Defiling paintings in museums as a way to protest against climate change. Throwing tomato soup at van Gogh’s sunflowers and liquified mashed potatoes at a Monet’s grainstacks. Smearing cake on the Mona Lisa. How is that going to help the cause? Either the idea is only to get our attention, something which seems to be successful based on all the notice they get in the media, or it is to make us stop and think about what we value more: real nature or depictions of nature. Is it reasonable to get upset at the destruction of a painting of nature while looking away from the destruction of nature itself? This idea is not without merit, but it relies on the hope that people will actually stop and make that conclusion rather than emotionally react to an act they find deplorable.
According to Plato, a picture is a representation of a representation. The physical world, after all, is a mere representation of the eternal forms, or ideas. To value a painting of a flower more than an actual flower therefore is to get our priorities wrong. On the reality hierarchy, a painting is about as low as we can get, like shadows on a wall. But looking at it differently, is not a depiction more ideal than the nature it depicts? If it is not a perfect copy but an artistic interpretation, it is born from the imagination of the artist. Sprung from the mind, it is in direct contact with the forms themselves. To defile a painting, then, is to break the connection with the ideas, to invalidate them on behalf of physical reality.
They want to save the nature, but why should nature be saved in the first place? If we really care for the planet it would be better to make ourselves extinct, to just disappear and leave it alone. But they do not propose this, so the reason must be to preserve an environment where we can survive. Survival is not enough, however, we have other needs. Otherwise we could always inject sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere to dim the sun’s rays, so-called solar-engineering. The temperature would cool, but the sky would also be a pallid veil of white. No more sun. No more blue sky. No more stars. Do we want to live like that? If not, we need a world with its beauty preserved as well as its resources.
To destroy art, then, seems rather contradictory, as far as sending messages go. If we cannot be allowed to create as well as behold art we rid ourselves of a fundamental aspect of what makes us what we are. Some years back, a theatre group was ridiculed for putting on a show in a refugee camp. These refugees, the critics claimed, need food and medicine, not Shakespeare. However, one of the refugees said that indeed, we need food and medicine, but so do horses. When you bring us culture you remind us that we are humans, not animals. These protesters with their mashed potatoes, their cake and tomato soup, are they actually trying to reduce us to animals? Without even realising that that is what they are doing?
To attack art is to work on the basis of negativity rather than positivity, to choose destruction before creation: contradictory since preservation of the world is their aim. That they alienate the general public should not come as a surprise. Art is a manifestation of our aesthetic mind as well as our creational powers, and to destroy it is to belittle these fundamental human qualities. Putting nature before art is instrumental, it is to focus solely on survival and to reduce us to mere functionality. We would be saving an ecosystem just for the sake of saving an ecosystem, something which would in any case be more efficiently done if we all committed suicide and left the planet to its own devices. What is the point of carrying on if beauty is no longer important, only the survival of the species? Aside from order, the word cosmos has a secondary sense of ornament and decoration, related to cosmetics. As well as ordered, the world is decorated and beautiful, so why destroy our attempts to express admiration for it? This negation of the importance of aesthetics is what is currently making this whole movement so ugly and unappetising in its reductionism, despite its worthy cause.