SOUWIE ON . . . The Arts


Art as a vehicle for protest is not new. But protesting against valued works of art in order to make a statement about a broader societal issue is less common. In recent weeks, members of a UK-based protest group, Just Stop Oil, have glued themselves to iconic art works in a series of protests at large galleries in both London and Glasgow. They have tended to target paintings that depict idyllic scenes of the natural world including The Hay Wain (1821) by John Constable and Van Gogh’s Peach trees in Blossom (1889). Their actions prompt ethical questions regarding the role of art in the fight against climate change.

In some cases there has been minor damage to both paintings and protestors – Simon Bramwell, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, who joined Just Stop Oil in this initiative, admitted to being more careful next time about where exactly he glued himself to the art work. But jokes aside, the idea behind such protests is the shock value they entail, their ability to ‘cut through the noise’ as Bramwell puts it, in a recent interview with ARTnews.

For Bramwell and others like him, it’s a question of ethics. How can one call oneself civilized with strong cultural values if one continues to destroy the planet and cause suffering to millions around the globe. Such views chime with questions raised about the extensive links between the art world and the corporate world that finances much of it. The Art Newspaper reports that various art venues, including the Van Gogh Museum, have stopped their direct branding with oil companies in recent years. However, the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery still work with BP on promotional deals. 

Protests in New York about so-called toxic philanthropy have highlighted the questionable actions of various high profile trustees who sit on the boards of world-renowned institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. For example, demonstrations took place last year against MoMA trustee and wife of Gustavo Cisneros, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. In an article for the New York Times Style magazine, Zoë Lescaze explains how Cisneros sits on the board of the Barrick Gold Corporation which runs gold and copper mines in 13 countries across Central and South America.

Add to this the carbon footprint of the art world itself. Flying art works around the world for sale or exhibition purposes typically accounts for 70% to 80% of the carbon footprint of commercial galleries. There is also the question of art fairs such as Art Basel which run in cities around the world, throughout the year and involve the construction of temporary venues which are typically demolished and then constructed anew at the next far-flung venue. Even the promise of virtual art like NFTs requires the use of energy-hungry blockchains. 

The creation of London-based charity, the Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC), founded in 2020, is designed to provide guidelines for the art sector on how to reduce its environmental impact. The GCC offers members a means of calculating their emissions and asks them to pledge reductions of at least 50 percent by 2030. Nevertheless, it is all voluntary and for young activists like those from Just Stop Oil, time is of the essence. What is Art’s role in the climate crisis? How should and could the art world respond to an existential crisis that engulfs us all? Thus far, responses have been underwhelming.   Souwie Buis   July 2022

 Souwie Buis is a freelance journalist, podcaster and radio host. Born in South Africa she considers herself a citizen of the world. Art lover from a young age, her special passions are literature and performance arts, especially flamenco! She is always happy to hear from a fellow aficionado and to reach out via one of her social media handles if you have arts news or events to share. 

Twitter @SouwieO

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