Should you deface a painting to make a point?

Last week, two Just Stop Oil protestors threw soup over Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery. It provoked a mixed reaction – from hearty praise to disgusted condemnation. 

One of the protestors, Phoebe Plummer, makes an impassioned speech to the millions who will watch the footage:

“What is worth more, art or life?

Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice? 

Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?

The cost of living crisis is part of the cost of oil crisis. Fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup.”

The oil painting was protected behind glass, but the two women have been charged with criminal damage to the frame. 

There’s plenty of discussion to be had from what they ask, but rhetorical questions aren’t necessarily philosophical. So I recommend you play the clip and follow-up with these openers:

  • Why are the protestors against oil? Consider giving some context by explaining why many are against fossil fuels. Just Stop Oil are calling on the UK government to transfer immediately to more renewable sources of energy.
  • Why have they chosen to protest in this way? To get people’s attention, to mirror the fact we’re also destroying something we love – the planet. 
  • Is this kind of protest justifiable? Invite learners to share their immediate reactions. 
  • Should the protestors be treated as criminals? You could show this image of their arrest to help.

These alone will sustain discussion as many new ideas and questions will emerge organically. Below, I’ve added some further activities to push for deeper thinking. 

“What if…”

“What if…” questions help to expand the discussion and let learners see it from different angles.

Ask your class – would any of the following change your thinking…

  • The painting was behind glass, so it wasn’t harmed. What if it wasn’t behind glass, and was permanently damaged?
  • The National Gallery no longer accepts sponsorship from oil companies. However, what if it did?
  • Some criticise the Just Stop Oil movement for being too “middle-class” – comfortably off people who can afford to worry about the environment rather than about cheap energy. What if these protestors were of an indigenous tribe at risk of losing their homeland?
  • Experts claim this was Van Gogh’s favourite painting. What if a famous artist was happy to have their art defaced for this cause?

“When…?”

“When…” questions help to move the discussion from particular examples to general principles. 

  • When is a protest justifiable?
  • When is something illegal still morally right?
  • When is somewhere the wrong place to protest?

The Pro-Con Processor

The Pro-Con Processor is an activity from Thinking Moves A-Z, a book we wrote with Roger Sutcliffe on metacognition. 

Gather the reasons for and against this act of protest. Focus on one side, and ask what the strongest reason is and why. Continue ranking reasons for strongest to weakest, voting if necessary. Repeat with the other side. Children often struggle to separate strength of a reason from whether or not they agree with the conclusion it supports. It’s also good practice to help them weigh-up how good the reasons are before deciding which side they come down on. 

Get them to come up with stuff for each side if they can, but here’s some backups if needed:

Example reasons FOR:

  1. We shouldn’t be upset about art when we are facing the loss of our planet
  2. These tactics are needed to get people’s, and governments’ attention
  3. Their motives are good, therefore their actions are acceptable
  4. The painting was unharmed, so what’s the fuss?
  5. Many museums and galleries are sponsored by oil companies

Example reasons AGAINST:

  1. A cultural treasure shouldn’t be the target of oil protests
  2. This act risks turning the public against protest groups 
  3. This was reportedly Van Gogh’s favourite painting
  4. Just Stop Oil protestors benefit from oil in their daily lives
  5. It’s wrong to waste perfectly good soup during a cost of living crisis

Myth alert! There’s a conspiracy theory doing the rounds that these protestors were actors paid-for by the oil companies. There’s no evidence for it as this article explains.

A bonus, meta-philosophy question…

The clip went viral on social media and was often accompanied by people’s opinions. Does finding out about news like this make it easier to form your own opinion? Or harder?

Best wishes,

Tom and Jason

PS: If all this sunflower talk has left you drooping, listen for the humorous moment in the clip where a bystander calls for security like they’re guessing the password to their kids’ treehouse!

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