Is There a Future for Just Stop Oil’s Art Protests?

Courtesy Just Stop Oil

It’s unsurprising that the climate justice wars have moved from streets into galleries. But can these actions build any meaningful connection to large-scale organizing?

Over the last year, the art-themed demonstrations of Just Stop Oil and other climate protest groups have been hard to miss. Their filmed mediagenic actions typically consist of activists infiltrating museums, throwing food at paintings (often under protective glass) and gluing themselves to gallery walls. These performances – machines of publicity generation – set the stage for viral social media posts about the climate emergency and their demands for decarbonization.

The tactics suggest escalation; this recent wave of environmentalist protests in museums sits somewhere between prepandemic nonviolent actions (such as Extinction Rebellion’s roadblocks, or shutting down airport runways), and actual property destruction (in 2022, Just Stop Oil protests also included smashing petrol pumps and spray-painting the facades of Harrods, the Bank of England, and News Corp). Just Stop Oil’s public pressure campaigns have upped the ante, deploying radicalized methods to mobilize mass concern against government inaction seen as failed or flat-out denialist owing to its capture by fossil capitalist interests.

A decade ago, groups like Liberate Tate enacted guerilla performances – including, memorably, a ‘die-in’ of a semi-naked activist drenched in an oil-like substance in the galleries of the then BP-sponsored Tate Britain – to expose the toxic philanthropy that ‘artwashes’ climate disaster. But now the disaster itself must be stopped (no new oil leases, as Just Stop Oil demands), and in the recent protests we have seen, art has a sacrificial role to play, even though no museum piece has (as of yet) actually been seriously damaged.

Recalling earlier historical episodes of insurgent direct action and civil disobedience – as when in 1914 the suffragette Mary Richardson took a meat cleaver to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus (1644) in London’s National Gallery in protest at the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst – some have questioned the methods. Yet periods of historical social transformation – the end of legal slavery, the defeat of apartheid, decolonization, revolution – have seen property destruction and sabotage used to measurable effect in the face of intolerable circumstances offering no other mechanism for change.

Given the near-future impacts of climate change that threaten the viability of civilization, our own circumstances may be still worse. As such, it’s a wonder more have not turned to revolutionary militancy, transcending the limits of mainstream environmentalism’s strategic pacifism and fetishization of nonviolence, as Andreas Malm notes in his rousing book How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2021).

Just Stop Oil’s recent protests are an example of how activist energies can be rerouted towards what Malm terms the ‘fine art’ of ‘controlled political violence’. With their museum actions, there’s no obvious relation to the targeted paintings’ subjects or styles, save one protest at the National Gallery that ‘updated’ Constable’s nostalgic pastoralism to show its modern aftermath scorched by the fossil fuel economy. Still, the art itself – whether by Van Gogh, Monet, and Vermeer – is not innocent.

Climate activists have focused their attention on valuable cultural heritage hanging (most often) in public museums – the better to gain visibility in posing their urgent questions. As protesters glued themselves to the wall around Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery last year, they shouted: “What is worth more, art or life? Is it worth more than food, more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?”

While even the sympathetic might question the strategic efficacy of these ultimatums, potentially alienating museum-goers and the public at large, protesters continue despite the risks, including ever-lengthening jail time mandated by governments that prioritize protecting property above all else. These are desperate acts for sure, where amplified social-media outrage finds recourse by bypassing de-democratized technocratic systems.

For Gen-Z activists, their very future is in jeopardy, for which no art can compensate and no respectability politics can contain. Luxury objects, coveted by the super-rich, enjoyed by the well-resourced who can afford the price of admission, represent at best sites of willful detachment. At worst, they suggest scenes of criminality: delighting in aesthetic beauty while the world burns is an act of perverse complicity.

Given that the rich produce the lion’s share of world-destroying emissions and profit massively, it’s not surprising that the climate justice culture wars are fought not just on the streets, but in spaces dominated by wealth and privilege. Indeed, climate change is class war, as Matthew T. Huber compellingly argues in a recent book, with the poorest bearing the worst consequences. Fighting that war requires workers organizing – and striking – at the point of production in support of renewable public power. It also requires taking back public institutions that have been increasingly privatized and gentrified during years of neoliberalism, through mediatized agitation and fierce speech.

More concerning than reactionary responses to Just Stop Oil (which can only be expected) is that these acts of rebellion, like much online dissent, seem to lack meaningful connection to large-scale organizing – for instance, the kind gained through mass labour militancy. With recent eco-activism, including disruptions to workers’ commutes and spaces of leisure (like football matches), there’s little appeal to working-class movement-building, the majoritarian social basis necessary, Huber argues, to actually win the climate war and the world we want. In fact, it’s not hard to see how such actions might actually distance museum staff from the struggle, especially when they have to clean up the mess. The language of decarbonization, like degrowth, suggests austerity to the precarious – hardly appealing to workers – instead of promising a politics of more for the many. (It’s perhaps for these reasons that Extinction Rebellion may be currently reassessing its tactics).

It’s a question of both message and method. There’s a big difference between instrumentalizing artworks as semi-random vehicles for agitprop, as with Just Stop Oil’s actions, and expanding the creative work of art into an act of coalitional organizing, exemplified by the anti-capitalist practice of ‘assemblism’ (as in Jonas Staal’s or Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s undertakings, dedicated to cultivating social forces for political gain), and the anti-billionaire institutional liberation of Strike MoMA waged by Decolonize This Place. Both also use agit-prop tactically, but they combine it with sustained dedication to collaborating with other activist groups (including trade unions) to reach their strategic goals.

More than narrow single-issue engagements, these latter examples provide inspiring models of worldmaking, dedicated to building solidarity, and through it, power, towards a just and abundant future. Rather than stridently striking out at culture while seemingly totally detached from life’s mundane concerns, they reclaim art for, even as, the struggle, refusing to give up on culture that should be for the many, not the few. Combining environmentalist forces with those of labour against ruling class interests could strengthen both movements. But when fossil capital has cannibalized institutions – political and artistic – to such a degree, we can expect, at the very least, more despairing acts like Just Stop Oil’s protests, which seek to heighten the antagonism.

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