Do you actually know what activism looks like?

The hypocrisy of performative activists

On Oct. 14, activists from organization Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” painting and glued themselves to the wall in London’s National Gallery museum. This was not an isolated incident. Activists from the organization have been gluing themselves to paintings across the United Kingdom since June of this year. This incident was the only one to garner significant media attention because of its flashy tactics.

Many took to social media to complain about how this incident was ridiculous and that activist groups shouldn’t damage art in the fight for change. However, these criticisms fail to take into account the true definition of activism. Notably, the Cambridge dictionary defines activism as “the use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one.”

Throwing soup is both direct and noticeable. It also fits the other part of the definition, seeing that Just Stop Oil has a clear goal. 

“The disruption will end when the UK government makes a meaningful statement that it will end new oil and gas licenses,” Just Stop Oil member Hannah Hunt said

So if this incident fits the exact definition of activism, why are so many people upset about it? At first, many people complained that the group damaged the painting. Of course, these complaints aren’t fully justified. The painting had protective glass over it and was placed back up shortly after being cleaned. Let’s be honest for a minute: it’s a Van Gogh painting. There was little to no chance it wouldn’t have an extra layer of protection.

On social media, I witnessed the complaints after the painting was proven to be safe shift from saying that ‘we shouldn’t damage art’ to saying that ‘activism should stay in its own place.’ That is the antithesis of what activism is. If activists stayed in their place, change would never be incited. Change happens because activists go into other people’s spaces and make noise in order to spread their message.

During COVID-19’s peak, many people became ‘activists’ during a time when several influencers were treating protests like photo shoots. Now, activism is no longer a trend. It became a personality trait that many picked up for a month or two at most. Now, many are seeing what actual activism is and are appalled because it doesn’t fit the narrative they envisioned for it. They’re hypocrites, and the worst part isn’t that most of them will never see it. It’s the damage they cause as performative activists.

Performative activism exists because people want to feel good about themselves, for making a difference, when in reality they’re doing nothing. It is inherently meaningless noise that covers up actual issues. 

However, this does not mean all hope is lost. Just because these performative activists are covering up the message of the protesters, this does not mean that nobody is listening to the protesters. There are still people in the world criticizing their hypocrisy and spreading Just Stop Oil’s message.

After throwing the soup and gluing her hand to the wall, Phoebe Plummer, Just Stop Oil activist, commented on the motivations behind the event.

“What is worth more, art or life? Is it worth more than food? More than justice?” Plummer said. “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”