautiful display today, they are the conscience of the sleepy art world who cares little for Iranian women fighting for basic human rights and freedom.”
According to The Art Newspaper, “The London-based artist and collector Maryam Eisler subsequently responded: ‘Sleepy is an understatement. It’s a disgrace. Good on these creative souls to bring their plight into the heart of the art house even if this “house” hasn’t stood up for them yet.’”
Unlike the soup and the potatoes protests, this was an artistic intervention in an art space made by artists for patrons of the arts. Everything about this action was designed to maximize the receptivity of the audience and the insitution. It created a container for future conversations about how the Guggenheim can support Iranian artists and their human rights. And it allows people to hold the Guggenheim accountable for inaction. Attention was captured and nothing was destroyed.
It made me think of the successful campaign that photographer Nan Goldin waged against the Sackler family, whose company manufactures OxyContin and is largely responsible for the opioid epidemic in this country. Goldin, who became addicted to OxyContin after a surgical procedure, discovered that the Sacklers had donated millions of dollars to art institutions all over the world in exchange for their name on buildings and some good old-fashioned reputation laundering.
Goldin carefully chose beloved institutions that had been taking money from the Sacklers—while their day job was killing hundreds of thousands of people—and she staged mass protests to draw the art world’s attention to where the money was coming from. In the video below, activists throw a thousand OxyContin bottles into the moat at the Temple of Dendur in the Sackler wing of the Met. They demand funding for rehab. Then they stage a mass die-in.
Since then, Goldin and her fellow activists have drawn so much attention to the cause and put so much pressure on arts institutions that many have pledged not to accept donations from the Sacklers and have removed their names from buildings.
It is worth noting that my trouble with the soup-and-potato protests has nothing to do with wanting to venerate Van Gogh or Monet, or to hold these men up as gods of the art cannon whose work must live on forever. This is not about protecting multi-million dollar works by dead white dudes, nor is it about protecting the institutions that house them.
The Iranian artist collective and Goldin both understood how to use the museum as an essential part of their protests by harnessing the synergy of place and message. When those two things come together, the outcome can be powerful. I hope more people hold cultural institutions accountable for helping us all move toward justice. And I hope fewer people attempt to spread those messages by throwing food at paintings.
Likes and comments tell Substack what to highlight for potential new subscribers. So if something resonates with you, don't be shy about leaving hearts or thoughts.