Andrey Elinson on Why Art Vandals Attack Museums and How Much It Cost to Protect Our Planet This Way
In recent months, we have seen a new trend rise in Europe: eco-activists are staging their strange protests. They pour soup over paintings to draw attention to environmental issues. Due to their actions, the works of Van Gogh, Claude Monet and other famous artists have been damaged. The vandals explain their actions with lofty goals. But is there a connection between ecology and masterpieces of art? Who were the instigators of these protests, and what are the activists’ goals? Why do “environmentalists” attack paintings, and should we expect similar actions in other places in Europe and worldwide?
Art Under Attack: Andrey Elinson on Who Started the Movement
Recently, art masterpieces have been more and more under attacks by activists. More than 10 such incidents occurred in different European countries. Paintings by Van Gogh, Claude Monet and other famous artists were damaged. However, this is not a new way to draw attention to oneself and to the problems of the planet. Similar things happened at the beginning of the 20th century: for example, in 1913, a painting by Repin was damaged in the Tretyakov Gallery. (Ed.: Andrey Elinson interned at the Tretyakov Gallery during his studies at the Institute)
The instigator of this movement is Just Stop Oil. The vandals position themselves as a group formed to put pressure on the British government. By their strange behavior, they allegedly want to have oil production licenses revoked. But they are probably just doing it for publicity. They are willing to destroy cultural heritage for the sake of transient fame.
“Radical Vandalism”: Andrey Elinson on Whether the Activists Should Be Punished
There is a fitting definition for these actions: radical vandalism. The activists’ actions have more to do with PR. It seemed to a certain group of people that the whole theme of attacking paintings would be popular. And they were right. Other actions would not have achieved the same effect.
I have no doubt that the vandals should be punished, and to the fullest extent of the law. After all, ecology has little to do with works of art. Due to their desire to be at the center of attention, eco-activists damage paintings and even destroy some of them. These movements are no doubt criminal in nature and must be dealt with. By the way, in Rome, appropriate measures have already been taken against the perpetrators. (Ed.: Andrey Elinson is probably referring to the case of the activists from the “Last Generation” movement in Rome who had smeared Van Gogh’s painting “The Sower”. The perpetrators will be imprisoned for 2–3 years.)
What happened to the paintings?
Unfortunately, the risk of vandalism has and always will be present in public museums. But in this case, the pseudo-activists choose the canvases that are most difficult to damage. Obviously, in this way, they attempt to reduce the risk of being prosecuted. But any action taken by eco-activists could spread like fire and lead to more vandalism. However, not everyone will go under the guise of saving the environment, and not only soup can be weaponized, but also liquids much more dangerous for the canvas.
So far, nothing terrible has happened to the masterpieces of painting. The activists chose canvases protected by glass. There is no definitive answer as to why the eco-activists decided to do without actual “casualties” among the paintings. It is possible that it’s simply due to a lack of decent education — the vandals did not consider that you can damage paintings even through the glass. Maybe their choice was based on avoiding compensation for restoration after their attacks.
Andrey Elinson on Whether or Not to Expect Similar Pseudo-Movements in Europe
Experts believe that such movements could become widespread. I believe that the activists’ actions resemble the so-called hype, which helps them become celebrities in certain circles. Information appears in the world’s major media outlets. Vandals draw attention to themselves and the issues they promote. I do not rule out the possibility of similar events in Europe.
People tend to repeat after someone else, even when it comes to disreputable actions. There will always be imitators. This cannot be ruled out.
A wave of such actions has already reached Eastern Europe: in December, a Banksy painting was damaged at an exhibition in St. Petersburg (Ed.: Andrey Elinson must be referring to the exhibition of reproductions of Banksy’s works which was held in Moscow and St. Petersburg). Security in museums is good, but there is no 100 % protection against the vandals’ actions. It’s quite difficult to protect all the canvases. Some of the masterpieces in museums are exhibited without glass. Under special protection is for example “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan” and other paintings that can provoke mentally unstable people.
Soup and other liquids can still be washed away. But what if more aggressive substances are used by the pseudo-environmentalists? The damage from their actions can be very significant.
It is worth noting that attacking paintings is not a new phenomenon. I personally encountered something similar when I was still a student (Ed.: Andrey Elinson graduated from the Moscow State Academic Institute in 2003)). At the time, however, activists were more restrained. They were not encroaching on the greatest objects of the cultural heritage. They used to go for smaller displays from emerging artists. Eggs, bright paint, and acid were used. The vandals motivated their actions with different goals: for political reform, for freedom of speech, for God, etc. Their actions were covered by the media, but did not resonate as widely as they do now. These actions did not help them achieve their goals. And some of the aspiring artists who suffered from their “activities” decided to change their line of work altogether.
What Do the Activists Want?
“Are you more concerned about protecting the painting? Or protecting our planet and people?” — these are the slogans the eco-activists use when commiting acts of vandalism. It is worth noting that their choice falls on well-known paintings — those that are known to people, including social networks users.
The main question is, what are the activists trying to achieve? Every story in the news about such “movement” is perceived in an extremely negative light by the public. They do not understand what the connection is between the destruction of cultural heritage and the fight for ecology. I personally asked one of them what their goals were. But all I heard was the typical rhetoric about saving the planet and so forth.
The participants of the movement adhere to non-violent methods. They advocate the fight against global warming. In their opinion, their actions proved that people are more interested in paintings than in what is happening to our planet: they would be more upset by soup on a painting by a famous artist than by oil in the ocean.
I believe that the main objective of the activists is the desire to influence the governments of Italy, Great Britain and other European countries. The goal is to convince them of the need to implement reforms to save nature and prevent global warming.
Moreover, it is known that some of the activists are sponsored by Eileen Getty, the granddaughter of oil magnate Paul Getty. She is the co-founder of the Climate Emergency Fund (CEF). Environmental organizations, including Just Stop Oil, received more than $4 million from this foundation.
Is It Even Worth Fighting the Activists?
The latest wave of attacks received a mixed reaction in the Western media (Ed.: On October 14, Andrey Elinson personally witnessed two activists pouring tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery.) They said that on the one hand, it is necessary to take measures to protect masterpieces of painting, but we should not ignore such actions either — if we overly criticize the actions of eco-activists, it will mean that we do not want to fight against global warming.
It’s worth noting that such vandalism has long been commonplace. And each time the criminals explain their actions with lofty goals. Apparently, they want to encourage the public to answer the main question: what is more important — protecting masterpieces of art or the planet? But it is impossible to choose one thing over the other: it is important to preserve both cultural heritage and nature. But the activists do not understand that. They urge you to choose one or the other.