Just Stop Oil’s Van Gogh soup stunt is the latest streak of radical art protest by women

‘What is worth more: art or life?’ asked protesters Anna Holland and Phoebe Plummer this month in an echo of the suffragette who slashed Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus

“You can get another picture, but you cannot get a life, as they are killing Mrs Pankhurst.” These were the words of Mary Richardson who, on 10 March 1914, walked into London’s National Gallery and slashed, with a meat chopper, Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus (1647–51). Smashing through the glass, she scarred several times Velázquez’s idealised nude in protest of the re-arrest of British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Richardson was subsequently sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.

This type of protest – and Richardson’s words – resonated this month when Anna Holland and Phoebe Plummer, part of the Just Stop Oil protest group, made headlines across the world by throwing a tin of soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888). Glueing themselves to the wall of London’s National Gallery, they announced: “What is worth more: art or life? Is it worth more than … justice?”

Think what you like about the stunt – even Plummer agreed, “it is ridiculous”. Ultimately, it worked for grabbing attention and sparking conversation, she goes on, “so we can ask the questions that matter”. Margaret Klein Salamon, executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund, which bankrolls Just Stop Oil, confirmed : “In terms of press coverage, the Van Gogh protest may be the most successful action I’ve seen in the last eight years in the climate movement. It was a breakthrough.”

For centuries, activists have used art as a form of protest, and a way to get noticed. As Holland pointed out in an interview with Frieze : “We take inspiration from the civil rights movement, the suffragettes, the queer movement … Our method of just throwing soup at the glass is a less violent gesture than that, but I like to think just as attention-grabbing.”

Interacting with artworks and institutions is an effective way of sparking attention and controversy, and actuating change. There is power in both: they have the ability to alter the status quo. Institutions, with their role as leading cultural centres of the world, are places where debates of all sorts should happen. A recent example is Nan Goldin’s successful campaign Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (Pain), which brought worldwide attention to the corruption behind the OxyContin crisis, and saw hundreds of cultural organisations drop their associations with the Sackler name.

Artworks, similarly, can reflect or be catalysts for change. Although it might not seem radical now, Van Gogh’s paintings – and the style in which he worked, drawing on the impressionists – were deemed severely controversial by the establishment when they were first produced. They went on to be enormously influential in the development of modern art.

But the power of an artwork is also its ability to live on through different times, and speak to various generations and cultures. Whereas the symbol of sunflowers meant something else to Van Gogh in the 1880s, today they can represent the dying out of crops and, as the Just Stop Oil protesters remind us, how “we’ve seen 33 million people in Pakistan displaced by apocalyptic floods, 36 million have had their lives absolutely ruined by the famines in east Africa”. Holland continues, “Yet, all it took was two young people to throw soup at a painting to get people talking more”. This makes us question, as a society, do we value painted ones more than real ones, real ones that will enable our planet to survive?

Images – and recognisable ones – have the power to speak to the masses and make messages accessible. One of the most effective artist-activists in recent times is the Guerrilla Girls, who formed in 1985 after MoMA failed to include more than 17 women and eight artists of colour (out of 169 artists) in a major survey exhibition on painting and sculpture.

To protest their outrage, they took to the streets, anonymously and throughout the night, “because they were free” – free in the monetary value, and free from the patriarchy-ridden museums. With bold, loud graphics and text emblazoned with shocking statistics, they exposed the truth about the lack of equality in institutions by pasting posters on walls next to museums to shock and preach truth to the public.

Disruptive from the get-go, as they once told me, “Women artists were excited and empowered, and everyone else was really pissed off!” (See, no change is without controversy). They rightly targeted institutions considering, as asked in their 1985 poster, How Many Women Artists Had One-Person Exhibitions in NYC Art Museums Last Year? , they found that none had had exhibitions at the Guggenheim, the Met or the Whitney, and just one at the Modern (now MoMA).

Most famously, they questioned the abundance of nude female bodies versus the female artists on view at the Met. Placing a gorilla mask on Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque (1814) they concluded that, “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” Revisiting the statistics in 2012, they found that little had improved: “Less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 76 % of the nudes are female.”

As with the soup incident, it might be ridiculous to place a gorilla mask on La Grande Odalisque – an idealised nude not dissimilar from the Rokeby Venus slashed by Richardson – but by using an identifiable image, or something that is “beautiful and valued”, both were able to keep in the public’s mind and draw attention to, as Plummer said, “the questions that matter”.