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Just Stop Art? 'Just Stop Oil' And Rousseau's Flawed Nature-Culture Divide

In the last few weeks, the Just Stop Oil protests have been catapulted to global attention by soiling art masterpieces in the name of environmental protection. But their choice of target says just as much about their view of art as their view of oil.

Photo of Just Stop Oil activists after splashing tomato soup across Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

Just Stop Oil activists after splashing tomato soup across Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

Gaspard Koenig


PARIS — In a matter of weeks, tomato sauce splashed across Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, mashed potatoes covered Monet’s Haystacks, and human hands were firmly stuck on Picasso’s Massacre in Korea.

The climate activists who performed those striking actions are part of a global collective. "Just Stop Oil" is the name of their branch in the UK; "Letzsche Generation" in Germany; "Fireproof" in Australia; or "Dernière rénovation" in France. They object to their governments’ climate inaction and, more generally, society’s inaction.

Despite all my efforts, as a progressive and eco-anxious citizen, I still couldn’t come to celebrate their protests. Of course, it was all symbolic because the paintings were glass-covered and well protected. And yet why do I still find all of this objectionable?

Have I already fallen out of touch? How can we explain the discomfort felt when we see those masterpieces being soiled?

A generation more mature than its elders

Is it their message that I find displeasing? I really don’t think so. Raising awareness on climate issues is more necessary today than ever. In the last few days, a WWF report stated that 70% of the wild animal population disappeared in the last 50 years; a CNRS study predicted that global warming in France was going to be worse than expected; and the UN Secretary-General warned of a current "planetary catastrophe."

And yet, as if this is not happening, people keep exploiting new gas fields in South Africa; they keep constructing giant basins for irrigation; and they organize bobsleigh contests in the middle of the desert.

Political conquests always began with provocative acts that are barely legal

So the young rebels appear, surprisingly, much more reasonable than those adults who continue with their self-destructing actions, wearing suits and ties. The activists' protests are based on scientific arguments and moderate demands ("Just Stop Oil" is not asking for the destruction of capitalism, but for energy retrofit in social housings).

It is maybe the first time in history where the new generation looks more mature than its elders.

A protest from French climate activists in Paris, ahead of the COP27

Dernière Rénovation

Civil disobedience

Is it their method, then, that I don’t like? Not even. Political conquests always began with provocative acts that are barely legal. Henry David Thoreau, who invented the concept of civil disobedience in the 19th century, was imprisoned because he refused to pay federal taxes to the U.S., because it still supported slavery.

And Teresa Billington-Greig organized exploits that resulted in her being arrested several times before she was able to bring the feminist movement to the public’s opinion.

What disturbs me is the target. Those paintings were not just chosen because the media would talk about them. In their various interviews, the Just Stop Oil activists are systematically mocking our attachment for those simple paintings — an attachment that they find ridiculous while the planet is burning.

We cannot build an ecological world by acting against civilization

This kind of ecology activism is explicitly playing the nature-culture divide again — a direct reference to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s First Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. And the philosopher already created a buzz back in 1749 when he glorified the simplicity of virtue against the corrupting arts.

Questioning growth without rejecting progress

But we cannot build an ecological world by acting against civilization — and against the best creative minds of that civilization.

So, let us not fight the wrong battle here. It is not about getting back to the innocence described as the state of nature by Rousseau. This is only a delusional consolation from modernity. What is at stake here is the reconciliation of the Anthropocene and our ecosystem. And this is a hard task. But we can question growth without rejecting progress.

Would a humanity deprived of its groundbreaking works of art even be worth saving?

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