The Art of Protest: Selling Out van Gogh and 8 Billion Others

Image Source: Vincent Willem van Gogh 127 – National Gallery – Public Domain

On October 14, two Just Stop Oil protesters threw tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London’s National Gallery to focus attention on the dangers of continuing to burn fossil fuels amid increased global warming. Many wondered how anyone could destroy an avowed masterpiece in the name of a cause, until learning that the famous painting was under glass and no damage incurred. What seemed like juvenile vandalism became a novel act of protest, garnering media attention across the world. With similar acts in the following days, protest has taken on a new form and level of participation. In an interview to explain why it is okay to attack art, Just Stop Oil stated that they will continue “until the government make a meaningful statement about ending new fossil fuel assets in the UK.” Banksy is on steroids.

With all the attention Sunflowers received, however, it is easy to forget that although the painting didn’t suffer in the act, van Gogh did during his life, cut short after he shot himself in the stomach in a fit of madness, dying 2 days later. Mental illness? Temporary insanity from gas fumes, poisonous oil paint (possibly cadmium), financial stress, exhaustion? An act of protest against a cruel existence that celebrated none of his artistic achievements when he was alive? We all understand the irony of his paintings now worth billions; in 1987, a similar painting from his Sunflowers series sold for $39 million, in 1990, Portrait of Dr Paul Gachet (his doctor) sold at Christie’s for $83 million, the then highest amount for a work of art by any artist. At times, van Gogh could barely feed himself, pay his rent, or afford stamps to write to his brother Theo. He sold one painting in his entire life. We laugh through the tears.

In life, van Gogh was an impoverished painter, suffering for his unappreciated work. In death, he is anything we want him to be. Perhaps the soup-throwing protesters wanted to draw attention to the exploitation of art or how materialism devours the spirit, including a broken artist’s dreams. That is, along with the obvious plea emblazoned on their t-shirts for an end to oil. Is any work of art safe from such acts? Is any artist safe from exploitation?

In a market-driven world, anything and everything is for sale. Oil under the Vatican? – get the drills ready. Goodbye St Peter’s, built from the proceeds of selling indulgences, ironically causing a split from the Catholic Church after the great protester Martin Luther opposed the hypocrisy of financing such luxury when so many adherents lived without. Yesterday’s chart-topping ballad is tomorrow’s monetized jingle. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you can sell the rights to Levi’s jeans for another villa by the sea.

A van Gogh Monopoly game? You can buy one for €49.95 in the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the largest van Gogh collection in the world with over 200 paintings, 500 drawings and 800 letters (almost a quarter of his paintings, half his drawings, and all his letters). Fun for the whole family as you learn about Vincent’s journey from the Netherlands to France, from his birthplace in Zundert to his grave in Auvers-sur-Oise (Z to A). Player tokens include a paint tube and The Bedroom bed. If you can’t own a real van Gogh (who can these days?), you can buy and mortgage cardboard replica painting properties for hours on end or until everyone gives up (Sunflowers is Marvin Gardens/Piccadilly).

If you can’t afford the board game, a handmade crocheted Vincent doll is only €29.95 and a Rubik’s cube self-portrait €14.95. You will be happy to know “Your purchase supports the work of the Van Gogh Museum.” Power to the powerless – come on.

As many of us know, van Gogh’s life was a peripatetic, impecunious mess at best, no matter how romanticized by Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life or Don McLean’s Vincent (Starry, Starry Night). He worked as a clerk for the art seller Goupil in The Hague, a teacher in England, an assistant minister in the Borinage coal region of Belgium, and as an artist for most of his adult life until he died at 37. If you judge him by his output he was a success; by his input a failure, selling just one painting, Red Vineyard at Arles, which now resides in Moscow (he also sold three drawings to his uncle).

How one can be so prodigious and yet receive so little in return is beyond words. They should have flown off the walls. Clearly, his younger brother Theo, who worked in Paris for the same art dealer as Vincent had in The Hague, didn’t have the touch. He didn’t know how to market, add brand value, or craft catchy slogans. He had no followers.

I can’t imagine what the brothers (Bro van Go ®) would think of van Gogh Monopoly, on proud display in the museum gift shop. Unlike in other museums, galleries, and attractions, one needn’t traverse the gift shop to exit, but the trinkets are hard to avoid, from the cheap to the expensive (€8 Almond Blossom oven gloves, €1,000 Sunflowers gold bracelets). That is, after sauntering through a first-floor room of portraits and ambling round the circulatory layout of the second and third floors, from The Potato Eaters (1885) to Wheatfield with Crows (1890), essentially his first to last major paintings. A side sashay to a second-floor room reveals Le Tambourin (1887, a Paris café, whose proprietor he dated), The Bedroom (1888, Arles), and another Sunflowers (1888, Arles) all under glass. In two years in Paris (1886-1888), where he lived with Theo, Vincent painted 25 self-portraits, developing his unique palette of swirling colour after the static darkness of the Netherlands. The story goes he painted himself with a mirror because he couldn’t afford the models. His brother kicked him out soon after, like any guest who has overstayed their welcome.

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Van Gogh’s life was a protest against his father, injustice, the mundane, while the obscene exploitation of his life’s work has rightly been condemned. But how does one express the optimism of outrage today amid endless online distractions and lying WWF-style presidents? Passive resistance, gentle protest, non-violent obstruction? Most of us abhor violence in the fight against injustice, but “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” doesn’t quite cut it when the others are doing to you what no one has any right to do to anyone, least of all to the earth.

Wherever one finds oneself on the outrage-activist scale, most agree there is an urgency to counter the obvious effects of fossil-fuel burning and that doing nothing is no longer an option. Despite our own overly consumptive lifestyles, most of us know Rome has been burning for a while. Isn’t it our duty to get out the hoses?

Alas, when 71 former U.K. ministers and whips are entitled to almost one million pounds severance for 45 days work – in which they tried and failed to fund a tax cut to the richest among us with borrowed money – can anyone take serious their commitment to anything but their own skins? When the majority of oil and gas lobbyists in the United States are former members of Congress, is it any wonder political action rarely does the job? Or that lawmakers can buy and sell oil and gas and pipeline stocks? Will COP27 be another bust as greenhouse gas levels reach new highs again this year? Out of 40 systems change indicators assessed since the previous COP in Glasgow a year ago, Climate Action Tracker reported that “none are on track to achieve their 2030 targets.” None. Talking the talk is not working.

In Aristophanes’s comedy Lysistrata, women denied sex to their men to stop the Peloponnesian War between Greek city states. Lady Godiva rode naked on horseback through the streets of Coventry to end her husband’s oppressive tax. Martin Luther nailed 95 theses of disgust and dissent to the door of a Wittenberg church to counter a corrupt Catholicism, the first shot of modern Protestantism. Whether fact or legend, each was original in its own way. Swampy famously hid out in a series of tunnels in 1996 to protest the extension of a highway in Devon, while in the Hambach Forest in western Germany, which was slated to be cut down to make way for a coal mine, activists occupied the trees, ultimately stopping the destruction.

In 2018, a Swedish teenager sat outside her country’s parliament, holding a handmade “SKOLSTREJK FÖR KLIMATET” sign, a lonely protest that has since turned into a global movement (#FridaysForFuture). Armed with her intellect, enthusiasm, and anger, Greta Thunberg ignited a renewed interest in climate activism, especially among her peers, stating “We cannot fight against climate change without individual change. The fact that it’s the way we behave, the way we consume, that is the problem.” Indeed, we can all do more in our daily lives, whether buying green, counting food miles, or reducing our carbon output.

Many of us have marched to oppose war, nuclear arms, and injustice. In the United States, after an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969, a new consciousness of change against pollution began. A year later, Earth Day was celebrated with 20 million people joining in, followed soon after by the passing of the Clean Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and others. Some have since lost their lustre and need more work. Laws need protecting, while Earth Day should be every day. Others write books: Rachel Carson (pesticides), Nevil Shute (nuclear war), Anna Sewell (animal cruelty), to name but three.

Unfortunately, some protest makes little difference. George Bush and Tony Blair rallied the coalition troops despite millions across the globe marching against the idiocy of war in Iraq. How did the world know and yet our presumed leaders didn’t about non-existent WMDs? Joe Biden and the Medusa-headed European Union seem bent on destroying Ukraine to make a point about who is in charge in a growing multi-polar, “rules-based” world, rather than restore an essential peace in our time. Kurtz can’t possibly explain the horror being done in our names, no matter how many of us march this time to oppose another brutal war (is there any other kind?).

But at least we can protest without being hauled off by the imperial thugs of a Russian dictator posing as emancipator to a long-burdened populace. To even utter the potential use of nuclear weapons as a threat reveals the nakedness of our leaders. Why not tomato soup at a glass-covered painting, when life itself is worth so little? What’s a cake in the face of a waxed royal? How does a hereditary stiff have power anyway in our most modern of worlds?

Today, in solidarity with a murdered Kurdish woman, detained for showing too much hair according to the medieval diktats of the “morality police,” an athlete doesn’t wear her hijab, adding to demands for an end to female enslavement in Iran. Thousands of supporters try to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River that supplies drinking water to a population of over 17 million, including the indigenous Standing Rock Tribe who call themselves protectors rather than protesters with the slogan mni wiconi (“water is life”). A one-fisted podium salute helped to give voice to a silent world as did marches across the globe against apartheid and racial injustice. And yet women remain second-class citizens in the Middle East and elsewhere, pipelines are being expanded everywhere, and African Americans and others are still not treated equally by and before the law.

Non-violence protest is the guide for most, but what is the line between property and people? As with skewed wealth inequality, the richest 10% emit about half the GHGs, polluting and warming our shared air with impunity. Is it okay to let the air out of the tires of their SUVs, as in a movement begun in Sweden that included a shaming note under the windshield and a blog informing of their tactics? Backlash naturally followed after thousands of vehicles were “temporarily disarmed.” Such “direct action as prank” harms consumers, albeit rich ones, but does nothing to stop the oil companies. Alas, when unessential luxury is destroying our world and beholden leaders won’t act, how can we do nothing?

When does protest become resistance? Few of us have the stomach for open confrontation in an everyday world of work, school runs, and mortgages. But on a picket line, in a polluted delta or waterless city, action becomes organized. When nothing changed after decades of devastation by oil companies in Nigeria, non-violent measures turned militant, where the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) shut down a third of production. During the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, a pipeline to Israel was regularly sabotaged, temporarily undermining the authorities, although the supply was eventually restored and the largest coal plant in the world built soon after, upping the previous government’s support for fossil fuels.

Andreas Malm itemizes numerous means of protest in his provocatively titled How to Blow Up a Pipeline, from sit-ins to staged die-ins, from mass trespassing to blockades and encampments, reiterating the words of a former Black Power activist, “Protest is when I say I don’t like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don’t like. Protest is when I say I refuse to go along with this anymore. Resistance is when I make sure everybody else stops going along too.” His manifesto will not suit those unwilling to rise up with more than words on the road to change.

Indeed, the status quo remains for now. We are still in the genteel quarters of the National Gallery (van Gogh soup), Museum Barberini (Monet mash), and the Mauritshuis (Vermeer glue). Still, the backlash is just as harsh. To diminish, the protests are seen as performance art instead of activism, awareness, and education, the usual steps to change. Clickable bandwidth. A Youtube flash mob. Today’s opposition to injustice must compete with Netflix, Disney, and the Internet.

Of course, one should target oil companies, governments, and our own consumption, not third-party innocents. Big Oil wins when the debate is about everything but oil. Should the so-called super-majors – BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Eni, Shell, and TotalEnergies, whose revenues continue to soar during another manufactured energy crisis – be allowed to extract more oil? The latest U.K. government has even permitted expanded oil-and-gas extraction in the south of England. At the same time ExxonMobil reported a record Q3 profit of almost $20 billion on annual revenues of more than a quarter of a trillion dollars, while new figures on global warming portend even more disaster ahead.

If we stop using oil, the system will stop. A tall order, but one that must be put in place sooner than later. The devil has no power if you don’t believe the lies, if you don’t think we can change. Mass protest comes from building movements, from legitimizing dissent. Confrontational activism is a stepping stone to change. Will the oil majors stop extracting oil if we all rise up tomorrow? Sure. For now, Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, and others are doing the heavy lifting. Time is running out on the dominoes of revolution. The polite, peaceful protests aren’t working. We all know it’s time for the oil companies to sponsor more than lies.

As part of a 2014 UN climate change summit in New York, it was announced that the $860-million Rockefeller Brothers Fund would divest itself of all fossil-fuel holdings, signalling an end to Standard Oil billionaire John D. Rockefeller’s vast petroleum legacy. No change in plans was announced for the companies created from Standard Oil, such as ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company, although Steven Rockefeller (the son of John D.’s grandson Nelson A. Rockefeller) stated there was “a moral and economic dimension” to stockpiling climate change fuels. Fund chairperson Valerie Wayne (the granddaughter of John D.’s grandson John D. Rockefeller III) also claimed they wanted “to use the fund to advance environmental issues.”

After the targeted van Gogh soup-throwing at London’s National Gallery, Aileen Getty, the granddaughter of oil baron Jean Paul Getty, wrote, “As the planet burns, we are approaching a time when all we’ll have left are pictures and paintings of our beloved Earth, and urban art galleries may be the final resting place for Earth’s sunflowers.” Her grandfather’s famous mantra was “The meek shall inherit the Earth, but not its mineral rights.”

One has to fight fire with fire. The time for food fights will end, but it is high time to leave a room better than how we found it. Living in the world requires that we try to make things better if we can, turning a failed business as usual into a workable future. We have no choice. As the new saying goes, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the pollution.”

Tipping points? We are long past that. Use less. Say no. Boycott. Stand up for others. Power to the powerless. Power to the people. There are 8 billion of us now. There were 1 billion in 1800. Where are we going to put all the heat to house us? We can’t.

With war in Ukraine, we must live again through another generation of war. So I can be free. So I can see van Gogh’s Sunflowers for nothing in the National Gallery, up the main stairs to the Central Hall, right to the Turners and Stubbs, right to the Monets and Renoirs, and then left to Room 43. About 30 seconds on the trot if you don’t stop in front of the Seurat as I usually do.

Protest in march, protest in song, protest with performance art. When our cowardly leaders and politicians do nothing to stop what must be stopped and where legal avenues in a stacked justice system fail and where the rule of law has been perverted by financial reward over the health of our planet, all bets are off. When the oil companies continue to lie about what they knew about climate change amid record profits upped by more war, while coal kings decide the clean-energy agenda of a dying world, how can one not protest? A meaningful statement about ending new fossil fuel assets in the UK? Come on.

We are not powerless. As Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother soon after arriving in Arles in 1888, where he would paint his most famous of unsold paintings, “I shall carry on working, and here and there something of my work will prove of lasting value.” Symbols, words, dissent is power. War, corruption, neoliberalism, misogyny, inequality, inhumanity, burning fossil fuels, profiteering – all of it is to be protested. What else can we do? The earth needs our attention. Now.

John K. Whitea former lecturer in physics and education at University College Dublin and the University of Oviedo. He is the editor of the energy news service E21NS and author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013)Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at: johnkingstonwhite@gmail.com