Picture this… a man walks into a gallery and throws black ink over a renowned artwork.
Not, as you would be forgiven thinking, a Just Stop Oil intervention but a 1994 reaction by artist Mark Bridger to Damien Hirst’s pickled sheep creating a new work he called “Black Sheep” which was in turn absorbed into the canon and at auction saw its reserve price quadrupled. It prompted Hirst to continue the theme of black sheep in his formaldehyde years.
With some prescience, Bridger commented in court: “Art is there for creation of awareness and I added to whatever it was meant to say… It’s about life and death; we are entering the territory of what life is all about.”
We are in a postmodern age. Iconoclasm is the maxim: appropriation to subvert meaning, the quest.
The most famous interventionists were Situationists International (SI), and they were the stuff of legend from the start. Their interventions were known as détournement, or ‘the integration of present or past artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu’. Often employing collage and montage, détournement looked to reimagine a future with a theory of change geared to inclusivity as opposed to the exclusivity common to the art world.
Taking up the Situationist torch, the graffiti artist Banksy delivers critiques of political corruption, injustice, war and Capitalism to the public, often site-specific with the use of stencils. He has also inserted his own pieces into museums, including The Louvre, the Tate, the British Museum and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where they have remained for some time before discovery.
In his celebrated series, the Crude Oils he inserted his iconic stencil figures into Old Masters works amplifying sharp social commentary with subversive humour.
The Just Stop oil intervention in the National Gallery was equally witty. The choice of soup as a weapon of choice, with all its Warholian connotations as a symbol of commerciality, to attack sunflowers representing nature and a different kind of growth, is a powerful metaphor.
Politics and Social Movements researcher Lucie Hunter explains:
“Similar to the avant-gardes, climate activist movements also believe in the possibility of change and society’s agency in bringing it about… Because of the urgency of the task at hand, their message needs to be shared with the wider public. And in what better place to start this conversation, than in one of the most prominent agenda-setting cultural spaces: the museums.”
And this interaction is a two-way street. If an artist designs something to provoke a reaction, how can that reaction be objected to?
Just as the apertures in Henry Moore’s pastoral sculpture are designed to frame an ever changing, and now ever deteriorating, environmental background, the job of the avant garde, by definition, is to shift the Overton window.
Art and activism have always been closely intertwined, but contemporary actions, like that of Just Stop Oil at the National Gallery, illustrate how political interventions themselves are also a form of participatory, socially engaged art that falls firmly within the history and future of contemporary art movements.
Except that there is a glaring difference.
The desperate children, for that is what they are, of the National Gallery intervention, are fighting, not for the vote, not for stature in some arcane corner of the canon. They are fighting for their lives, pure and simple. Unlike Jorn, their existential angst is not performative, and unlike Banksy they put themselves on the line – the front line.
Chris Packham observed, “They’re scared. They’re terrified out of their wits – because they’ve read the writing on the wall, and they understand that we need to address it, and implement the whole plethora of means that we have at our disposal to restore, recover and repair.”
During the intervention, soup-thrower Phoebe Plummer asked, “What is worth more, art or life?” And companion Anna Holland, added, “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? Why care more about painting than the world?”
This resonates with an action that took place during the Vietnam War. In a 1962 performance piece called “One for Violin,” Nam June Paik slowly raised a violin over his head and then smashed it.
Fen Kennedy, an assistant professor of dance at the University of Alabama elaborated, “During one performance an audience member lay down under the violin in protest and, in response, Paik asked why the audience cared more about the violin than those dying in Vietnam. Sixty years later, perhaps what we should be asking is why we still have not yet collectively decided that human lives, and the life of our planet, are more valuable to us, and should be more robustly defended, than any work of art.”
In the same way that the Nazis vilified the so-called “Degenerate Artists” who challenged the Aryan ideal with their visual critiques of Nazism, so do the ready mouthpieces of our own increasingly authoritarian government seek to demonise the “eco morons” who threaten “business as usual.”
So, to those who predictably say, “Couldn’t Just Stop Oil have found a less disruptive way of making their point”, would the public have been made as aware if they had instead thrown sunflowers at Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans?
Tom Hardy has previously worked as an editor and board member of the International Journal of Art and Design Education. He has written for a number of academic journals and publications including Byline Times and the TES. He edited Art Education in a Postmodern World (Intellect Books) and contributed to television programmes on education and culture such as the BBC’s Education Today, Amazing Spaces and Rankin Shoots Rembrandt.
He has been a consultant on educational matters to various government departments. He is now part of XR’s Media and Messaging team and a co-founder of MP Watch.
Call to action:
There is strength in numbers. Please put this in your diary and be heard: https://extinctionrebellion.uk/the-big-one/