Over the last months, there have been news reports on young climate activists attacking well known art works like the Mona-Lisa or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers all over Europe. (Aublanc, 2022; Dellatto, 2022; Skinner, 2022; York, 2022) At first glance, this might seem bizarre: Why attack art? Looking into the motives the activists present on their homepage helps shed a different light on the action than media coverage has focussed on.
It goes without saying that artworks are an important means of expression and criticism which makes them valuable for humanity. And the activists do not question this. For what is more, they want to attract attention to the fact that climate change might lead to a world without human creativity simply because human life on Earth might be impossible.
In education for sustainable development, it is generally acknowledged that the Rio Conference in 1992 was the moment in history when the problems of climate change were made conscious by most of the political leaders. But already in 1979, Hans Jonas alerted on human responsibility in the widening possibilities of technological progress. (Jonas, 1984) His argument was that these technologies impacted not only present generations but also future ones and that, as a result, we carry responsibility for both of them. Based on this argument, he reformulated Kant’s moral imperative for including the new bearers of responsibility: “Act so that the effects of your actions are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life on Earth.” (Jonas, 1984, S. 36) Genuine human life does include creative productions such as artworks.
Artworks that are exposed in museums are very well protected and the activists’ attacks were not carried out in ways to really destroy the paintings. Art, as a human cultural practice, is precious and worshiped. That is why humanity exhibits it in museums and puts a lot of effort (and money) in their preservation. The activists are conscious that they did attack something sacred to humanity and argue that at the end attracting people’s attention to the threat of climate change justifies the means. Their line of reasoning is the following: If the idea of losing something precious and priceless like a Van Gogh is freaking you out, why don’t you freak out over losing the Earth? Even though, I, personally do not agree with the means, I think that this is an important question to ask.
Researchers in the humanities have drawn attention to the problems of this hierarchy between nature and culture for a long time. As an example, Max Scheler criticized the making dead (Vertotung) of nature that has become a natural worldview as early as 1923. (Scheler, 1948, S. 91–93) As a result of this process, he notices an (emotional) distance that was created. To put it more bluntly, we seem to be (emotionally) more attached to our artworks than we are to our natural environment.
Under current politico-economic circumstances global warming will not be limited to 2°C. To live under these conditions will demand massive changes for the lives of today’s young generation. These changes will also have a great impact on the preservation of art and the creating of new artwork.
To prevent this raise in temperature, present generations must considerably change their habits and reduce their CO2-impact. At the moment, we are far from doing this. No government in the world has announced sufficient plans to reach the 1,5 °C goal from the Paris Climate Agreement, yet.
All of this considered, the climate activists who attacked the artworks evoke extremely provocative questions: What do we want to preserve? What catches our attention and what do we tend to ignore? Do we really preserve these artworks, or will our lifestyle destroy them in the future? Will there be human art in the future, if we don’t stop climate change? Due to the radicalism of their actions the message will most probably either go unheard or even be rejected. But does the form of presenting their questions devalue the questions itself?
In the case of climate change, we do not need to entrench the camps. Alienating the majority of society carries the great risk of delaying rather than accelerating sufficient measures for climate protection. We need them to start talking with one another. This means for the activists to stop endangering artworks and for society to face the grim questions climate change confronts us with. Maybe art could invite to reflect on the climate crisis and to open this forum?
Shortcut for download: https://uni-tuebingen.de/de/243001
 I am very thankful for valuable feedback from Marcel Vondermaßen who helped shape the argument of the article to its final version.
Aublanc, M. (2022). Climat: Attaquer des œuvres d’art, « c’est presque un appel au secours ». 20 minutes. www.20minutes.fr/planete/4006850-20221024-climat-attaquer-uvres-art-presque-appel-secours
Dellatto, M. (2022). Pea Soup Thrown At Another Van Gogh Painting As Climate Activists Target Famous Art. Forbes. www.forbes.com/sites/marisadellatto/2022/11/04/pea-soup-thrown-at-another-van-gogh-painting-as-climate-activists-target-famous-art/
Jonas, H. (1984). Das Prinzip Verantwortung—Versuch einer Ethik für die technologische Zivilisation (1. Aufl.). Suhrkamp.
Scheler, M. (1948). Wesen und Formen der Sympathie (5. Aufl.). G. Schulte-Blumke.
Skinner, A. (2022, Oktober 14). Van Gogh soup attack latest in at least a dozen since Mona Lisa smearing. Newsweek. www.newsweek.com/van-gogh-soup-attack-latest-least-dozen-since-mona-lisa-smearing-1752044
York, J. (2022, Oktober 28). Quand les militants écologistes s’attaquent à l’art: Des actions „de plus en plus désespérées“. France 24. www.france24.com/fr/plan%C3%A8te/20221028-quand-les-militants-%C3%A9cologistes-s-attaquent-%C3%A0-l-art-des-actions-de-plus-en-plus-d%C3%A9sesp%C3%A9r%C3%A9es