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Museum climate protests spark debate on activism tactics

Climate activists have been targeting iconic artworks to demand an end to new gas and oil extraction projects to very mixed public reaction

Deutsche Welle Published 29.10.22, 02:45 PM
While some of the historical frames were damaged, the paintings themselves were protected by glass.

While some of the historical frames were damaged, the paintings themselves were protected by glass. Deutsche Welle

Over the past few weeks, activists across Europe served celebrated artworks from Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" to Claude Monet's "Haystacks" with dollops of tomato soup and mashed potatoes in a bid to cut through complacency on the climate crisis.

"How do you feel when you see something beautiful and priceless apparently being destroyed before your eyes?" asked one of the protesters from Just Stop Oil after glueing themselves to the glass protecting a Vermeer painting in the Netherlands. "Do you feel outraged? Good. Where is that feeling when you see the planet being destroyed?"


In each case, the protesters were arrested for their actions, and the Last Generation activists who threw mashed potatoes at the Monet in a museum in Potsdam, Germany, are reportedly being investigated for property damage and trespassing.

On the Last Generation website, the group says it accepts "criminal charges and deprivation of liberty undaunted" for its protests.

While some of the historical frames were damaged, the paintings themselves were protected by glass. But the tactic of lobbing food at celebrated artworks to protest climate inaction sparked an international outcry. Many wondered whether it harmed support for the cause.

Backlash: Disapproval of disruptive protests

In an unrepresentative poll, DW asked Twitter followers how they felt about acts of civil disobedience like the Monet mashed potato incident.

Of the 491 people who answered, 22% said they raised awareness and helped. But 56% said such acts hurt the climate movement.

"This kind of climate activism is nothing short of hooliganism and a publicity stunt," wrote one follower. "We should fight for good causes in a responsible manner within the limits of respectability."

Though non-violent but disruptive forms of protest appear to be unpopular, they may still be effective, partly because they gain attention, said Oscar Berglund, a social policy lecturer at Bristol University in the UK.

"If you don't disrupt anybody or anything, if you just try to make your voices heard, then those voices often don't get heard and you don't achieve any change through your protest," said Berglund, who researches climate change activism and the use of civil disobedience.

Radical protests gain more media attention

The stunts certainly garnered lots of attention, making headlines across the world and creating waves on social media. The video of protesters throwing soup at the Van Gogh in London, for instance, has been viewed almost 50 million times on Twitter alone.

"This disruptive action really brought the climate issue to the forefront of mainstream society again," said James Ozden, who runs Social Change Lab, an organization that conducts social science research to better understand how movements can drive positive change.

"People from all across the world were talking about it in a way that hasn't happened since the student climate strikes in 2019," said Ozden, who was also part of the strategy team for climate protest group Extinction Rebellion UK (XR), which uses civil disobedience tactics.

Raising the profile of climate change was exactly the motivation behind the Van Gogh soup protest in London, said Phoebe Plummer from Just Stop Oil in a video posted to social media.

"What we’re doing is getting the conversation going so we can ask the questions that matter. Questions like is it okay that fossil fuels are subsidized 30 times more than renewables when offshore wind is currently nine times cheaper than fossil fuels? This is the conversation we need to be having now because we don't have time to waste,” she said.

Of course if all that's being discussed is the disruptive tactic itself rather than the reason behind the protest and the activists' demands, then their goal was missed.

"Even though maybe half of the overall discussion is about the tactics, half of it is about the climate, which is still more than if the radical protest didn't happen," Ozden said.

For Berglund, the attention and resulting conversation sparked by such protests opens up enough space for some discussion of the issue itself.

"The unpopularity doesn't matter in that sense and I don't think that it can hurt the climate cause as such, because it also gives room for more sensible and less extreme voices to talk about these issues," he said.

Do protester tactics affect public support for climate demands?

But Robb Willer, a sociology and social psychology professor at Stanford University in the US, says that his previous work, which looks at social movements more broadly, suggested some extreme protest actions may undermine popular support for a cause.

The public generally reacts negatively to protests involving property destruction, said Willer. And while they may be effective in gaining attention, that attention may not be helpful if perceptions are negative.

"These art desecration tactics are exactly the sort of protest behaviors that lead observers to view the activists as extreme and unreasonable, alienating observers and potentially reducing support for their cause," he told DW.

"If you don't disrupt anybody or anything, you don't achieve any change through your protest," says Berglund

"If you don't disrupt anybody or anything, you don't achieve any change through your protest," says Berglund Deutsche Welle

It's hard to apply research on past protests to current events but polling by Ozden's Social Change Lab found no negative effects on support for climate policies during and after disruptive protests by Just Stop Oil in 2020.

Similarly, experiments carried out by cognitive psychologists with the University of Bristol found reduced support for protesters had no impact on support for their demands.

And another small representative survey conducted by Cambridge and Oxford Brookes Universities indicated a slight increase in people's willingness to take part in non-disruptive activism like marches after XR's 2019 disruptive protests.

"It's simply not the case that people turn against climate action just because some activists annoy you," said sociologist Berglund. "It doesn't mean that you then say, 'oh, well, that's okay, then let's burn the planet. Let's burn more oil, let's not use renewables.' We don't see that kind of shift at all in opinions."

Ozden says there is a strategy behind disruptive protests called the radical flank effect. It posits that the existence of a radical flank in a social movement can increase support for moderate factions by making them seem more reasonable.

"It's kind of a good cop, bad cop situation — but on a big social movement level. And this tactic has worked really well in the past," he said.

So even though XR, for instance, had some of the lowest public support in the UK, their actions still boosted concern for the environment and climate, believes Ozden.

Radical protests can help set the agenda and spur more moderate climate action

Radical protests can help set the agenda and spur more moderate climate action Deutsche Welle

Do radical protests increase criminalization of protesters?

Ozden and Berglund are concerned that one negative impact resulting from radical tactics could be a general criminalization of climate action and other protest movements.

The UK has already passed bills imposing restrictions on protests, including stricter sentencing and noise limits.

"That's remarkably draconian because protests are meant to be noisy and disruptive. And now anyone who disagrees with you can say it's too noisy and make your protest illegal," Ozden said.

Following protests that saw activists glue themselves to pieces of art and block roads, the UK government is looking to pass a public order bill that creates a new offence called "locking-on," for protesters who attach themselves to objects or cause disruption by interfering with transport works or key infrastructure.

The bill would see some protesters banned from associating with certain people, attending protests, using the internet or having to wear an electronic target that monitors their whereabouts.

Support for such laws could increase if public perception of protester tactics worsens, according to Berglund.

"The risk is that if these protesters are really unpopular and hated, then that could fuel support for these authoritarian laws that otherwise are not very popular," he said.

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