“How do you feel when you see something beautiful and priceless being apparently destroyed before your eyes? Do you feel outrage? Good. That is the feeling when you see the planet being destroyed before our very eyes.”
These words were uttered by climate activists who recently attacked the famous painting the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” at the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague.
Three activists from the environmental group “Just Stop Oil” in the Netherlands targeted Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer's famous painting to draw attention to the issue of climate change. Previously, climate activists had also attacked a piece of Claude Monet's “Les Muele” series with mashed potatoes, while Leonardo da Vinci's “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre Museum and a replica of “The Last Supper” on display in England were also affected by the attacks, as well as John Constable's “The Hay Cart” and Vincent van Gogh's “Sunflowers.”
The message the environmental groups, who organized for recent high-profile protests at art galleries, want to convey is pretty clear: “Wake up, people,” or at the very least, they just wanted to catch the world’s eye…
When I first saw those two young women in front of Van Gogh’s defaced “Sunflowers” painting at the National Gallery in London, with a tomato soup tin they first shoved into the painting then into the cameras recording them, I was shocked.
Yeah, they definitely “caught” me and I’m not the only one. To give the two ladies their credit, “climate change catastrophists” made the headlines like never before and they seem to have kept and will continue to keep the headlines busy for a long time. However, I am not sure if this is the kind of effect they want.
The world is divided on the issue: On the one hand, some say the protesters have achieved their goal of making people more aware of climate change, albeit through a very controversial act. On the other hand, there are those who say that this new and controversial method of protest is not virtuous or is basically “total vandalism.”
So-called culture wars are escalating, and one of the two belligerents is the “woke” left – or “progressives, or “liberals” for that matter – who are bashed by the right on a daily basis over cancel culture and their apparent arrogance manifested through condescending sentences implying that they are the “superior” and “enlightened” breed.
On the red side of the boxing ring is where anyone rejecting “woke” ideas and ideals find themselves, be them a leftist, a libertarian, and of course, a conservative. Here, it would not be fair to not mention the fact that there are many far-right conspiracy theorists, fundamentalists and devout people in this camp too, the populace of which quite overwhelmingly identify themselves as a “republican” or more generally, a person with right-leaning political tendencies.
While the grim fact that politics is here to stay as a defining factor even in issues like climate change – which is literally a matter of life and death (our species’ survival on this planet, for starters) is here to stay – we have to discuss whether climate change activism carried out under the watchful eyes of the abstract yet very real “woke culture” overlord can really contribute to the fight against environmental dangers facing our humanity. The only thing woke climate change activism has arguably managed to do so far, at least in appearance, has been putting real struggle against climate change at risk – through consequent ridicule and ever-decreasing seriousness of such a real, concrete problem in peoples’ minds.
In the aftermath of the World War II, when the globe was still divided into two camps as in capitalist and communist states, there was this very popular term used to define the latter: the “Iron Curtain.”
It basically described the political boundary dividing the old continent into two separate realms.
The term was commonly used until the end of the Cold War in 1991 but it seems it’s still valid today.
On the one hand, you have Russia and China and their de facto proxy states that align themselves with the two previously-communist mammoths. On the other hand, you have the unique superpower United States and its more liberal, developed Western allies.
When you narrow this perspective from the state level all the way down to the individual, you’ll observe another iron curtain, one that did not exist during the times of war and divide.
That iron curtain is in our minds, in sociology, in culture; a fact that makes things even more complex and intricate.
Let’s state the obvious first: the prominent paintings were not harmed by the tomato soup or mashed patato splatter during the protests, and the demonstrators knew it would not be thanks to the glass enclosure covering it. They obviously had no intent to vandalize it; all they wanted to do was draw some attention to the dangers of climate change.
Activists say that before recent high-profile protests at museums and art galleries, they tried other methods like marches and targeting brands and banks. However, they also state that they could not achieve the desired effect when the showcases of famous and expensive brands and banks were damaged and the problem persisted. The activists also emphasize that “just want to experience the destruction of something very precious and unique.” They further underline that the reaction to the damage to works of art and paintings by not speaking out while harming nature and living things shows the distortion of our value system.
In fact, there is a really interesting dialectic here: nature itself versus the value system we have revealed through culture and art.
Art; there is also the concept of “artificiality,” which means “unnatural.” In this context, culture and art are the things that people put forward against those that exist spontaneously in nature itself. These attacks, therefore, left us alone with our hypocrisy. It has hit us in the face that we do not show our reaction to the behavior aimed at harming human production, to the destruction of nature.
So to sum up, yes, we can say that catastrophists manage to make an impact no matter what.
However, the fact that no work of art or painting has been damaged so far does not mean that it will not be damaged in the future. These controversial actions, which are currently effective in Europe, have not yet become widespread. Such actions have not been seen in most countries, including Türkiye. But who knows what will happen in other countries if it spreads around the world?
Could there be negative inspirations? How far will these protests go? Could it really go as far as damaging paintings or burning museums?
These are all worrying and significant questions.
“What is worth more: art or life?” one of the protesters asked.
“Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”
That is truly a valid point, but sounds disturbingly close to a whataboutism, which is literally a logical fallacy.
“We are in a climate catastrophe, and all you are afraid of is tomato soup or mashed potatoes on a painting.”
Those remarks, uttered by one of the activists that day, sounds even more like a whataboutism.
It is deeply natural for a human being to feel outraged by obvious wrongdoings and negligences. From time to time, everyone wants to get on a roof and shout “come on guys, do something to end world hunger,” or “wake up, people; we are all suffering from exorbitant inflation,” or “feed the street animals, they are dying,” or “open your eyes, politicians are lying to us.”
Those are all valid demands expected from someone with basic decency and conscience. Nonetheless, science tells us not to do this; because brute force, shouting or getting in a tantrum simply do not work. What really works is intricate planning and visually appealing execution.
Humans are visual creatures. Half of the human brain is either directly or indirectly devoted to processing visual information. We all crave beauty and order in everything we see. Our brains are literally hardwired to reject things that are not visually appealing. In that sense, the two activists’ protest was not too much of a vandalism in that the actual painting was not harmed but it indeed looked utterly disgusting and horrible.
If you want actual people to join a good cause, you had better pack your arguments in a beautiful way and make an appealing presentation. It’s a bummer, it’s a sad reality, it’s an ugly reality but it is indeed a reality. Employing an emotional, romantic approach to such concrete, serious matters has never worked; we have to use our logic and positivity to recruit more people into the fight against climate change, without understating or overstating its importance. When you are dealing with human beings, a pretty selfish species also well-known for its ups and downs, it’s always a game of balance. Tell people in a clear-cut way, with real-life examples like how hard it would be to sustain the economy and how badly they will be effected individually if climate change gets worse and do not scare or threaten them into acting the right way, and see how they react. I am pretty sure the outcome of this method will prove to be leagues better.
“Global warming has just become a new excuse to bully. The big excuse that the ‘Bolshe-wokes,’ these are tribalists that use it as a holy cause to bully other people and still think that they are the moral ones.”
The host of Sky News Australia, Andrew Bolt caught my attention with those remarks as I was doing this research. Love him or hate him, his points were actually valid according to the most basic fundamentals of human psychology.
“Such a sweet deal… Act like a thug, push people around, get in their faces, abuse them and still feel that you are not a brat; you are a hero,” he added, pointing to the outrageous act that obscures all facts that come in its way: virtue signaling.
In what other issue would such a tool come in so handy? The world is facing such a huge danger, our species’ very survival is at stake due to the ever-increasing temperatures and melting glaciers and here comes a virtue signaler to bully you into doing the right thing.
Defending a stance that is inherently right, does not automatically bestow upon you the right to enforce it however you may please. The way of doing something is equally as important as the thing itself.
The way we can make our way out of this climate mess is concrete action, not condescending words or actions that do not produce any real-life benefits.
We will survive on this planet, or we will not. Let’s hope and act for the former.
*Opinion editor at Daily Sabah