- Link all’articolo scientifico: J. Garland (2023) Iconoclash and the climate movement, Visual Studies.
Throwing paint and food on precious works of art in British and European galleries is the new form of protest chosen by recently formed groups within the climate movement. These actions have the potential to surprise due to their strong visual impact and the apparent destruction of art. How do citizens react to these protests? How effective are they in raising awareness about climate change and motivating people to change their habits to mitigate its effects?
"Artistic" protests for the climate
The new protest tactics focus on direct, destructive, and captivating actions. They have been implemented by newly formed "radical" groups within the climate movement since 2022, primarily based in the United Kingdom. Just Stop Oil (JSO) is one such example. Other groups include Letzte Generation in Germany and Austria, and Ultima Generazione in Italy, the latter known for turning the water of the Trevi Fountain in Rome black in 2023, using a substance similar to oil.
These groups demand an end to fossil fuel production due to the impending threat of human extinction caused by anthropogenic climate change. Moreover, what sets them apart is their use of direct actions within cultural institutions, particularly in art galleries in the UK and continental Europe. Key examples of these provocative actions include JSO activists throwing food at Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" in London's National Gallery in October 2022, similar gestures in Germany the same month against Monet's "Water Lilies" by Letzte Generation activists, and a month later, in Austria, members of the same group throwing black paint on Klimt's "Death and Life." These groups also engage in other types of protest, such as JSO's slow traffic walk in London, but actions involving art in galleries raise more questions about their effectiveness in raising awareness and motivating viewers about the ongoing climate crisis.
Questions revolve around the image in a dual sense: on one hand, the artwork used as a prop in the protest event, and on the other, the photographs of the events, which serve as the main means of spreading the news and conveying the content of the action. But how can we better frame all of this?
Several studies highlight the power of images as a communicative medium and how protest imagery can be divisive. It is easy to understand that images, including photographs and illustrations, are emotionally evocative and useful for constructing an identity, mobilizing, and protesting, although they lend themselves to different interpretations depending on the audience. Specifically, protest images are mostly perceived negatively by those who do not sympathize with or are not involved in the specific protest. In other words, how a protest image is received is generally based on preexisting attitudes towards the protest. What does this imply when we want to understand the reaction to recent climate protests?
It could be assumed that images of these protests in art galleries, like protest images in general, are perceived negatively by those who do not sympathize with the focus of the demonstration or dislike protests in general. Others who are more sympathetic or do not hold a similar aversion might be more open to these images and overall more positive. However, this is not enough; there is something more in these art gallery protests that warrants further investigation: the use of art and how its destruction is represented. Apart from the importance of preexisting attitudes towards the protest or levels of sympathy towards climate messages, a better interpretative lens is needed to understand these events and how they are comprehended. The concept that sheds light on the dynamics involved in the relationship between climate protest in art galleries and relevant audience reactions is what French sociologist and anthropologist Bruno Latour calls "iconoclash".
In a work from 2002, Latour defines iconoclash as a situation where "one does not know, hesitates, is troubled by an action for which there is no way of knowing, without further investigation, whether it is destructive or constructive." Latour's example involved an image of people wielding axes against the reliquary that housed the Shroud of Turin. From one perspective, the image shows vandals trying to steal or destroy the Shroud. From another, it depicts firefighters trying to save the artifact from a fire. This idea captures the uncertainty that images of destruction produce (and the consequences this has on people's reactions).
Recent climate protests exemplify this situation well. In particular, iconoclash offers a lens to measure the visual damage that activists seem to inflict on targeted artworks, even though no physical damage is done to the canvases. Striking and surprising images of attacks on art generate uncertainty in those who receive them. First, uncertainty regarding the actual damage caused (as the photographs of the actions seem to portray). Second, uncertainty about its usefulness: is protesting by targeting cultural artifacts in this manner helpful or detrimental to the climate movement and its messages? Are these actions destructive or constructive? There is tension between the visual aspect—the clear—destruction and its physical absence, as the artworks are protected by screens.
Questions also arise about the constructive aspect of these protests. Certainly, images of these innovative protests are produced, and awareness of these demonstrative actions spreads. But does this help raise awareness about the climate? And, most importantly, does it lead to changes in behavior or habits in line with the activists' concerns? The uncertainties produced by the protests, viewed in the light of iconoclash, suggest otherwise. These actions risk generating a debate about their general acceptability, considering that they involve valuable artworks, and their usefulness for climate communication may overshadow the spread of greater engagement with the climate crisis. They certainly create visually impactful images that capture the public's attention, but they risk directing that same attention towards the issue of the acceptability and use of this new protest tactic, without involving viewers in the issues related to environmental and climate degradation—as was the original intention of the activists.
New climate protest: talking about the climate or about something else?
Latour's concept of iconoclash allows us to grasp the tension between an act of destruction, without any harm to the artworks, and the indeterminacy that arises from not being able to immediately establish "whether the act is destructive or constructive." This visual tension, captured by iconoclash, suggests that the climate message, originally associated with these spectacular and striking actions, could be lost as questions, doubts, and debates about targeting artworks with paint and other objects emerge. The focus ends up being on the protest tactics rather than the climate challenges the actions aimed to address. People are shown the moon, but many only see the finger (and many also don't like it).
In short, although these protest acts are bold and surprising, environmental activists should exercise greater caution in promoting them not to alienate those who would otherwise sympathize with their cause.