Art, yes! activism, too!

Image: Imi Knoebel


Considerations on the strategy of environmentalists of “attacks” on famous paintings

Environmental activism since the 1970s has always been characterized by protest actions aimed at drawing the world's attention. Not infrequently, the actors put their lives at risk as a way of echoing the guidelines defended in the core of the world press.

members of Greenpeace, sometimes put banners immense in places of difficult access – not even Christ the Redeemer, in Rio de Janeiro, was immune; he ended up acting on behalf of the climate cause. Other groups interceded in defense of the whales: in a small boat, they positioned themselves between the harpoon and the animals. Such actions have no immediate practical result; however, through boldness and danger, they highlight the importance of the cause, so that actions are valued: the greater the danger, the greater the cause.

Some time ago, several activists in different countries, supported by some organizations, created a new form of protest. The “attack” on works of art consists of some kind of intervention on the canvases: throwing soup, pie, mashed potatoes, sticking hands on them (or next to them) are some possibilities. Your targets:Sunflower bouquet"and "Pink Peach Tree in Bloom” by Van Gogh, “And the Mona Lisa"and "The Last Supper” by Leonardo Da Vinci, “The Hay Wagon”, by John Constable, “The spring” by Sandro Botticelli, one of the paintings in the series “The grinding wheels” by Claude Monet among others. The value of the latter alone is estimated at 500 million reais, which imposes meaning on the actions, dimensioning them.

The causes are varied, and the groups diverse. But, it must be said, they are extremely relevant causes. What can you say about hunger? How to question climate problems? For their part, activist groups are not irresponsible; after all, it should be noted, the works come out unscathed. But one point is fundamental: if in the case of Greenpeace the measurement was the danger, in these cases it is its immeasurable monetary and artistic value. I believe that for these activists, in today's world, it is necessary to give concrete value to their agendas, in this case, billions of dollars.

A symptomatic case is the case of the organization “Just Stop Oil” that among its financiers is Aileen Getty, granddaughter of John Paul Getty, the oil tycoon and founder of Getty Oil Company. More than that, the Getty family owns one of the most important art collections in the United States – so it seems obvious to me that actions of this performative magnitude are calculated to the millimeter, and their adherence in the media is important; thus it highlights the causes of hunger, of the climate for example.

The fact, however, that the works were not damaged cannot be a license for something that, in fact, goes beyond the limits of public good or private property. When it is a public good, the fact that it is so does not entitle the citizen to enjoy it or use it in any way. On the other hand, a private museum that invests millions of dollars to acquire a gem cannot be “attacked” on its property.

But if the property is private and of value and if the public good belongs to all. What could we say about our climate, our hunger and our health? If the “attacks” on the cadres are reprehensible, much more serious is what the unsustainable private initiative and the irresponsible government impose on us since, at the limit, both do not take care of life.

* Paulo Martins Professor of Classical Letters and director of the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at USP. Author, among other books, of The representation and its limits (edusp).

Originally published in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

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