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A Wakeup Call

When public art is getting defaced in the name of climate activism, it’s hard not to pay attention.

“How do you feel when something beautiful and priceless is destroyed before your very eyes?” said one activist participating in the act of gluing themselves to Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”. “That is the same feeling when you see the planet being destroyed.”

This isn’t the only act of defacement that has happened over the past months. The public despaired as soup dripped down Van Gogh’s vibrant “Sunflowers”, and cake was smeared over the beautiful Mona Lisa. Other artworks experienced similar fates. The paintings themselves weren’t damaged, but the point was made.

Understandably, many are arguing that public defacement of art isn’t the best way to go when it comes to climate activism. Jonathan Foley, executive director of the non-profit Project Drawdown, provides a valuable opinion in an article about the situation in The Atlantic. Although his sympathies lie with the protestors, he points out that the protective coverings of the paintings are not designed to keep out tomato soup or cake. Furthermore, public museums — especially those struggling financially — will be seriously hurt by these acts of protest because their insurance costs and debts will increase.

According to the article, Foley insists that climate activists and museum workers essentially have the same goal; they both want to preserve something irreplaceable that has been passed down from generation to generation. “I don’t understand, in the name of preserving something we cherish, damaging something we also cherish,” he says.

It’s difficult not to sympathize with the protestors. It isn’t long before our Earth will succumb to the greenhouse gases that we torture it with. We can see the effects of them all around us, with rising water levels and polluted skies. No matter what climate activists do, many will continue to ignore the inevitable. So isn’t it only natural for climate activists to go to extremes and do something so outrageous? To finally get the attention of those who refuse to listen?

These acts of protest don’t come from a place of malice, they stem from desperation. It’s easy to separate ourselves into two groups; us and the activists. To believe that we are different; that we would never deface public art just to make a point. We’re not like them, right? But when we’re desperate to bring awareness to something that threatens our existence, it’s human nature to make noise. To send out a warning. And if it takes soup dripping down the protective glazing of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” for there to be a more prominent nationwide discussion on climate change, then what will it take for genuine action?

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