In early October, a pair of Just Stop Oil climate activists entered London’s National Gallery armed with two cans of tomato soup, ready to make a statement. 21-year-old Phoebe Plummer and 20-year-old Anna Holland stood before Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” each with an open can of soup in hand, aimed for the painting, and decorated Van Gogh’s work — worth an estimated $81 million — with the runny red soup. The pair then glued their hands to the wall beneath the painting and went on to deliver their prepared message. Videos of the protest went viral on TikTok, and visitors of the museum and social media users alike expressed shock, confusion and exasperation towards the protestor’s actions.
Who is Just Stop Oil?
Just Stop Oil is a coalition of various small groups that share a distaste for the United Kingdom’s use and development of fossil fuels. Plummer and Holland’s work is just one of Just Stop Oil’s many protests in the last month; however, this one has gained the most publicity. In their speech, the protestors posed the question: “What is worth more: art or life?” The young protestors informed the crowd that because of the oil crisis in the United Kingdom, some families can’t even afford to heat up a can of soup like the ones dripping down the walls of the museum.
It’s extremely revealing that despite their message, everyone online and in person was far more concerned with the safety of the painting. Even in that tense moment, art was worth more than human life. After all, no one was being actively harmed by the oil industry on the stage in front of them, but a painting worth more than a person’s lifetime salary was defaced before their eyes. Due to the outrage the protest raised, several media outlets found themselves asking whether Just Stop Oil helped or harmed their cause through protest.
Was This an Effective Protest?
While there is no singular, absolute way to ascertain whether a protest is a success or failure, a few observations can be made about Just Stop Oil’s demonstration. According to Chatham House, the key factors of a successful protest include: open dialogue, clarity of motive, availability of online engagement and combined use of nonviolent protest tactics. By these standards, Just Stop Oil had a relatively successful protest. Their message was clearly anti-oil, their website made it easy for interested parties to engage in their cause and the protest was nonviolent. In fact, despite what many believed at first, the protestors accounted for the fact that the painting was protected by a glass cover. They never intended to harm the painting itself.
Furthermore, it is important to think about whether a protest incites discussion or change. If a protest doesn’t lead directly to the organization’s end goal, it is still a useful protest if it inspires people to talk about the cause or contribute in other ways. Even if Plummer and Holland’s actions soured the minds of guests enjoying a day out, they still started a conversation. After all, thousands of people worldwide know about what they did and why they did it, even if they didn’t agree with the way they went about protesting. The protest also resulted in a multitude of donations toward the cause.
Inciting Change on a Minor Scale
Regardless of any personal opinion on Plummer and Holland’s actions at the National Gallery, it’s obvious that their actions required immense bravery and willingness to face backlash.
For those interested in climate-based activism, there are still many effective ways to spread awareness and get involved with local protests. Researching upcoming sit-ins, educational events and volunteer activities may be more useful. The opportunity to teach a smaller community about decreasing local pollution, for example, isn’t likely to be a trending topic, however, it absolutely makes a difference for that community. Furthermore, it is vital to keep clear communication in mind when protesting about important causes, especially if you intend to pose yourself as a speaker. While the speech given at this Just Stop Oil protest was certainly moving for some, certain elements were a bit confusing. The connection to Van Gogh was not immediately apparent, nor was the connection to tomato soup or fossil fuels.
Just Stop Oil is making a global impact in an idiosyncratic fashion, even if much of the attention they receive is negative. Plummer and Holland face criminal charges for their actions even though there was no actual damage to Van Gogh’s painting. Despite these charges, they have not made a statement of regret.