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  • Art vs activism: Why can’t we have both?


Art vs activism: Why can’t we have both?

To throw or not to throw the mash? Konrad Werner muses on the meanings of a messed-up Monet.

Photo: Courtesy Letzte Generation

There seems to be a debate in Germany over whether throwing mashed potatoes on a painting is an act of terrorism or not. TV shows and newspaper articles are expending their precious breath and words worrying about this quandary. Talkshow hosts and columnists are bending their brains to fit into moral spaces, in which a Monet full of beige sludge belongs in the same category as gunning people down because they’re of a different ethnic background.

…if you don’t annoy someone, it’s not working.

As environmental protests go, attacking an artwork is the milder end of the scale. It’s not, for example, as illegal as the actions of Ende Gelände, an organisation that has been occupying lignite mines and blocking roads along the principles of non-violent civil disobedience. Even so, deliberating and non-violently breaking the law to disrupt the system has always been a legitimate form of protest. In fact, that’s the point of protest: if you don’t annoy someone, it’s not working. And given that over 30 million people in Pakistan have just been displaced by the climate crisis, you’re lucky there are any pictures left on gallery walls at all.

I think the art interventions have caused such a media fuss because they’ve moved climate agitation into spaces where middle-class people – the kind of people who work in newsrooms – usually feel calm and comfortable. Angry kids running round in the countryside and getting in the way of lorries doesn’t really bother us. It only bothers lorry drivers, policemen and maybe the odd coal mine manager. But what’s the world coming to if you can’t look at a painting of some haystacks in the sunset and then have some tea and cake afterwards?

What is that painting really worth to you?

Obviously, you can argue that flinging food on art doesn’t have any direct association with the climate crisis, and it distracts from ‘the cause’, because people end up talking about whether it does any good rather than the planetary disaster itself. It’s fine to think this, and many climate protesters do, but what I like about such protests is that they recognise that activism and art shouldn’t have clearly defined spaces. The activism can be part of the art. Sure, you’ve got a messed-up Monet, but you’ve also got a new question to ask yourself: What is that painting really worth to you? How expensive can it be if you don’t have a liveable planet to share it with?

And you’re also being asked what the art means. I’m no art critic, but I think the reason why the Monet haystacks are so beautiful is because the painting captures a brief moment when the light of the sunset makes these heaps of dry grass shimmer, giving them their own light. They look otherworldly, almost hovering slightly. It’s a hallucinatory moment when the light makes the haystacks look like more than what they are. It’s the kind of moment that only lasts a second or two, that you might miss if you weren’t actually there to experience it. But Monet caught it. If anything, obscuring that image with a slop of processed potato only makes it clearer how transient and beautiful that moment is – how transient and beautiful every moment in a French field at dusk is, especially now that so many French fields get fried in the summer. Maybe you can only really appreciate a Monet when you realise you might lose it.