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Why Environmental Activists Threw Tomato Soup Over Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers Painting, Explained

Environmental activists throw soup on Van Gogh's Sunflowers

In a climate change protest that no one asked for, two young environmental activists threw tomato soup on Vincent Van Gogh’s famous “Sunflowers” painting, which was on display in at the National Gallery in London. The pair were quickly arrested, and the painting, protected by a pane of glass, was cleaned and is undamaged.

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The question on everyone’s lips is an exasperated “why?”

Who Are They?

The two activists are members of a group called “Just Stop Oil” that has been protesting the U.K.’s oil and gas plans. The pair decided to soupify the painting in an effort to bring public attention to the current environmental crisis. After souping up Van Gogh’s beloved work, the pair then crouched in front of the painting and glued their hands to the wall. One activist shouted, “What is worth more, art or life? Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people? The cost of living crisis is part of the cost of oil crisis, fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup.”

And I’m like … kid, you’re absolutely right. Oil is fucked up. But why are we taking it out on art?

It brings attention, but I’m not sure it brings the right kind of attention to the problem. By visually defacing a universally beloved artwork, they may have actually done their platform more harm than good. Environmental activism already has to deal with an absolutely vicious smear campaign from basically every powerful conservative political faction in the world. Oil companies and politicians have spent millions trying to make environmental activism seem foolish and unworthy of merit. Even class acts like young activist and icon Greta Thunberg, who channeled her rage into a series of eloquent and damning speeches to major world powers, had to deal with asshole after asshole trying to tarnish her reputation. And now these misguided activists are throwing literal soup all over that legacy.

I’m aware that I may sound like a total reactionary right now, and I welcome you all to drag me in the comments section. However, I think that it is always more useful to have a constructive rather than destructive conversation about the issues that are plaguing the world. By targeting a work of beloved art, I believe it actually obfuscates the ethical and morally upright environmental tenets that organizations like Just Stop Oil stand for. We don’t need soup on paintings, we need legislation. The way to get environmental legislations passed is for people to elect politicians who support that cause already.

The problem is that not enough people do because conservative government organizations and oil companies have done a damn good job convincing the common person that environmental legislation isn’t worth it. They’ve convinced people that anyone who supports the environment is a bleeding heart hippie who is at best ignorant, and at worst destructive. And then some youthful activists come along and reaffirm those notions by staging a protest that is destructive and not well thought out. See, the problem is not convincing people who already support progressive environmental policies to keep supporting them, it’s to convince people who don’t support those policies to start doing so. And to do that, one needs to frame one’s platform in a positive way. A rational way. A constructive way. A way that encourages debate, patience, and understanding. No one is going to be convinced to support progressive policies environment if they think that the type of person who supports those policies is also the type of person who destroys priceless artwork. It frankly denigrates the image of environmental activism, and with the current climate crisis being as critical as it is, progressive environmental policy can’t afford to not be taken seriously.

That being said …

If the two Just Stop Oil activists would like some alternative ideas on what or who they should be pouring soup all over, I am happy to provide them. I would start by booby trapping the houses of oil executives. Fill a 10 gallon bucket to the brim with some chunky tomato soup and place in on top of a slightly ajar door in their house. When they open the door to their “study” or wherever rich oil people go to ponder how they can better mess up the planet, they will get absolutely wrecked by the contents of like 20 cans of tomato soup. And hopefully someone will be in a closet recording video of the whole thing, then they should post in on Twitter and let the internet drag these oil executives until they quit their jobs. That is a constructive use of soup that I fully support.

(Featured image: screengrab)

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Jack Doyle
Jack Doyle (they/them) is actually nine choirs of biblically accurate angels in crammed into one pair of $10 overalls. They have been writing articles for nerds on the internet for less than a year now. They really like anime. Like... REALLY like it. Like you know those annoying little kids that will only eat hotdogs and chicken fingers? They're like that... but with anime. It's starting to get sad.

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