A screenshot from a video of the Just Stop Oil activists’ action targeting Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” on Oct. 27. (Twitter/Steven Bakker)
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Why glue your head to a painting?

The recent climate actions targeting museums are themselves a form of participatory, socially-engaged art with a long history in the contemporary art world.
A screenshot from a video of the Just Stop Oil activists’ action targeting Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” on Oct. 27. (Twitter/Steven Bakker)

A Just Stop Oil activist attempted to superglue his shaved head to Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” while another dumped what looked to be tomato soup on him, at the Mauritshuis museum in The Netherlands this morning.

This action followed an uproar caused by two activists from the German environmentalist group Letzte Generation, who threw mashed potatoes at Claude Monet’s “Lew Meules” in the Museum Barberini in Potsdam on Sunday.

These disruptions are the latest in a slew of actions orchestrated by climate activists, including the recent and already infamous Van Gogh #Soupgate, which has attracted controversy, mockery, denigration and — importantly — increased attention surrounding the work of the environmental collective Just Stop Oil and the climate crisis.

Activists from Letzte Generation and Just Stop Oil have engaged in protests across Europe and the United States where activists have glued themselves to famous paintings, occupied bridges, disrupted traffic and blocked transportation, thrown soup at government buildings, poured fake blood and oil on the steps of state capitals, and sprayed showrooms for luxury cars in orange paint to draw attention to the development and production of fossil fuels in the U.K.

This turn to museums for environmentalists, however, is relatively recent and has led many spectators to ask “why here?”

“Similar to the avant-gardes, climate activist movements also believe in the possibility of change and society’s agency in bringing it about,” explained politics and social movements researcher Lucie Hunter. “Because of the urgency of the task at hand, their message needs to be shared with the wider public. And in what better place to start this conversation, then in one of the most prominent agenda-setting cultural spaces: the museums.”

While right-wing climate deniers have come out in droves to criticize the activists, perhaps surprisingly, some climate activists themselves have seen the actions as counterproductive and not particularly strategic, a form of “bad activism” that actually hurts the climate movement. While the efficacy of these actions has been studied, and illustrates that these actions don’t set back the environmental movement, I would contend that efficacy is an inappropriate question with which to approach these actions.

Previous Coverage
  • Feeling at odds with Just Stop Oil’s tomato soup protest? That’s the point
  • The historical and spatial context of this, and the other actions by the collective, cannot be overstated. As has been explored by climate justice activists Charles de Lacombe and Nicolas Haeringer, museums are historically contested spaces that have been targets of direct actions for years and the Just Stop Oil actions are just an extension of these genealogies.   

    In 2018, for example, demonstrators held “die-ins” and demonstrations to demand that art institutions refuse future funding from the Sackler family, which has been criticized for spurring the nationwide opioid crisis.

    This practice of institutional critique goes all the way back to the 1970s. Socially-engaged artists like Hans Haacke constructed inflammatory installations — such as the notorious MoMa Poll — that criticized how museums and their donors were complicit in violence.

    Even more famously, collectives like the Guerrilla Art Action Group and Guerrilla Girls engaged in politicized performance pieces that challenged how museums upheld hierarchical and oppressive power structures.

    Contemporary activist-artists, like those with Just Stop Oil and Letzte Generation, have expanded socially-engaged art methods. They combine carnivalesque performance art with roots in avant-garde movements like the surrealists and situationalists with choreographed direct action. The purpose of these new forms of art-actions is to curate and encounter moments of confrontation, antagonism and dialogue that draw attention to and make visible larger social issues.

    Art theorists have constructed new ways of understanding these actions, like culture jamming, choreopolitics, dialogic art and relational antagonism. Many of the contemporary artists who use these art methods, which are characterized by their bizarreness and uneasiness, engage very strategically with the space of the museum, its visitors and the resulting discourse that ripples from the installation, exhibition, performance or action.

    Many have pointed out that the critics of Just Stop Oil who have called the soup action “silly” and “senseless” miss the point of the action. Yes, but it doesn’t matter. The dialogue and reactivity by those reached by and engaged with the action, or the purposeful audience, are themselves participants in the performance and engaging with the art itself.

    A similar action took place during the Vietnam War. In a 1962 performance piece called “One for Violin,” Nam June Paik slowly raised a violin over his head and then smashed it. “During one performance an audience member lay down under the violin in protest and, in response, Paik asked why the audience cared more about the violin than those dying in Vietnam,” said Fen Kennedy, an assistant professor of dance at the University of Alabama. “Sixty years later, perhaps what we should be asking is why we still have not yet collectively decided that human lives, and the life of our planet, are more valuable to us, and should be more robustly defended, than any work of art.”

    What these environmentalist art-activists do so strategically is wield the unexpected and shocking in a way that invites dispute to draw attention to their message.

    Returning to her exploration of the avant-garde, Hunter explains that “there is a hope that when viewers get snapped out of their mindless scrolling because someone threw a bowl of soup or smeared cake on a protective glass frame of a famous painting, that this shock might lead to a wider reflection on the causes of such rapturous stunts. And subsequently our possible role in this broader picture.”

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    In the vein of their socially engaged art predecessors, the activists attacked what is seen as culturally sacred and playfully engaged with the blasphemous to critique contemporary power relations and institutions that uphold structures of violence.  

    “Art does often play with the absurd and the arbitrary but it rarely, when effective, functions in a truly nonsensical way,” explained Jay O’Shea, professor at UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance. “Protest can, has, and should engage the elements of visual art and performance … To be truly effective, protesters could mobilize the lessons of art and performance: that non-linear messages can be impactful but they acquire this impact when its formal elements have their own coherence.”

    Art and activism have always been closely intertwined, but contemporary actions, like the mashed potatoes and soup actions, illustrate how political interventions themselves are also a form of participatory, socially-engaged art that is embedded within the history and future of contemporary art movements.

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