The Soup and Potatoes Museum protest sparked similar shock and confusion. “Shameful Confession: I Didn’t Know Climate Change Was Caused by French Spectators” Scott Shapiro, The Yale professor said on Twitter. Conspiracy theories about the activists’ motives have emerged as both groups receive support from the Climate Emergency Fund, a non-profit organization to which oil heiress Eileen Getty and director Adam McKay are significant donors.
Stephen Duncombe, a professor at New York University and founder of the Center for Artistic Activism, a nonprofit group that trains activists, said the focus of many comments cast doubt on the effectiveness of the protest.
“Are they talking about food being wasted on art, or how carbon-based fuels are destroying life on the planet?” Dr. Duncombe said. “The message is, if activists are doing crazy things, does it help the cause or not?”
But Heather Albero, a lecturer in international sustainable development at Nottingham Trent University, says such attention-grabbing activities are all but inevitable if conventional avenues of protest are largely overshadowed. For her, targeting high-value art by targeting fossil fuels makes sense because of the relationship between wealth and the economy. “We’re at the point where we need every tool in the shed,” Dr. Albero said. “If they’re more upset about you throwing soup on the picture than the government investing in fossil fuels, that speaks volumes.”
Brian Zabic, former organizer of the New York chapter of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP, said the most violent protests have a clear connection to the targets. Civil rights protesters raised awareness of racial segregation by breaking laws. Greenpeace activists have tracked whaling ships and nuclear sites. PETA supporters put hair dye. ACT UP combated the stigma surrounding AIDS and recognized drugs as a cure through a series of high-profile disruptive actions, including mass “death walk-ins” and “kiss-ins,” marches at scientific conferences and political events with foghorns and fake blood transfusions. Anthony S., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Mr. Zabic, now an advocacy manager at the nonprofit group Save Barton Creek Association in Austin, Texas, felt linking climate change to Van Gogh was a “stretch.” Still, criticism tends to increase with more confrontational protests, and he says that’s not the best measure of success. Although ACT UP is now lauded, its tactics are often credited 30 years ago.
According to Benjamin Sovakol, a professor of earth and environment at Boston University, the most effective social movements employ sustained and intense pressure over a long period of time, and one measure of an action’s success is how much it unites or alienates people. While opposition to the museum is polarizing, he said, “at least we’re talking about it.”