Is attacking art for climate action ‘vandalism’?: Experts explain

Instead of focusing on regular reports or meetings, these days, international media outlets have been covering the issue of climate change by highlighting the "unorthodox" actions of activists.

Many young activists from groups like Extinction Rebellion, Last Renewal, Just Stop Oil, and Last Generation not only blocks roads or pipelines but also "attack" works of art at museums and galleries across Europe.

Asked why they shifted tactics, many have defended their actions by saying they tried many other things such as petition campaigns or regular meetings, to no avail.

These types of actions have also become more popular as a result of the weak and insufficient outcomes of international talks, such as the COP meetings as climate change and related extreme weather events continue to batter parts of the world, such as the recent devastating floods in Pakistan.

But, there continue to be mixed reactions as some stand with these activists in their "cause," while others think attacking works of art amounts to "vandalism" regardless of the purpose.

Anadolu Agency spoke with three experts from different fields to understand the motivation behind such actions and whether the protests can be defined as "vandalism."

Antipathy towards climate change

Levent Kurnaz, a professor at Bogazici University's Center for Climate Change and Policy Studies in Istanbul, said he doesn't agree with the notion that "there's no such thing as bad publicity."

He said activists should consider whether their actions build a positive public awareness on addressing the climate crisis, or not.

Levent Kurnaz, professor at Bogazici University's Center for Climate Change and Policy Studies

"I think that such actions create antipathy in (people's) minds rather than sympathy," said Kurnaz, referring to recent protests at museums and art galleries.

However, he was not inclined to link these actions with "vandalism" and rather said they were ineffective in reaching their goal of public climate awareness.

Climate change still is not a major concern for many people, he said, pointed out that it only became an important issue for the public in the wake of large-scale climate-related disasters.

"We have to be wiser in telling people that the climate crisis is a more important problem than (their) daily routines," added Kurnaz.

Attacking works of art 'not new phenomenon'

Mentioning the high value given to art in Europe, Engin Beksac, head of the Art History Department at Trakya University in northwestern Türkiye, said it was one of the reasons why acts of climate protest have been directed at renowned portraits, providing a channel of "direct communication" with the public and wide media coverage.

"Although destroying works of art is not right, the discourse of those who carried out these protests is also an urgent issue," he said.

Engin Beksac, head of the Art History Department at Trakya University

Beksac also called attention to the fact that these protests targeted works of art that were behind protective coverings, thus not causing them permanent damage. So, he argued, they did not meet the definition of vandalism.

"We need to know that these works of art are under protection. There is not a direct attack."

Noting that attacking works of art is not a new phenomenon as there have always been such acts throughout history such as in 1972 against the Pieta, sculpted by Michelangelo, he stressed that the climate protests today were just using a prominent object as a tool of communication to spread a message.

Beksac claimed that these actions do not lessen the value of art in people's eyes. Rather, he said, the resulting media coverage could even serve to inform the public about works that many may be unfamiliar with.

While noting that another thing these protests have shown is the insufficient protection of museums or galleries that house valuable artworks, he cautioned that in the future, others could also resort to attacking art to convey their own message and that the current trend risked getting out of hand.

Role of digital-native Gen Z

Vehbi Bayhan, a social psychology expert at Inonu University in eastern Türkiye, said there was also a "generational" factor in the painting protests, in which most of the activists taking part were from the younger generation.

Defining those born between 2001 and 2020 as Generation Z, he said most of this group are "digital natives," born into the age of the Internet and social media, which are now at the heart of their lives.

"So, they're more of a global generation. They can communicate better with their peers across the world through social media and they live the global culture," he said, adding that this is why they are sensitive to global problems such as climate change, the environment, and animal issues.

Vehbi Bayhan, social psychology expert at Inonu University

This generation is similar to the young people that took to Europe's streets in the 1968 wave of protests, added Bayhan, who has done various studies on generations.

However, he said, differences in gender, religion, ethnicity, location, and the level of development in countries also have an effect on the characteristics of human generations, so it is not possible to generalize completely.

"Adolescent and young generations want to express themselves in some way ... Their main concern is to make their voices heard. They have seen that this form of protest is getting more media coverage."

However, Bayhan warned of the risk of environmental movements losing sight of their main purpose and becoming a "trend."

"I think they want attention. I see their actions as a 'scream (for attention).' Visibility, attention-grabbing, reactivity. In fact, they do this by using works of art as tools," he added.

Source: Anadolu Agency