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Sticking to the environment

  • 02 November 2022
The campaign against global warming has been heating up. The latest protests have focused on works of art. In Potsdam two people threw mashed potatoes over one of Monet’s Haystacks. They then glued their hands to the wall. This event followed other similar incidents involving Botticelli’s Primavera in Florence, and in England Constable’s the Haywain, a copy of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. And most recently Vermeer’s in the Netherlands. In most cases the paintings were behind glass and the assailants glued themselves to the frames or wall. Coincidentally, the week ended with the publication of the United Nations Report on Climate Change that warned the limitation of change to 1.5 degrees is now unattainable. That will lead to dramatic deterioration in the life of future generations.

My response to the news was mixed. Initially, one of outrage and distress. Like the burning of books, assaults on paintings seemed to express contempt for human culture at its noblest. But as more details became public, the reality seemed more complex. The mostly young assailants had the courage of their convictions and some delicacy in their modus operandi. They ensured that they would be stuck with their crimes, generally avoided damage to the paintings, and acted in a good cause. They sought to highlight the damage to the environment by global warming and the failure of Western Societies to address it. In addition, the place of paintings in society is ambiguous. Their high monetary value reflects the capture of art by the very wealthy who are most likely to have profited from the inequality that contributes to climate change. I had some sympathy for the protesters.

Mixed feelings are a proper starting point for deeper reflection. I can see two lines of argument against the trashing of artworks, one of which is inconclusive and the other which I believe to be decisive. The first argument is based on the sacredness of private property. The paintings are enormously valuable both in financial terms and in the esteem in which they are held. They are also public property held in museums , galleries and other institutions that display them or the private property of people who own them. To treat the paintings without license in a way that threatens their financial value and diminishes the public respect for them on which their price depends is a form of theft. For that reason