Art attack

Young activists from Just Stop Oil have been castigated by the usual parade of ranting tabloid hacks and LBC anchors for defacing a Van Gogh. But, argues Paul Demarty, the stunt highlights the limits of direct-action groups

In 1888, Vincent van Gogh was living in Arles, in Provence, recovering from an endless series of health problems - mental and physical. He would only live two more years before taking his own life. It was in this vanishingly short period that he produced the paintings primarily responsible for his subsequent reputation in art history.

That year, he created a series of still-life paintings of sunflowers, which over time became priceless art objects. One ended up in the Tate Gallery collection, and from there was permanently loaned to the National Gallery. It was there that two young activists, associated with a campaign called Just Stop Oil, threw tomato soup all over it on October 14.

Could they really have done such a thing, wondered a horrified bourgeois public - such an act of desecration? Was Van Gogh to blame for the climate crisis? They need not have worried; the gallery quickly released a statement declaring the painting unharmed (it was on display behind a plexiglass screen). You can go throw some soup at it yourself any time you like. So, for all the fuss and moralising that has gone on, the whole thing is a peculiar non-event. That, perhaps, is the problem.

Does it work?

We might start with the account these activists gave of their action. One of the two, Phoebe Plummer, told the bemused art-lovers in front of her: “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?”

Another JSO activist, Alex de Koning, told The Guardian that the group was prepared to risk alienating people: “This is not The X factor … We are not trying to make friends here: we are trying to make change, and unfortunately this is the way that change happens.”1

JSO is one of many smallish climate-focused direct action groups that have essentially grown out of Extinction Rebellion. As the name suggests, its focus is on ‘propaganda of the deed’ against the oil industry. Though the art world has long been the occasion of reputation-laundering on the part of major fossil fuel firms, the National Gallery ended its last major such deal, with Shell, four years ago;2 so there does not seem to be any obvious relevance to the choice of target. It seems to be largely a question of opportunity. JSO stated that the protestors knew beforehand that the painting was protected; and so they had no intention of actually destroying it.

Can this action be justified in these terms? It must be said that the reasoning given is insufficient, though not wholly senseless. If we were genuinely faced with a straight choice between the destruction of inanimate objects, however beautiful, and the destruction of whole populations and ecosystems, all the hot air about the civilising power of art would look obviously silly. Far worse things have been done in the pursuit of justice than that; history forgives such things in the end, so long as justice is achieved. Communists are not pacifists; we favour peaceful means as far as possible, but cannot exclude the use of force; otherwise we merely give the oppressor a veto over our action, by way of threats of violence.

The bourgeois religion of art is an interesting case here. Bourgeois culture defends art objects as a salve to its bad conscience; art is pretentiously overvalued precisely because human life is worthless, except insofar as it can be exploited. Plummer put it one way on Friday, while Walter Benjamin put it another 80 years ago, when he noted that there is no great artefact of civilisation that is not also an artefact of barbarism, to be viewed with “cautious detachment” by the good historical materialist.3

The critics of the action are various, but among them are the usual parade of ranting tabloid hacks and LBC anchors: inveterate philistines who have discovered a love of art at exactly the moment that it can be weaponised against a pink-haired 21-year-old with a mouth full of words like “justice” and “protection of our planet” (just fancy that!). This ‘use’ of art is more contemptuous of it than the harmless stunt of the JSO people.

The problems come into focus if we look at the genealogy of this group. It is a recent example of a whole wave of green organisations - if that is the word - committed to various forms of non-violent direct action. The best-known is Extinction Rebellion, while also notorious, after a series of highly disruptive protest actions, is Insulate Britain, founded by a group of XR people. For its part, JSO has spent a lot of energy blockading oil infrastructure, vandalising petrol stations, and (more recently) attacking works of art. There is a certain progression here. Disruption of oil infrastructure at least directly attacks the target. But the state rapidly moved on the matter, granting injunctions on behalf of the affected companies. So the group moved on to unfocused attacks on petrol stations, merely inconveniencing the poor saps who work behind the desk (and the armies of precarious taxi and delivery drivers who depend on the fuel supply to live).


Much has been made by the action’s defenders of one fact: everyone is talking about it! It would seem, on its own terms, to have been a success. We will address that claim directly, but the very fact of its being made highlights something about those earlier protests: basically, nobody noticed. These young activists, possessed with a sincere moral urgency and hope for a better future, hurled themselves at the wall of oil refineries … and just bounced off. These actions were total failures. The ‘cultural turn’ of JSO’s activism is plainly produced by these failures, and looks rather like a desperation to ‘cut through’ - somehow, anyhow.

For a moment it has done that, but the world will move on. The question is not how you can get yourself into the news, but how you get from being in the news to achieving your political goals. Without a clear sense of how to do that, or an adequate political apparatus for the task, the tendency will be in the direction of tactical escalation. Ever more striking stunts are needed to keep the conversation going. Why not actually destroy a painting? Isn’t life worth more than a painting? The escalation continues until such time as the movement is wholly discredited, and no further brave souls can be recruited to undertake increasingly desperate, attention-seeking measures.

The XR-type direct-action politics is avowedly minoritarian. That group’s charter commits it to “mobilising 3.5% of the population to achieve system change by using ideas such as ‘momentum-driven organising’ to achieve this”.4 The magic 3.5% number comes ultimately from Erica Chenoweth, who purports to have provided some sort of mathematical basis for such activity, but whose perspectives amount to little more than numerology. The commitment to illegal public spectaculars above all else necessarily imposes on these organisations secretive, conspiratorial norms, which must in the end result in tyrannical forms of power - though the favoured brand of tyranny among such people is structurelessness.

Writing minoritarianism into the political script is not new; it may be an expression of frustration at the slower pace of mass radical politics, or a cry of despair in the face of its absence relative to ambitions. A little of both is surely relevant here: the disorganised character of the mass movement in this country blends with the real sense of urgency around catastrophic climate change.

The verdict of history is clear, pace Chenoweth, that it simply does not work. Chenoweth merely assumes that the presentation in the media of contemporary political revolutions as the work of decentralised protest movements is correct. She hailed the Egyptian revolution as a great exemplar, for instance, but the sinews of war were provided by the large-minority and deeply-organised Muslim Brotherhood; the unpopularity of its Islamist politics outside its own ranks made it relatively easy for the army to retake control a short period later. It was a contest of major social forces that involved mass mobilisations on both sides in turn.

XR, JSO and the rest do have some backing: as their opponents cheerfully point out, all are recipients of money from the Climate Emergency Fund, which is essentially the initiative of several immensely rich individuals. We leave aside the morality of taking billionaires’ shillings, merely to point out that a handful of high net-worth individual backers are no substitute for a mass party (or the CIA). Speaking of spooks: such movements, moreover, are exceptionally vulnerable to police infiltration, who cannot be held accountable within secretive informal structures. The ‘spycops’ scandal of recent years is a timely reminder that this stuff does happen; and that it frequently takes the form of the encouragement of ever more provocative actions - all the better to maximise the ‘arrestability’ of the wider layer of activists. We do not accuse JSO of being riddled with narks, but, if they are not now, and they last much longer, they will be soon. It is something like a law of nature.

Another way

Whether by way of state provocations, or actions so stupid they may as well be, support in wider society tends to atrophy. The bourgeois media is given a free hand to denounce ‘alarmist zealots’; but even more plausible friends turn away. One notable response to the Van Gogh action came from the Public and Commercial Services union’s cultural worker fraction. They sent “sympathy and solidarity to our members working in security and front of house at the gallery”, while touting its past work with “climate protest organisations such as Art Not Oil, BP or Not BP and Culture Unstained”. These groups are commended for seeing “a clear need to get workers onside to fight together for climate justice and a just transition to cleaner and fairer economy”. But “attacking our shared national heritage is not a constructive way to achieve these aims beyond shock tactics … We cannot endorse these extreme and dangerous tactics which put our members at risk, whilst they try to work.”5

An unkind interpretation might compare this to, say, Unite’s support for Heathrow expansion to defend its members’ jobs; sheer common sense suggests that nobody was put at risk by this action other than its perpetrators. That is to miss the point. There is no reason why PCS workers should be lined up with anti-woke hysterics on this matter: that they are is due to the internal limitations of direct-action protest networks, not their own cowardice or reactionary prejudices.

Suppose the exact same action was carried out, by the exact same people, in circumstances where there was a mass party of - why not? - 3.5% of the adult British population (a little less than two million people) committed to the overthrow of the bourgeois constitutional regime. PCS militants might have snuck the two members out through a back exit (after a tongue lashing about their irresponsible adventurism); party MPs would have ridiculed the hypocrisy of bourgeois politicians from the floor of parliament; the party press and social media (indeed, party social media, not just the mainstream variants subject to the censorship regime) would have publicised the case, exposing any provocateurs along the way; and, should our brave youngsters see their day in court, mass pickets could easily be followed by a sympathetic jury nullifying the verdict. And, if in the end they were given an example-setting jail sentence, organs of solidarity would be there to support them, inside and then out.

Of course, in such a situation, there would be no purpose to a tiny, head-banging ginger-group like JSO in the first place. Yet such a party would need to undertake illegal activity from time to time; the difference - which is all the difference in the world - would be that such activities would be subject to the accountability of democratic structures, reducing the ‘blast radius’ of infiltrators. Deep roots in the wider working class would prevent the more foolish stunts from ever being undertaken.

We have nothing of the sort, of course; but a party could be far, far smaller and yet offer at least some of those same defensive measures; a single MP, a critically sympathetic independent media operation, a fundraising apparatus, militant union fractions. The direct-action types will object, as they always have, that there is no time to construct such an organisation. But the reverse is true: the situation, given the climate crisis, etc, is urgent enough that we cannot waste our time with foolish and hopeless gestures, and we cannot hurl our promising young activists endlessly into the maw of the criminal justice system. We need power, and that is just what direct-action fetishism can never build.


  1. www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/oct/14/just-stop-oil-activists-throw-soup-at-van-goghs-sunflowers.↩︎

  2. cultureunstained.org/2018/10/20/shellendsngpartnership.↩︎

  3. W Benjamin Illuminations London 1999, p248.↩︎

  4. ausrebellion.earth/what-is-xr.↩︎

  5. www.pcs.org.uk/news-events/news/pcs-culture-group-statement-just-stop-oil-national-gallery.↩︎