On Soupgate and the limits of spectacle-based activism

In 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson of the Women’s Social and Political Union took a meat cleaver into London’s National Gallery and hacked six times at Velázquez’s The Toilet of Venus. According to a newspaper report published the next day, Venus suffered injuries including ‘a cruel wound in the neck’ and ‘a broad laceration starting near the left shoulder.’ As she was being hauled away, Richardson explained that she was protesting against the incarceration of union founder Emmeline Pankhurst.

The Toilet of Venus attack wasn’t the first time members of the women’s suffrage movement had targeted high-profile works of art. In 1913, a group of women with hammers had smashed the glass protecting thirteen paintings by Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian masters in the Manchester Museum of Art in a protest also directed at the British legal system’s treatment of Pankhurst.

I raise the subject more than a century after the fact because I think there are some interesting parallels—as well as important differences, which I’ll come to—between the suffragettes’ vandalism of art and the recent spate of fossil fuel protests targeting famous works of art. Most recently, climate activists from Extinction Rebellion (XR) glued their hands to a Picasso painting at the National Gallery of Victoria and two members of Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup over van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the same gallery where Richardson had wielded her cleaver against ‘the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history.’

The Just Stop Oil action in particular set social media alight, much of the resulting discourse mocking, condemnatory, or simply expressing confusion. A -gate suffix was quickly coined, as the merits of the protest were vigorously contested. While much of the criticism was based on the mistaken belief that Sunflowers had been damaged—unlike The Toilet of Venus, it was protected by glass, and back on display in a matter of hours—some was more nuanced, raising important questions about the effectiveness of what we might usefully think of as spectacle-based activism.

It isn’t difficult to rebut uninformed criticisms of the tactics and aims of civil disobedience and direct action movements, and, occasionally but not always as a spokesperson for XR, I’ve done so many times, including here, here, and here. Unsurprisingly, many of the critiques I’ve responded to in the past have emerged from the climate denialist right. Rather than rehearse those arguments at length here, though, I want to explore objections to the gallery protests not from the usual reactionary quarters, but from the left.

One of the most common progressivist takes on Soupgate went something like this: such actions are not only unproductive but counterproductive, turning people off the cause and alienating natural allies in the fight against the fossil fuel industry. This is of course debatable—there is some evidence that, contrary to this view, activists who employ unpopular tactics can increase support for other groups within the same movement—but let’s stick with the lesser charge that protests of the kind being discussed here are ineffective.

One of the perennial problems of activism is how to evaluate the success of a particular action, the aims of which might be highly localised and relatively achievable—protecting a tree from felling, stopping the construction of a block of flats—but are just as likely to be amorphous or multivalent (like shutting down global carbon capital). On the other hand, media attention is relatively simple to quantify. Many is the time I’ve sat in an XR debriefing where the only external measure of an action’s success we can point to is that a reporter or cameraperson showed up, or that a radio station called the spokesperson to request an interview. XR spokesperson Catherine Strong put it this way in an article on the NGV protest: ‘Keeping climate in the public eye in any form is a win’.

No doubt the mainstream media’s underreporting of climate change, as well as its platforming of denialists in the name of specious ‘balance’, has done the cause of climate action no favours over the years. But it seems misguided at best to assume that media amplification of climate messaging, no matter how carefully crafted to shock or persuade, is an unalloyed good that will have the effect of mobilising significant numbers of previously unaware or apathetic people to take action.

Such a view is also a sign of a set of wider cultural problems that some critics of the soup action were right to draw attention to. I saw many critiques of the Just Stop Oil activists—two white women in their twenties from, I suppose, more or less privileged backgrounds—that accused them of practicing an isolated, purely attention-seeking form of activism devoid of context and adrift from community, and even of undermining Indigenous-led climate movements. I’m not convinced the second charge holds—notwithstanding the well-documented race and class blindspots of groups like XR (or, come to think of it, the suffragettes), I don’t see why the one should debase the other—but the first is worth some consideration, albeit perhaps not for the reasons some critics suggested.

It hardly seems fair, given the socially atomising effects of neoliberal capitalism, to indict the Just Stop Oil activists for having a seemingly weak relationship to organising. These are, after all, young women who have come of age in a time of precarious employment, unaffordable housing, epidemical depression and anxiety, and the triumph of a socio-political paradigm centred on individuals and families rather than communities (‘there is no such thing as society’). I have no doubt that they are desperate, or that their alienation from the kinds of human and non-human kinships that have sustained environmentalist movements in the past has compounded their desperation.

I think, if these speculations aren’t too far wide of the mark, that the proper response to the soup protesters isn’t to deride their actions, but to decry the system that brought them about. Of relevance here is the curious double-standard by which many leftists insist that most problems are structural, systemic, institutional etc. while reserving at all times the right to pillory individuals for failing to measure up to some set of (probably unstated) moral or intellectual standards.

We should not forget either that the gallery actions took place in a global context of increasingly draconian crackdowns on climate activism, which have seen law enforcement agencies in both Australia and the UK granted evermore counter-terrorism-like powers to fine and jail non-violent protesters. As more and more laws come into force that in name or effect criminalise protest activity—at the heart of which has historically been organising—you can be sure that smaller, more individualised actions will proliferate.

At the same time, I don’t think all of the criticisms levelled at the Just Stop Oil protestors have been unwarranted. Richardson’s choice of Velázquez’s Venus as the target of her protest was not predicated on its recognisability, but rather the painting’s depiction of, as Victoria Ibbett has written, ‘a nude that had long been held up as the epitome of feminine beauty.’ For Richardson, Pankhurst was by comparison ‘the most beautiful character in modern history,’ one whose life she valued over the worth of a mere representation of beauty. By contrast, the targeting of van Gogh’s flowers struck many as entirely arbitrary, reducing the painting to a kind of floating, and ultimately perplexing, signifier (the NGV protestors did attempt to link Picasso’s ‘Massacre in Korea’ to the relationship between the climate crisis and war, but that seems even more of a stretch than hitching Pankhurst to Venus).

Still, as Andreas Malm writes in How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2021),

There was a randomness to the property destruction undertaken by the suffragettes, which wouldn’t do now; if activists from the climate movement were to attack post offices and tea shops and theatres, investors would not be dissuaded from anything in particular. It would have to be coal wharfs and steam yachts only this time. But just as the suffragettes sought to twist the arm of the state—on their own, they could not legislate any voting rights—the aim would be to force states to proclaim the prohibition [on CO2-emitting property] and begin retiring the stock.

On Twitter, Jim Malo pointed to Malm’s book as a guide to how to ‘destroy property and fight the climate crisis in a more direct way’. Perhaps it’s too much to expect a couple of inner-city twenty-somethings raised on activist performance art to seek out and sabotage oil and gas infrastructure, but I don’t think he is wrong.

Ultimately, I wonder if actions that simply raise awareness, no matter how superficially edgy, are actually more centrist than radical, causing minimal disruption to the carbon-captured political and economic status quo, and leaving untouched the machineries of the global fossil fuel order. In this sense, Soupgate feels less like a revival of the revolutionary politics Malm calls for than a part of their ongoing demise. If our response to climate change is to be equal to the scale of the crisis we face, then the shift we require is not in the consciousness of the public, but in the movement’s willingness, as Malm puts it, to embrace resistance over protest. ‘When suffragettes broke panes, torched letterboxes, and hammered on paintings,’ he writes, ‘these things had, in and of themselves, at most a tangential relation to the problem of male monopoly on the vote. Now the machines of the fossil economy are the problem.’

As I write these words, XR South Australia is blockading the Asia Pacific Oil and Gas Conference on Kaurna Country at the Adelaide Convention Centre. The aim is not to draw attention to the conference, but to shut it down. This means blocking entrances with bodies, drowning out presenters with noise, and making it difficult or impossible for delegates to go about their business as usual. An industry conference is, to be sure, a few steps removed from the oil pipelines, coal trains, and SUVs that Malm would have us disable or destroy, but its shutting down would be more than symbolic; it would strike a blow against the industry’s confidence that it can perpetuate itself without meeting the kind of resistance that, if sufficiently strong and sustained, stands as good a chance as anything else of fatally spooking its financial and political backers. Who knows if it will work, but on the first day of the blockade I got a message from a friend: ‘I just went to my first XR action.’

Image: A detail of the cuts made by Mary Richardson in Velazquez’s The Toilet of Venus

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

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