Column | Activists succeed in attracting attention. But with what effect?

With a good dose of goodwill, you could see an iconoclastic art performance with a reference to Andy Warhol: two young women threw Heinz tomato soup on sunflowers van Gogh to draw attention to environmental pollution from an oil company. Just Stop Oil’s climate activists want the UK government to stop all new gas and oil drilling. They know how the attention economy works: do something across borders, film it, put it on social media and you will be rewarded with attention.

To my horror, talk shows responded rather laconically: ‘the duo on duty’ it Khalid and Sophie reviewed today’s news, thought the young girls were cute, and yes, if one generation ruins it for another, that’s what you can expect. My heart bled: I see art destruction as a barbaric act – Taliban destroying statues. The artwork was behind glass, but the frame appeared to be damaged.

If the older generation had failed, it was mainly because ‘we’ apparently failed to teach this younger generation the real value of art. Artists are your allies in the fight against climate change, not your enemy. Art can actually make you aware of the climate crisis – think of every winter ice scene by Hendrick van Avercamp now laughing painfully at us.

The campaign also raised the question of how far you can go to raise awareness of your activist cause. From upside-down flags to cropped locks, there’s been a lot going on lately.

From a legal point of view, the question is easy to answer: it is not allowed to destroy public property. The Just Stop Oil activists must therefore be held accountable to the judge. More difficult is the question of the effectiveness of the protests. By anointing a Van Gogh, the activists gained maximum attention – this is where I first heard about Just Stop Oil. But the protest action aroused little sympathy in me, all the more so as the activists shouted: ‘What is worth more, art or life? Is it worth more than food? More than justice? Are you more concerned with protecting a work of art or protecting our planet and its people?” On social media, the activists’ aggression became the topic of conversation rather than climate pollution from companies and the government. If the eyes go off the ball to the players, is the action still effective?

Something similar also happened with the activist cutting of tufts of hair to draw attention to the situation of women in Iran. What was initially an effective social media strategy to draw global attention to the death of Iranian woman Mahsa Amini turned into a discussion about hashtag hijacking and whether cutting a lock of hair was free or about those who did it themselves sometimes did it. wanted to be the center of attention.

Too bad, because I found the lock a strong symbolic act of awareness (no more than that, the ayatollahs won’t lose sleep over it) where you don’t harm others or other people’s property, but you keep repeating Amini’s name. In short: a typical social media campaign according to the laws of the attention economy.

My mood also changed when Frits Wester handed Sigrid Kaag the scissors in front of the camera. Forcing activism on anyone is abhorrent. For me, this also applies to the peremptory request that football players wear rainbow armbands. As much as gay liberation is necessary in football, I find it uncomfortable when people are put in a position where they are forced into ideological activism. That does not change the fact that the responsibility of the rejecting Feyenoord captain Kökcü – his faith prevented him from it – was extremely painful.

Ironically, the attention economy works in such a way that negativity and hate also generate attention. Kökcü’s ‘no’ makes a great contribution to further awareness of gay emancipation: articles about the chants have appeared, which made it clear that, unfortunately, there is still much work to be done to tackle discrimination.

You can also say something similar about the Van Gogh damage from environmentalists. With the exception of a few talk show guests, I have heard many people express their horror at the actions of Just Stop Oil. Rarely seen so many impassioned pleas for the value, power and comfort of art sunflowers in particular. I wanted to see them, go to a museum, cherish art.

Stine Jensen is a philosopher and writer. She writes a column here every other week.

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