Food Waste for Food Waste? UK Environmental Protests are Writing Their own Irony
By Mia Autumn Roe
Heinz for the Holland artist, mash to thrash a Monet and now cake fit for a waxwork King, as environmental demonstrations surge the country on new grounds, the ethics of protesting poverty with pantry, has become an angle of irony that climate activist organisations ‘Just Stop Oil’ & ‘Letzle Generation’ (Last Generation) seem to have forgotten.
The Pitch of the Protests
Climate protest and shock demonstrations have inevitably fallen into necessity once again, as our current political milieu has taken a downward spiral into chaos, losing urgency to environmental action in the process.
Affective to the extent of causing alarm: with the gasps and shouts of passers-by at each scene, Campaign activists at the scene of the National Gallery Van Gogh ‘gunking’ defended their position against backlash with the statement that modern society cares “more of the damage done to paintings than the damage done to their own world.”
And indeed, with the onslaught of media retaliation to such demonstrations, their point retains proof.
Where many question the absurdity of tethering acclaimed artwork to political activism, it calls to be recognised that shock, absurdist protests are not a new nor unproductive method to aid activist causes. For years, and in the name of various social-political causes have individuals been chaining themselves to objects, inflicting public damage or social disruption and in creating conversation and awareness, they do, to an extent, do what they say on the tin (to excuse the pun!).
Hailed by journalist’s post-attack, Just Stop Oil representatives chastised the lack of coverage previous action has denied them, asserting that the absurdism of the gallery protests were the last resort of a dying, ignored voice.
The History of Art Vandalism
Concerning the recent, dare I say ‘trend’ in food related political activism, this again, though taken to a new and edible angle, also finds successful routes in historical acts. Art vandalism, not so dissimilar to street art in its ploy for defacing objects of ‘value’ in the name of anti-ideological conformity, found roots as early as the Edwardian period, which saw Anne Hunt, an individual of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, take meat cleaver to the portrait of Thomas Carlyle, by Sir John Everett Millais in 1914- a fascinating picture of symbolism that sought to subvert gendered objectification of the era.
Articles elsewhere seek to draw attention to Gogh & Monet’s work as ‘million-dollar paintings’, which indeed they are. Yet, in bracketing them as such, journalists are merely adding gravity and plausibility to protester’s reasoning. Overshadowed in commodity over their specific intellectual and aesthetic properties, protestors’ destruction of these artworks is a simple and meta articulation of modern society’s repetitious hunger for producing and spurning commodity at a fast and cyclical rate.
Moving their message to the art world has been the most recent transition for these determined climate activists, with incidences of glued palms beginning in July of last year for Last Generation, and a month ago for Just Stop Oil. Logistically, I find it a very strategic move; banners raised in the street, walking against the grain of phone-goggled commuters, may find itself the typical establishment for social demonstration, but is an easy one now, after so many of the same, to drill out beneath the thrums of head phoned beats. Gallery stillness, however, and the forced, purposeful incentive to stop and look, forges ripe new soil for reaction that cannot be denied a spectator.
Food Waste for… Food Waste?
Reaction procured and discussions incited, I’m all for the spontaneity of protests, particularly those on such a crucial and indeed, somehow still overlooked concern. And yet, the titular issue I find with these food related attacks specifically is their overly steeped irony. To plaster potato over an oil painting is one thing, if it isn’t the wastage of such needed items of food, the crux of your action. When confirmed after the attack that the paintings remained undamaged due to the protective glass screenings they’re ensconced in, I ask why activists didn’t consider the obvious for the medium- a can of paint, or perhaps in a more nuanced consideration- paint stripper?
After their Big Splash, one demonstrator asserted that the significance of their props reflects the reality that “some people can’t afford to heat up a tin of soup”. Which indeed, forges the symbolism of the act rather profound. In his lifelong poverty and social rejection however, Van Gogh was equally a man of liminal financial means and domestic struggle, and where the gentrification of his work maintains ethical questionability, I’m certain that the Nation Gallery positively reeked of artworks and installations that more intimately tethered itself to commodification and privilege.
Looking long term, of course the loss of some tinned soup and chocolate sponge lacks the relative influence on environmental and social chaos in comparison to large scale capitalist greed and governmental disorder. But when you’re wasting something that is both preservable long term and relatively teetering on the nutrients of a meal for those desperate enough, whilst emphasising that “people are starving”- as activists of the Barberini Museum Monet attack were quoted asserting, you can see where the eyebrows begin to be raised.
A Royal Caking
A waxwork King Charles finds himself with a face full of chocolate in the most recent of these food related incidences. Last Monday in London’s ‘Madame Tussauds’, Just Stop Oil shook it up by bearding the new Monarch. Paired with a similar accompanying speech concerning the necessity of imminent climate action. “Just Stop New Oil and Gas: it’s a piece of cake”, the new King’s transition to the throne provides suitable relevance for an audience riddled with appall and intrigue.
The defacement of Charles is an action I do find interesting however, considering his reputation as a largely climate concerned individual- certainly the most within the Royal Firm. As much as I find myself the opposite to the monarchists among us, Charles himself has in reality been the most outspoken modern royal for Environmental change and where he certainty can do much more, he isn’t benign to the cause. Taking a read on his website at the dedicated section for ‘Sustainability’, it is, of course, parasitic with praise but still explores the various environmental initiatives launched by the monarch, in pursuit of growing sustainability targets.
The action however was issued after former Prime Minister Liz Truss advised the new Monarch not to attend current climate crisis talks in late September, along with the fact that the monarch will also not be personally attending the Cop27 conference in November that similarly looks towards the potential for global climate action. Dowsed in chocolate- a fittingly indulgent ambush for a lavishly maintained institution, I once again ask for a change of prop, or perhaps a more universal comment on the Royal Family as a whole.
Madame Tussauds is rich with politicians and royal members to pluck, but of course, to attack the face of a new-born Monarch is guaranteed to surge attention and outrage. Quoting the King’s own words, spoken back in 2019 to an audience at Lincoln University, Missouri, that features his awareness of being confronted by “my grandchildren – or yours- demanding to know why [he] didn’t do anything to prevent them being bequeathed a poisoned and destroyed planet.” , it’s unclear whether the protesters wished to showcase the King’s allegiance to the cause, or his physical inaction to change despite verbal awareness. Regardless, hurling the words of the new King to climate change deniers is certain to grant gravity to the action.
Let’s Not Turn on Each Other
The UK government are certainty in no current place to find themselves on top of either the Cost of Living Crisis on our own soil, or the larger scale question of environmental decline and to clarify, where I have uncertainty towards Just Stop Oil’s current method of demonstration tactics, I don’t wish for this to be a cause for forging the internal dividing line. We’ve seen it happen before where the unrest angled at demonstrators out ways the anger at those maintaining and profiting from these overarching issues. And where I don’t necessarily call for Climate Crisis organisations to just-stop-ruining-oil-paintings, I do wonder whether a change of medium may suit the strength of their plight.
About the author
Mia Autumn Roe is a writer & freelance journalist. Blowing her weekly budget at every local coffee shop, she writes for 1883 Magazine, Spring Journal & Razz Magazine.
Her portfolio can be found here at http://miaroe7.wixsite.com/miaautumn