Culture Wars/Current Controversies

On the Loony Van Gogh Protests

We were warned about this in Fahrenheit 451

I happened to be rereading Fahrenheit 451 when news arrived that a pair of protesters from a climate action group called “Just Stop Oil” hurled tomato soup at Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London. A spokesperson for the group, Mel Carrington, was quoted in the New York Times saying the choice of art was irrelevant, since the only thing important about “Sunflowers” was that it was famous, “an iconic painting, by an iconic painter.” On the other hand, the choice of Heinz Cream of Tomato was more “symbolic,” because some can’t afford to heat up a tin of soup.

These protests are crazy and at least little bit scary. Maybe, more than a little!

The Van Gogh stunt is part of a wider campaign involving activists gluing themselves to works like Massacre of the Innocents by Rubens, Botticelli’s Primavera, and the Vatican sculpture Laocoön and His Sons. The actions are backed by California’s Climate Emergency Fund, whose founding donor is Aileen Getty, granddaughter of J. Paul. Insofar as these actions have a point, it’s to ask: why are people “more concerned about the protection of a painting” than “the protection of our planet and people?” “Sunflowers” was covered by a glaze designed to protect paintings from cracks, wrinkles, and sunlight, the group claimed it knew this. Much has been made, including in the oddly approving Times piece, of “Sunflowers” being “unharmed” except for “minor damage to the frame.”

Fahrenheit 451, much like 1984, We, and Brave New World, was a warning about a future in which basic human instincts for love, kindness, and decency are obliterated by utopian politics. Written variously in response to mass movements like Nazism, Stalinism, and the Red Scare, the dystopian novels all contain the same themes, one of which is a future where people aren’t merely indifferent to art but hate and fear it, to the point of taking pride in destroying it (and liquidating its admirers). Another theme is indoctrinating the very young and still another is the ritualized assault on familial or sexual love, with the craving for connection replaced by substitute “families” supplied by the state.

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