Protest comes unstuck
Securing meaningful action on climate change will require more than empty stunts and superglue
At times, managing climate change seems an impossible task. Every week brings news of another devastating fire, flood or drought. I would suggest, however, that irreversible, catastrophic climate change never seems more likely than when some middle-class Britons glue themselves to something in protest.
They aim to galvanise opinion through their actions. Which they do, of course, but not in the way they expect. Their stunts unite the entire country in cursing them. They invite all those annoyed by the inevitable delays and damage to dismiss fears about climate change as overstated. Meanwhile, every blocked car or stopped train allows the government to hide its inaction behind a refusal to bend to extremist behaviour, and prompt and meaningful action on climate change becomes less likely.
In terms of self-defeating protest, however, things reached a nadir last week. Okay so, no ambulance was left stationary at a picketed road junction, siren silenced while blue lights flashed their impotence. Despairing commuters weren’t filmed on overcrowded underground station platforms as men with bad clothes yet good teeth climbed on top of trains. Yet it was, in many ways, worse.
Last week, protestors from the “Just Stop Oil” group glued themselves to paintings at art galleries around the UK. In a coordinated action, young protestors belonging to the group that appears to have taken strategic direction from the cast of Grange Hill, glued themselves to landscape paintings by Van Gogh, Turner and, um, Horatio McCulloch. The pictures were on display at the Courtauld, Manchester Art Gallery and Kelvingrove respectively.
The group issued a series of press releases around the events, as accompanying pictures showed the activists gamely glued to the paintings. Gushing copy revealed the protestors’ motivations which, it is safe to say, are quite broad in scope. Their grievances number a litany of ills, such as Indian mothers dying of heatstroke, nurses queuing at food banks and the growing numbers of billionaires. Oh, and the Highland Clearances (hence that dreadful McCulloch painting, I assume.) All are claimed to be connected to climate change.
Most of all, the protestors are angry about the UK government’s refusal to call a halt on new oil and gas projects, and they are calling on, er, art institutions to do more. Or shut down their galleries and museums.
Said one of the activists: “It is immoral for cultural institutions to stand by and watch whilst our society descends into collapse. Galleries should close. Directors of art institutions should be calling on the government to stop all new oil and gas projects immediately.”
A few of the protestors appear to be frustrated art students, outraged at their situation. Although they seem unaware that frustration is the very sine qua non of being an art student, and that even when they have completed their studies, frustration will continue to be at the very heart of any artistic endeavour they undertake. I imagine this explains the choice of art galleries as the seat of their protest, instead of targeting busy roads, station concourses or ministry steps.
According to the protestors, art institutions are “failing us”, while artists themselves are “focusing on the wrong things.” One activist declared their love for art — and for one of the (now sticky) paintings, in particular — but noted that: “I love my friends and family more, I love nature more.” Another asked: “What is more priceless? This piece of art or your children’s life?”
Which at least gets to the heart of the matter, highland clearances and queuing nurses notwithstanding. It seems that the protestors’ grievances effectively boil down to the age-old debate about the function of art. Who cares about the power of art to move and inspire when the A406 is one long queue of Ford Transit vans? What’s the point of Poussin’s leafy Et In Arcadia Ego when the local council is chopping down trees? And shouldn’t the lack of cycle lanes in Turner’s bucolic view of the River Thames from Richmond Hill provide ample reason for him to be cancelled?
The debate about art vs reality must help those long winter evenings on the picket line pass quicker, I suppose, serving to keep hearts warm, and purpose clear. I picture our protestors, clutching the lapels of brand new donkey jackets to keep out a bitter wind, rubbing cold hands over a flaming oil drum as police watch from row upon row of hybrid minibuses. I imagine you need a decent topic of conversation as you while away the hours stuck to the fast lane on a section of the M25. I never expected it to be a consideration of the merits of Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, however.
To help our protestors crystalise their thinking we could spend a moment considering the philosopher’s thoughts on the matter. At the risk of gross oversimplification, having departed from Kant’s preoccupation with aesthetic judgments, Hegel’s musings on the meaning and context of the artwork itself lead him to declare that art possessed “the higher reality and the more genuine existence in comparison with the realities of common life.” So, yeah.
I don’t know; maybe the protesting art students doth protest too much and read too little. Perhaps they should chain themselves to desks in the library in the future, not JCBs?
Of course, the protestors didn’t actually glue themselves to the paintings themselves, but to their frames, which is a cop-out on a par with COP 26. Glueing your hand to one of the actual paintings could have formed the basis of a legitimate, if hackneyed, performance piece that spoke to cultural hegemony, the commodification of artistic endeavour and, at a pinch, climate change.
“I’m an artist, I love art, but instead of spending my time making art I’m taking actions like this, spending time in and out of cells,” said one protestor. To which one can only conclude that not framing the protest as a piece of performance art was a missed opportunity: doing so would have allowed them to not only continue their art practice but still let them see the inside of a cell.
More importantly, instead of decrying romanticised depictions of nature through petty acts of vandalism, would it not be more profitable to the planet if the protestors conclude their art studies and use their talents to reflect on the effects of climate change? Instead of being triggered by the philosophy of art and glueing themselves to romantic portrayals of arcadian bliss to raise awareness of climate change, perhaps they could document the massive climactic changes that threaten humankind with a brush, pen or camera? Who knows, maybe then someone might pay attention to the message, not the moron stuck to the wall.
Alas, I fear the group’s gallery escapades will forever remain a fleeting story covered in a few news outlets, the basis of a sidebar story that only led to further polarisation. Reading about the protestors’ antics, those unconvinced by climate change will have retreated further into already hardened opinions. Those who are already making the personal changes necessary to address climate change will have nodded approvingly. Yet the majority that don’t hold a position on climate change will have been annoyed by the unnecessary damage, confused dogma and self-righteousness of a few. Cue stasis.
I know little is certain when it comes to the discussion around art and life. Hegel is hard to pin down, and he also noted in the same lecture that “Nothing is genuinely real but that which is actual in its own right… fixing itself in present and definite existence.” I don’t think he had superglue in mind.
Indeed, beyond the many motivations for their actions and the sheer idiocy of insisting that art galleries close because, climate change, our protestors might have given better thought to their choice of bondage medium.
Superglue is typically made from complex polymers, derived in part from petroleum products. Given the provenance of the stuff they use to bind themselves to inanimate objects, maybe these activists should take a leaf out of Zammo’s book, stop sniffing the glue, and Just Say No?