The Association of Art Museum Directors, a prominent museum group that includes many of the most important art institutions in the U.S. and Canada, released a statement speaking out against climate activists’ recent protests in Europe, which have sometimes involved flinging liquids at artworks.
These protests have taken place at a range of widely visited institutions, from the Uffizi Galleries in Florence to the Royal Academy in the Hague. The U.K.-based group Just Stop Oil has led a number of them, with other activists and coalitions following their lead.
In many cases, the activists have glued themselves to the frames of hallowed artworks or to the walls nearby them.
Yet their actions have escalated somewhat in recent weeks, with Just Stop Oil protestors hurling tomato soup at a van Gogh still life at the National Gallery in London, Letzte Generation members throwing mashed potatoes at a Monet landscape at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany, and a Belgian demonstrator attempting to glue his head to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis in the Hague.
The AAMD mentioned none of this in its statement, but given the amount of attention these last three protests have garnered, it was unmistakably the unsaid reference point when the industry group addressed the “recent attacks on works of art in art museums.”
“This Association has always been clear that attacks on works of art cannot be justified, whether the motivations are political, religious, or cultural,” the AAMD said in its statement. “Art crosses boundaries of time and place to underscore the creativity that people everywhere have expressed, and they represent our shared humanity.”
The statement continued, “Attacking art for any purpose undermines those common bonds. Such protests are misdirected, and the ends do not justify the means.”
There have been no protests of the sort led by Just Stop Oil in the U.S. so far, and this may explain why the AAMD is among the first major art-related entities in the country to speak out on these events.
Abroad, however, authorities have begun to crack down on the protestors in attempt to halt future actions. German museum associations have fiercely decried the protests that have taken place in institutions there, Berlin’s state-run museums forbid visitors from bringing bags into their galleries to avoid potential damage.
Meanwhile, a court in the Netherlands sentenced the activist who targeted the Vermeer, along with another who aided him, to two months in prison.
Many of the protestors who undertook these actions have been explicit about not wanting to damage the artworks themselves, and indeed, in nearly every cases, the paintings and sculptures have emerged unscathed. Their goal, they have said, is to raise awareness for a slowness on the part of certain countries’ governments to respond to the current climate crisis.
Still, these actions have aroused a number of strong responses. The art critic Jerry Saltz compared Just Stop Oil’s van Gogh protest to the Taliban, then apologized for it. Andreas Malm, an academic who has said that the destruction of property is necessary to underlining the urgency of climate change, wrote a New York Times op-ed in which he said Just Stop Oil’s tactics may be needed. The conservative pundit Ben Shapiro reposted video of the van Gogh protest on his Twitter, and sardonically wrote, “You guys saved the earth.”