The year is 1888.
A young artist spends his afternoons painting sunflowers, only using shades of yellow. For him, yellow is symbolic for gratitude, which he feels towards the planet for being his muse. It is hard to imagine that the young Van Gogh would have thought that one day his paintings would bathe in tomato soup and be reincarnated as a political landscape for those who are leading the fight to save the planet.
However, Van Gogh’s work isn’t the only one to have met this fate, neither is it the only way dissent has been shown towards the fossil fuels-dependent industry. The message is clear; ‘Just Stop Oil!’.
Europe has been concurrently engulfed by such protests led by creative activists who are trying to wake everyone to the urgency needed to tackle the current climate crisis. For the activists’ organization, it has become a mission to force the world to shift their narratives towards the use of fossil fuels, starting with Europe, effective immediately.
The change they desire is revolutionary because the damage is the same even if it is unevenly distributed. Hence, their choice of a protest tool is such that ignites strong personal emotions and forces conversations on the matter, something that they have been successful in achieving through their protests by blocking airports and highways, and intentionally damaging artwork in museums.
Just Stop Oil and its German equivalent, Last Generation’s use of such drastic measures are inspired by the suffragette movements of the early 20th century; however, their impact is tenfold due to the access they have through the digital media. They’ve used this access to tell the world that they are staying active unless their demands for a stop on non-renewable energy projects are met.
From the societal end of this, even though the base call to end reliance on fossil fuels is a rational step for our collective safety, there is a general dislike shown towards the methods adopted by the activists during their demonstrations.
It is this polarized reaction that brings widespread criticism towards creative activism, because even though it is meant to change the status quo of policy to meet the needs of the current emergencies, yet, it has only given the state the room to control the discourse around the changes asked for. And this is because those who frown upon the practice are asking the state to bring it under control and the latter is more than willing to do so.
An instance where the state has stepped in to achieve this is UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s promises to give the police greater powers to curb such protests. Sunak’s promises are a dangerous sign of how the fault lines of the system used by critical agents can also be manipulated by the state.
Perhaps, those engaged in this political theatre need to understand the responsibility they carry on their shoulders as they stand up to the state while blurring the lines between protests, felonies, and violence.
By continuing the path, they have chosen, they are exposing the cracks in their practice which if maneuvered carefully, can be used to bring the entire agency down. In this scenario, the state will gain more power and there will be social change but without social progress.
The creative activists may very well set the precedents for greater state suppression, willfully replicated around the world.