Performative activism perpetuates inaction

On Oct. 14, an activist group called Just Stop Oil vandalized Vincent Van Gogh’s famous work of art, “Sunflowers,” valued at $40 million, to draw attention to the current climate crisis regarding oil and gas exploration and fracking in the United Kingdom. 

The two activists, Phoebe Plummer, 21, and Anna Holland, 20, threw tomato soup onto the painting and glued themselves to the wall beneath it, at London's National Gallery. Plummer began speaking to the crowd about the oil crisis being intertwined with the high cost of living before both women were removed and arrested. This is a prime example of performative activism. 

Some may think performative activism is effective because it often involves doing daring, public stunts to draw attention to a certain cause. Although it sparks conversation, there is no actual change that stems from these types of protests because they are simply exploitative in nature and are only meant to catch short-term attention.

There is no point to performative activism — it draws negative attention, and most people see through the displays and respond with criticism to the stunts pulled. Performative activism is also referred to as slacktivism because of the surface-level effort it takes and the impact it has on the standing of those participating on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.

The organization reached international news, and most headlines highlighted how awful their actions were. It begs the question of the organization’s effectiveness in its fight. Twitter users have already begun to dispute their legitimacy.

These activists are not creating an impact; they are just causing disruptions and creating more work for the art conservators; the people who care for the paintings. 

Above all, what Just Stop Oil activists did was disrespectful and inconsiderate.While Plummer spoke to the crowd, she asked what was worth more: “Art or life? Is it worth more than food?” 

She mentioned that many people would have to choose between heating their homes and heating their food. Although the reality of the situation is ironic, calling attention to this type of crisis by wasting a can of food someone could have eaten is utterly oxymoronic to the point she was making. 

This is not the first time this group has done something like this, and I do not believe it will be the last, despite negative attention from their demonstrations. 

The group had sparked action in other protests, such as in one instance when two activists climbed the Queen Elizabeth II bridge and prevented ships from entering the area for 36 hours, disrupting the oil supply chain. This shows the group can create an impact without running the risk of ruining priceless works of art simply to draw attention rather than spark change.

Although I support their message and the cause driving them, I do not agree with vandalizing parts of history like this painting. Not to mention that Van Gogh was unproblematic. If they were going to go after a painting, they could have gone for a painting done by a controversial artist such as Pablo Picasso, who is described as a misogynistic womanizer.

Days later, the activist group Last Generation spread mashed potatoes on a Claude Monet painting in Germany in support of the same cause as Just Stop Oil. These individuals were also arrested and are facing possible charges of property damage and trespassing. No action came from this — just more disdain for the group.

Movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter (BLM) turned into a viral trend that demanded support from certain communities. At the height of these displays on social media, their true significance was minimized due to performative activism.

Displays like the aforementioned case and others such as Blackout Tuesday on Instagram, which was in support of BLM, were performative in actuality. Though this trend drew attention to the issue, it did not enact any real change. 

Companies branding a rainbow on merchandise during Pride month is another example of performative activism that has become very common. 

I believe the Pride month example may be worse than others, as those companies accumulate huge amounts of money through the merchandise they brand for Pride. At the same time, some of those companies or their CEOs are donating copious amounts of money to politicians working to diminish the rights of that community. 

These presentations of performative activism do nothing substantial for the cause they stand behind. Although organizations are mentioned in news coverage of performative protests, the main focus is on the activists doing the demonstrations. Most people won’t remember what they were throwing the soup in support of, just that these individuals threw soup on a priceless painting. 

If an organization continues to participate in performative activism stunts, it won’t make a change and could end up not being taken seriously.

It’s unfortunate that performative activism is as common as it is. This type of activism can be seen in nearly every movement in recent years due to social media. It is problematic and just takes away meaning from the true cause behind the displays. 

There are other ways to protest that draw attention, such as walkouts or sit-ins, which are completely unproblematic and historically effective. If Just Stop Oil staged a sit-in at the Van Gogh Museum and prevented profit for an entire day it would have been more impactful than throwing soup on the painting. Organizations should look for ways to draw attention to their cause without simply being performative such as these.

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