With the effects and progression of climate change becoming increasingly evident around the world, eco-activists have discovered a radical strategy to make their voices heard.

It all started when a man disguised as an old woman in a wheelchair rolled into the Louvre Museum and smeared Leonardo da Vinci’s treasured Mona Lisa with cake.

He attempted to break the potrait's bulletproof glass case, then rubbed cake over its glass, and said: "There are people who are destroying the Earth... All artists, think about the Earth. That's why I did this. Think of the planet."

After that incident, eco-activists across Europe began imitating this expression of protest.

“I consider myself a climate activist, but seeing these people throwing soup or glueing themselves to the paintings makes me wonder whether we are fighting to save the same planet,” climate scientist Professor Levent Kurnaz from Türkiye’s Bogazici University tells TRT World.

“The planet is important but so are these works of art,” he adds.

Sergio Munoz Sarmiento, an art lawyer based out of New York City and founder of The Art & Law Program, echoed the same sentiments in a comment to TRT World. “Why attempt to destroy something unique and valuable to make the point about conserving our environment?”

The eco-activists, however, for the most part, claim that they are not targeting works of art with the intention to cause damage. On the contrary, they have said they approach artworks with caution and care, ensuring there is no risk to the cultural treasures.

“Yes – art is precious. We share that love deeply. What we want to do is salvage a future where human creativity is still possible,” one of the groups leading this new kind of activism, Just Stop Oil, wrote in a post on their website.

“We’re terrifyingly close to losing that, so we have to break the rules. And that means pushing cultural buttons to provoke, challenge and shock. There’s no other way.”

Against all criticism, the eco-activists maintain that life, and our planet, are more important than art.
Against all criticism, the eco-activists maintain that life, and our planet, are more important than art. (Reuters)

Wrong action for rightful cause?

On October 14, activists from Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s glass covered iconic Sunflowers, displayed at the National Gallery in London, voicing the group’s demand that the British government “halts all new oil and gas projects”.

And on Sunday, activists from Letzte Generation (Last Generation) splashed mashed potatoes on Claude Monet’s most expensive painting  - worth $111 million - Les Meules (Haystacks) in the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany.

"Does it take mashed potatoes on a painting to get you to listen? This painting is not going to be worth anything if we have to fight over food," one of the two activists said as mashed potatoes dripped from the painting’s glass cover.

The act was done “with a heavy heart but with determination”, Letzte Generation said in a statement.

No paintings were harmed in the incidents observed since May this year, except for some minor damage reported to the frame of van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

Sarmiento says that “whether these acts are criminal or not will depend on the laws of the country where the artwork is located”.

Activists have so far been detained and faced charges of vandalism, criminal damage to property, and aggravated trespass.

Thankfully, this new strategy of activism doesn’t necessarily decrease the value of the paintings.

“If the artworks are framed and protected by glass or plexiglass, then hopefully there is no direct damage to the actual artwork,” Sarmiento explains. 

“If there is, there are conservators around the world that would have the skills to clean and repair such damages.”

TRT World also asked museums how activists were able to sneak cake, soup, mashed potatoes and even glue into the museums. The Louvre Museum and National Gallery refused to comment, while Museum Barberini did not respond.

“If it takes a painting – with #MashedPotatoes or #TomatoSoup thrown at it – to make society remember that the fossil fuel course is killing us all: Then we'll give you #MashedPotatoes on a painting!” Letzte Generation wrote on Twitter.
“If it takes a painting – with #MashedPotatoes or #TomatoSoup thrown at it – to make society remember that the fossil fuel course is killing us all: Then we'll give you #MashedPotatoes on a painting!” Letzte Generation wrote on Twitter. (Reuters)

Why do they target famous artworks?

“This new kind of protest is basically aimed to make the climate crisis more visible to the media. Their idea is not to change anything but bring the media into the climate action arena,” Kurnaz says. 

He is among many who do not believe that targeting artworks, and potentially harming them, helps the cause of climate action.

Other climate activists, however, support this radical turn that eco-activism has taken and suggest it is justified by the cause it serves.

Maintaining that life, and our planet, are more important than art, they say this strategy is resorted to because other measures do not attract mass attention, and consequently awareness on the climate crisis is lost too.

“The art action was exactly the change of pace we needed. It shocked people as it was so unexpected,” Just Stop Oil wrote on their website.

In a statement to TRT World, Just Stop Oil also said they stood “in solidarity with other groups and individuals who are taking non-violent action to slow down our rapid advance into catastrophic climate breakdown which will cause suffering, displacement, famine and death if left unchecked.”

“In the same way that we defend our artistic heritage, we should be dedicated to the care and protection of the planet that we share with the rest of the world,” eco-activist group Ultima Generazione said in a statement after two of their members glued themselves to the glass covering of Sandro Botticelli's Primavera in the Gallerie degli Uffizi in Florence.

The group also emphasised that they had consulted experts and used glue that would not damage glass or frames.

Aside from throwing food, eco-activists have more often been glueing themselves to treasured artworks.

This July saw Just Stop Oil activists glue themselves to several paintings, including a 16th century copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and spray-paint “No new oil” on the gallery wall below.

They also glued themselves to John Constable’s famous 19th-century painting The Hay Wain displayed in the National Gallery after pasting three posters on the artwork, portraying a copy of the scenery but with the addition of burnt trees, aeroplanes and a rusty car.

In both cases, they glued themselves not directly on the painting but on its frame.

Most recently, however, Just Stop Oil demonstrators smeared chocolate cake over a waxwork model of Britain's King Charles III at London's Madame Tussauds museum on Monday.