Two climate activists, wearing shirts displaying “Just Stop Oil,” splashed Heinz tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and glued their hands to the museum walls on Oct. 14. After splashing the soup onto the painting, the protestor asks the onlookers, “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?”

The general public was outraged by the demonstration. At first glance, the protestors’ actions seem mindlessly destructive, akin to rowdy teenagers vandalizing property for the thrill of it. The protestors, who are both young women, were called hypocrites for their complicit use of products made using fossil fuels like glue, hair dye, or makeup

People disagree with this method of protest, claiming that it might cause others will lose respect for the climate change movement. They argue that these agitators can engage in more worthwhile actions, such as studying science or engineering, and doing something concrete to lower emissions. The majority of the hate comes from people who fully understand the need for climate change action. So instead of applauding the effort of these activists, why are people so angry? 

The level of outrage against their protest speaks to the social power of art. When the Notre–Dame Cathedral burned down over three years ago, the aftermath included world leaders expressing their solidarity, tearful vigils, and over $950 million in donations for restoration. On the other hand, just this year, a climate activist set himself on fire on the plaza of the United States Supreme Court, and he received very little media attention. The destruction of a building and the nonexistent damage done to a painting devastated the public more than the self–immolation of a human. 

A video of one of the tomato soup activists, Phoebe Plummer, explaining the motivation behind the protest, has recently surfaced on Twitter.

Plummer’s calm explanation has quelled much of the internet’s initial reaction to the protest and brought new light to their cause. Perhaps most importantly for many people, she makes clear that they did no damage to the painting.

Many are still upset because they don’t understand the need to target art museums, which seemingly promote equity. The discourse has exposed the ubiquity of “artwashing” in the oil industry, in which Big Oil is attempting to fix their image by associating their company names with art galleries and museums. BP currently sponsors the British Museum and the Royal Opera House in Britain. The Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans is funded by Shell Oil Company. ExxonMobil and Shell Oil Company have both funded exhibits at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Evidently, people respect and appreciate art deeply. For oil companies, getting involved in the art world is the perfect way to make the public forget about the harm that oil has brought to the world. As Mel Evans writes in her book, Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts, “[n]othing counterbalances the sins of harmful impacts endemic to the oil industry better than a good dose of holiness.” 

In the last decade, many art museums and galleries have cut their ties with oil companies. Most notably, the Tate museum network in Britain dropped fossil fuel funding in 2016 after six years of pressure from activist groups. The Tate’s action was followed by the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Edinburgh International Festival, the Mauritshuis, and the Van Gogh Museum. This year, the National Portrait Gallery is set to cut ties with BP. 

Activism has created social pressure for art institutions to divest. The pipeline of Big Oil funding in the art museum world once again reminded people of the grasp that the fossil fuel industry holds on the world. For even the most sacred spaces, like these scions of art and culture, fossil fuel ties leave a black mark on the supposed values of the organization. Art institutions should preserve culture and celebrate humanity, and this purpose is incompatible with receiving sponsorship from companies that are responsible for destroying so many futures. 

The necessary technology and resources to create a sustainable, fossil–free world already exist—the crucial next steps are cultural and institutional change. 

For those asking activists to do something more effective, perhaps it’s time to consider the historical impact of controversial demonstrations—arguably the greatest vessel for social change. Other peaceful demonstrations have almost no media coverage. Contentious protests like these force us to reckon with our reactions and ask each other: why do we care more about a painting than about the human suffering caused by climate change? What is actually making us angry about this protest? What is really at stake? 

Considering the attention and outrage the Van Gogh protest has received, the climate activists have certainly achieved their goal. The protest has activated an emotional element that is often hard to access when addressing climate change. We can now harness the amount of shock we felt about the destruction of one painting to put into perspective what we should be feeling about the Earth’s losses on a much larger scale. After all, if climate change is not addressed, we will lose much more than just a painting.