BYU students discuss the climate change protests targeting famous paintings

Handout photo issued by Just Stop Oil of two protesters who have thrown tinned soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s famous 1888 work Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London, Friday Oct. 14, 2022. The group Just Stop Oil, which wants the British government to halt new oil and gas projects, said activists dumped two cans of Heinz tomato soup over the oil painting on Friday. London’s Metropolitan Police said officers arrested two people on suspicion of criminal damage and aggravated trespass. (Just Stop Oil via AP)

Students from environmental clubs on campus shared their thoughts on environmental activists staging protests at famous paintings throughout Europe over the past several months.

Environmental groups Just Stop Oil and Last Generation glued themselves to paintings or threw food in art museums in Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom. The movement went viral in May when a man disguised as an old woman in a wheel chair smeared a pie across the “Mona Lisa.”

BYU professor Scott Church was in line to see the “Mona Lisa” when the incident occurred and recounted standing in line at the Louvre museum when someone lunged towards the painting.

“I was about 50 feet away and what I saw was someone lunging from the front of the line onto the platform in front of it and smashing what looked like a whipped cream pie all over the ‘Mona Lisa’ painting and I was totally stunned, I didn’t know what to think,” Church said.

Scott Church shares his first hand account of seeing a protestor smash a pie on the “Mona Lisa.” Environmental activists have been staging protests at artwork throughout Europe. (Robyn Christensen)

Since the “Mona Lisa” incident in May, activists from the United Kingdom-based group Just Stop Oil protested by gluing themselves to paintings in galleries throughout London such as “The Last Supper” at the Royal Academy, a Constable at the National Gallery and a Vincent van Gogh painting at the Courtauld Gallery. The Just Stop Oil website says they demand the U.K. government “immediately halt all future licensing and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK.”

Activists shared a video on Oct. 14 of two individuals throwing tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” Another video was shared on YouTube of the activist’s explanation for the stunt, in which she acknowledges it is “ridiculous.” All of the protesters share the same sentiment in their press releases of asking the question of what is more important, this artwork or people’s lives?

A week after the tomato soup protest, Last Generation activists threw mashed potatoes at Claude Monet’s “Grainstacks,” and speaker of the Last Generation Aimée van Baalen shared in their statement, “Monet loved nature and captured its unique and fragile beauty in his works. How is it that so many are more afraid of damaging one of these images of reality than of the destruction of our world itself, the magic of which Monet admired so much?”

Similar to Just Stop Oil, Last Generation is a Germany-based group and lists their demands on their website as a speed limit of 100 km/h on German autobahns and a permanent 9-euro ticket on railways to lower carbon emissions.

Just Stop Oil and Last Generation are among several environmental groups funded by the Climate Emergency Fund, which gives grants to activist groups and trains individuals on protesting for climate change. Their website says that since their founding in 2019, they have funded 91 organizations, trained over 22,000 climate activists and engaged 9 million people.

At BYU, several organizations advocate for environmental awareness and sustainability including a BYU Student Sustainability Initiative, an Earth Stewardship Club, an Environmental Science Club and the BYU Sustainability Office. Additionally, a new class was added in fall of 2022 to the Plants and Wildlife Science Department called Climate Change: Science and Solutions.

BYU student Shannon Lambson is an environmental science and sustainability major and helps run a campaign with an organization called LDS Earth Stewardship. The campaign is called Y-Talk and is a survey that gives students a place to talk about climate change so there is tangible evidence for universities and institutions to view what students think about the environment and sustainability.

Lambson said the art demonstrations are a “representation of the desperation that people feel about the climate.” In a situation that is getting progressively worse, she said it seems like people do not feel heard by governments and institutions.

BYU student Chad Hyer runs a non-profit glass recycling service in Provo called Glass Roots Recycling. He places bins in various spots around Provo where people can drop off their glass products for free and he will recycle them. He has also started a petition to bring glass recycling to Kiwanis Park and Provo City Library.

In terms of the art protests, Hyer said he does not agree with their methods because they shed a bad light on climate activism. However, he said he does think climate change poses the greatest physical and economic threat to the United States and the world.

“It directly impacts the health, economic wellbeing and interests of every person in the world. Furthermore, it is our sacred responsibility as stewards of the earth to protect the environment,” he said.

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