German climate activists are “taking works of art hostage” – DW – 05/11/2022
Earlier this week in Berlin, a cyclist was declared brain dead after an ambulance failed to reach her in time. Berlin police blamed the delay on a traffic jam caused by a roadblock by protesters from the group Last Generation. The police filed a complaint against two of its activists for failure to provide assistance and obstruction of those providing assistance.
The group denied any responsibility and strongly criticized the coverage of the controversy. “We didn’t expect an entire media system to turn against us,” the group said in a statement posted in German on its website. November 4.
Activists said they faced a “surge of accusations, untruths and hatred” and pointed out that the accident happened several kilometers from the place of the demonstration. They also said they notified police of the protest, requested the diversion of emergency vehicles and left enough room for an emergency lane. Last Generation, or Letzte Generation in German, is associated with Just Stop Oil in the UK, Declare Emergency in the US, Denierere Renovation in France and other climate change protest groups.
According to local media outlet Bayerischer Rundfunk, Last Generation activist Henning Jeschke said the group was deeply saddened by news of the cyclist’s accident but will continue their protests.
“As long as our highest political authorities go against the constitution, as long as they destroy our lives, we will resist peacefully,” Jeschke said.
Bringing attention to climate change
In recent weeks, climate activists have protested not only on the streets of Europe but also in its museums, defacing famous paintings in London, Paris, The Hague and Berlin with mashed potatoes, soup with tomatoes and red paint. None of the paintings were permanently damaged as all had been covered in plastic or glass.
The German Art History Association issued a statement last week calling on activists to stop attacking cultural artefacts, calling protecting works of art an “obligation to future generations” for which works are preserved.
On October 23, climate activists threw mashed potatoes on Claude Monet’s famous “Haystack” painting at the Barberini Museum in Potsdam, near Berlin. At the National Gallery in London, Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ was attacked with a can of soup 10 days earlier by Just Stop Oil activists. There was also an attack in The Hague against “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer and against a dinosaur skeleton in the Museum of Natural History in Berlin. At the Louvre in Paris, a visitor smeared cake on one of the world’s most famous paintings, Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’.
Why target works of art?
The younger generation, to which many climate activists belong, grew up with social media and is therefore aware of the power of images, explains Kerstin Thomas, professor of art history at the University of Stuttgart.
“At the German Art History Association, we sympathize with the aims of activists,” says Thomas, in her role as president of this association. “However, we cannot support their means of protest in museums. Works of art are held hostage in a battle with which they have nothing to do.” The works attacked, she says, were not responsible for the climate crisis, nor glorified it nor fueled it.
Works of art and monuments have always been the target of political protest. For example in 16th century Europe, when Protestants destroyed religious works of art in Catholic churches because they thought they would harm the Christian faith.
Challenging power dynamics
“Monuments have also been common targets in the past,” Thomas told DW. Two recent examples include the toppling of Soviet statues in the Baltic states following the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the removal of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in the UK.
But recent protests by climate activists in museums are of a different nature, she said. The purpose of monuments and statues is to express power, she explains. Protests against them are protests against the power they represent, for example against empire and colonialism, or against the regime of the former Soviet Union.
This is not the case with the climate crisis and the paintings recently targeted by activists, argued Thomas. “Images themselves do not embody power,” she said. “They are not responsible for the climate crisis.”
Monet’s “Haystack” is not an expression of the power of the oil companies, any more than van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”.
But climate activists argue that if the planet perishes there will be no more art, so saving the planet comes before protecting images. They also insist that they only target the frames and glass protecting the paintings.
Is one window enough?
There too, Kerstin Thomas does not agree with them because “a frame or a base also belongs to the work of art and its history”.
It is the mission of museums to preserve all this for the future. “It’s about preserving our cultural heritage in a way that future generations can still benefit from it.”
Also, the panes do not hermetically seal the artwork from outside influences, she explained. Tomato soup contains a lot of acid and could definitely damage a piece of art. “If you attack a work of art, you gladly agree to damage it.”
After a wave of attacks, the German Art History Association fears that this method of protest may become commonplace and may even begin to be seen as acceptable. “It would be wrong if such actions were to stand out as a legitimate form of protest,” Thomas said.
Climate protests in museums have already resulted in at least one unrelated copycat attack. In Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie, a woman threw artificial blood at Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec’s painting “Clown” on October 30. She then told the police that she wanted to protest for more democracy in Germany.
Meanwhile, many European museums have tightened security measures to prevent further attacks on valuable artifacts. Until further notice, visitors to Berlin’s museums will only be admitted to the exhibition spaces after checking their jackets and bags in the cloakroom or leaving them in lockers. This also applies to the neighboring city of Potsdam.
Other museums like the National Gallery in London, the British Museum and the Louvre have also said their security measures are under constant review. However, they do not wish to discuss it publicly in order to better protect their artwork.