When two young activists from the climate protest group, Just Stop Oil, threw soup on Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ at the National Gallery in London, according to The Guardian, “there were gasps, roars, and a shout of ‘Oh my gosh!’”. The women asked, “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”
Art and poetry can throw light on a realm of life that is free from the narrow measures of time. This is a realm of mystery. But these days, this realm often functions differently, because of practices that seem to alienate or distance it from life. A work of art may appear to speak of life, but it takes the viewer away from it. So Van Gogh’s painting of a peasant girl’s shoe can either point us to the hard work and sufferings of peasant life or one can be captivated by the painting itself. In this regard, I recall what Malayalam writer, the late T P Sukumaran said: “With many of our cultural forms, we speak of rivers, trees and birds, and do not allow the trees, rivers and birds to speak for themselves. Our art and poetry do not take us to the tree or river. But we find the trees and rivers within their fashioned forms”.
This has to do with professionalisation of art, establishing “specialists” for cultural production. The widespread commodification of culture has created an aesthetic sensibility of its own, setting itself above the processes of life. One may ask what is wrong with this. The concern comes when we set certain engagements in life as the most honoured in a society, and they become the most coveted of all. This may result in ignoring functions that we ought to be holding dear in our life on earth.
It is in this context that I would like to look at the act of the two young climate activists at the National Gallery. Is it wise to be dismissive of the action? Can it be seen as a powerful performance, in line with the “direct action” strategy of many non-violent movements? With this strategy, if there is destruction, it is minimal and symbolic, done only to property and not intended to harm anyone. The action is intended to provoke. In the “performance” at the National Gallery too, there was no destruction. The act was intended only to draw attention to something grave. The Guardian reported, “The gallery has confirmed the painting was not harmed… the canvas of the painting is protected with a glass screen, a factor Just Stop Oil said they had taken into account.”
In the 1990s, activists of a movement in Britain called GenetiX Snowball, created to slam the brakes on the production of genetically engineered crops, regularly selected fields that grew GM seeds, informing the police and media that on a given day and time, they would destroy those crops. The group would end up destroying less than 10 square metres of the crop out of many hectares. This was a strategy adopted to generate discussion in Britain. A similar strategy was adopted by anti-globalisation activist M D Nanjundaswamy against agriculture patenting by multi-national firms.
In art practice too, there are forms that provoke and open up spaces for critical thinking, such as therukoothu in Tamil Nadu or chakyar koothu in Kerala. At one level, they provoke people to think aloud. On another level, they serve as a safety valve for people’s repressed anger and anxiety. In a democratic society, these forms serve in ways that go beyond the obvious. So to sit and reflect on them is a moral responsibility.
As long as humans exist, art will too. This is because to be make art is an inner necessity for humans. Art lives alongside our hunger, pain and joy. The journey of a creative mind is like the flowing of water. It travels in all possible ways — penetrating, soaking, filling, overflowing, refilling and travelling endlessly — and not stopping for a moment, experiencing every emotion, whether it is love, joy, agony, anger, helplessness or hope, making one capable of recognising the mystery and enchantment of the world.
The writer is a Bengaluru-based artist