The 17th century Rokeby Venus painting by Diego Velázquez has been damaged by two Just Stop Oil protesters in the National Gallery in London. Armed with hammers, the two students smashed the protective glass of the painting. The same painting suffered a slashing in 1914 by the suffragette and fine arts student Mary Richardson. The press in 1914 responded to Richardson by referring to her as “Slasher Mary”, or, “The Ripper”, insinuating that her actions were as serious as those of the serial killer Jack the Ripper. Interestingly, the 2023 press has previously responded to art protests, notably the splashing of soup on Van Gogh’s flowers, in a manner of similarly intense scrutiny and outrage. However, Just Stop Oil’s imitation of the suffragette’s protest has instead garnered a more balanced commentary, as if adding a historical perspective has framed the movement’s efforts as respectable rather than rash.

Chucking food on paintings, spray painting buildings, gluing hands to public spaces, disrupting performances, and causing traffic jams, are all performance protests that have brandished the front pages of newspapers. Disruptive? Absolutely. Effective? This depends on one’s definition. The movement is certainly effective at making headlines and encouraging the climate crisis conversation across Europe. Although such conversations may be disapproving, talk of the impending climate crisis continues. Nonetheless, it is done so at the cost of the public’s favour. 78% of Britons believe that disruptive protests hinder activists’ causes, according to a YouGov poll. It is debatable that Just Stop Oil has potentially created more division than unity.

Thus, is the publicity gained from such civil disobedience advancing the cause of Just Stop Oil, or is it antagonising climate change activists? Or is it perhaps both; with public opinion not necessarily the determinant of a movement’s success?

A Just Stop Oil spokesperson, James Skeet, responded to the YouGov poll by stating that, “public disruption elicits outrage that sparks discourse… these sorts of tactics are uncomfortable for everyone concerned, but sadly this is how social change works.” As displayed by the activist group Distinction Rebellion after the Canning Town incident in 2019, during which activists disrupted London commuters by gluing their hands to trains, performance protests have been generally scorned and dismissed as ‘alarmist’ by the media and the public. Five years later, climate change scientists have proven a 1.5°C increase in global overheat, deeming the activists’ actions as pertinent. Despite public upheaval, their controversial protests have resulted in rising climate consciousness, the pushing of a parliamentary declaration of climate and environment emergency, and a net-zero law. 

Nevertheless, with some performative protests causing disarray in the lives of the public, or even threatening lives, in the instance of the Formula 1 protest and in the delaying of ambulances in traffic, the response has naturally alienated the activists due to its seemingly ignorant approach. One which Michael Deacon, of the Telegraph, defines as the, “smug middle class leaving the working class questioning how to make a living.” 

Despite this, the radical acts of climate activists, however controversial, are not likely to cause a detrimental surge in anti-climate change sentiments. According to surveys conducted in 2022, 58% of adults support their demands but 57% are against the group. Thus, the group’s actions can put their movement at risk rather than garnering support for their cause. Furthermore, the support for the movement is easily swayed. With Lewis Hamilton’s support for Just Stop Oil’s sentiment after the F1 protest, and a clear comparison to the suffragette Emily Davison’s famous racecourse protest, the media’s negative presentation of the protest simmered. Moreover, the agitation that the movement creates for the government, such as the £7.7m worth of police time spent on Just Stop Oil alone according to the MET, pressures the government, to whatever extent, to act without the requirement of public support.

Protestors on the ‘right side of history’ will always be romanticised in hindsight and disliked in the present, both perspectives blurred with a disregard for either the short term or long-term impact of these activist actions. The question of whether performance protests are effective depends on the audience: those who do not agree with the cause will not be convinced by extremist actions, and those who follow the cause may prefer a more moderate approach to invite, rather than antagonise, the public, as exemplified throughout the history of radical and moderate groups. Nevertheless, the disposition of public response is not entirely relevant when a performance protest aims to simply bring the issue of climate change to the forefront of public discussion. Without the presence of performance protests, important matters would not receive media coverage necessary to push it forward. Whether this media coverage villainises or applauds it, it nonetheless results in conversation.

By Kimberly Parry