As an art historian, my job is to look askance at words such as “masterpiece”, and to question the canon of “great art”. In my spare time, I have also sprayed chalk paint on civic structures in protest at the lack of action on climate. So at first I expected to see the latest attacks on art as shocking but justifiable. After all, do these attacks not also reveal the fragility of what we hold dear? Do they not make us think about what we want to save for the next generation? Yet the answer to these questions, I decided, is mostly no. Instead, these attacks feel part of a helpless career towards climate chaos.
As splash after splash of acidic liquid hits the glass casings of art works by Van Gogh, Monet, Klimt, and now Emily Carr, everyone around the world who sees the photographs and footage is going through the same mental process: an astonished intake of breath. , followed by the realization that everything is actually fine. The art work is safe behind glass, tightly sealed by expert conservators. What looks dangerous is a mere spectacle, not a reality.
So much depends on context. In 2022, this mixture of fear and complacency is becoming a habit. It is all around us in the ongoing pandemic, and it is also fueling climate breakdown. We are all aware of the disaster of climate breakdown, and most of us are fearful or worried, according to the recent census. But our governments are acting as if there is no rush. If the last few years have proven anything, it is that many people find it possible to be scared about a future of storms, floods, and unlivable temperatures – and also to decide that they need to buy a bigger car anyway.
Learning to live in fear and complacency is an art; it takes practice. The Covid-19 pandemic was a terrifying warm-up, and the Just Stop Oil protests are now helping us keep it up. The protests prove that in an age of supersize institutions, even culture’s most raw and fragile expressions of existence can be set behind sealed glass, such that real disasters seem almost impossible other than as a spectacle. They prove that the experts have everything in hand; that despite terrifying appearances, we don’t need to worry.
As the repeated attacks on art begin to bore us, they prove what many people have come to believe: that the system will save us. Somehow. Because it has to. Surely someone, somewhere will have thought of this or that eventuality. My house won’t just fall into the sea. The migration of a billion people from unlivably hot places will just be images on the telly.
Writing not as an art historian, but as someone trying to resist the lure of complacency, I implore Just Stop Oil and other anti-art protesters to stop their performative attacks for this simple reason. So long as you keep on throwing soup at protective glass around great works of art, you will just keep proving again and again, that “the system” will save us. But eventually it won’t. One day, the seal around the protective glass will not work, and then at last you will have proven disasters do and can happen, and not just in images.
Unfortunately, at that point your protests will lose all support.