27 Oct 2022

Making a point with a protest

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 27 October 2022

Tomato soup on paintings, milk poured out in supermarket aisles - they're protests that have hit the headlines in recent weeks, but do we understand the point of them?

Climate change protesters with the Just Stop Oil group have thrown cans of soup at a Van Gogh painting.

Climate change protesters with the Just Stop Oil group have thrown cans of soup at a Van Gogh painting. Photo: Supplied / Twitter

Earlier this month, two protestors from a group called Stop Oil Now threw a can of tomato soup onto Vincent Van Gogh's painting Sunflowers, which is held in the National Gallery in London, before supergluing their hands to the wall. 

One of the protestors went on to give an impassioned explanation. 

"What is worth more - art, or life?" she asked.

"Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?"

In one sense, the protest was extremely successful: footage of it went global, seen by tens of millions around the world.

But criticism of the stunt also abounded, with many questioning what artwork has to do with the use of fossil fuels. 

Former Green MP and protest organiser Sue Bradford is on the latter side of the argument.

She says while she's reluctant to criticise protestors making their points in good faith, she believes a good protest should have some obvious connection to the issue at hand. 

"I don't understand the connection - and I think it is one of the most important things, when you're organising any kind of direct action...is that the message is very clear, that the target is clear, and I certainly don't understand the message at all. It's incomprehensible to me why a very fantastic artwork has a link."

Bradford says she sympathises with these protestors, pointing out that some issues - like the 1981 Springboks tour or homosexual law reform - are easier to protest than other, more vast, nebulous ones, like climate change or capitalism.

But Hasini Wanigasuriya, a member of Extinction Rebellion and Save Passenger Rail New Zealand, says the protest was beautiful - a metaphor for what continued environmental inaction is doing to the planet. 

"It really made people think about what we place our value on," she says.

"I think it was a fantastic protest that really highlighted how wrong people have their priorities: I just don't understand, why are people not crying out, why are people not getting mad at governments and organisations and civil society? Why are we not acting? We're more enraged by destroying a piece of artwork, rather than saving our own futures."

The Detail speaks to Bradford and Wanigasuriya about the overarching point to protest, and its importance to democratic systems; how a good protest is planned, intellectualised, and executed; and the importance to not simply making a splash, or your video going around the world - but convincing other people of your integrity and your point, and bringing them along with you. 

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