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Climate activists have been attacking artworks recently, but how effective is this?

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The recent vandalizing of several well-known European paintings by climate activists with food certainly got the public's attention. With a major United Nations climate conference right around the corner, NPR's Chloe Veltman looks at the impact of these art-related protests in galvanizing support around urgent environmental issues.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Over the past couple of weeks, Phoebe Plummer has been besieged with media requests.

PHOEBE PLUMMER: I spoke to somebody from Poland this morning. Yesterday it was Belgium and Germany.

VELTMAN: The 21-year-old student and climate activist says they've lost count of the number of interviews they've given since October 14. That was the day they hurled tomato soup at an artwork in London's National Gallery to protest the U.K. government's continuing support of the fossil fuel industry.

PLUMMER: And now I'm having to, like, schedule my uni lectures around when I'm doing interviews. Like, that is insane because I'm a little kid who's just scared about their future.

VELTMAN: Plummer says her activism group, Just Stop Oil, picked Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" for its iconic status. She says the tactics, born out of anger and frustration, were simply focused on eliciting as big an emotional response from as many people as possible.

PLUMMER: Because they saw something beautiful and valuable and precious, and they thought it was being damaged or destroyed. Where's that emotional response when we're set to lose our real sunflowers?

VELTMAN: Max Boykoff is an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. He monitors media coverage around climate change.

MAX BOYKOFF: This has definitely been something that's generated considerable media attention.

VELTMAN: Boykoff isn't just talking about the "Sunflowers" incident in the U.K.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASHED POTATOES SLOSHING)

VELTMAN: He's also referring to other art-related protests by climate activists, like the one Thursday in Holland involving a Vermeer and earlier this week in Germany, where activists threw mashed potatoes at a famous Monet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIRJAM HERMANN: (Speaking German).

VELTMAN: Boykoff says these types of stunts can elicit a far bigger response than more traditional forms of protest like rallies and sit-ins typically inspire, in part because of their artfulness.

BOYKOFF: If you can be creative, if you can add even an element of levity that helps draw people in, that is resonant in the information-rich society that we're in right now.

VELTMAN: And he says the activists' timing makes a lot of sense in the run up to the big U.N. climate conference next month.

BOYKOFF: I do see it ceding some ground for the conversations that may emerge at the climate talks.

VELTMAN: But while Boykoff applauds the activists for their creativity, others question the effectiveness of the use of such publicity-grabbing shock tactics, even if the artworks in question didn't suffer much damage.

SUSAN JOY HASSOL: Many people just recoil at the sight of seeming to deface treasured art, and that's not the best way to win hearts and minds.

VELTMAN: Veteran climate science communications expert Susan Joy Hassol says she's all for nonviolent direct action, and she says she's been impressed with the young activists' articulate and impassioned speeches under the glare of the spotlight. But she says they're firing at the wrong targets.

HASSOL: Protest targeted more squarely at the real villains of the story - the fossil fuel companies, the banks financing them, the politicians who do their bidding, those most culpable in the climate crisis - are more effective.

VELTMAN: Oakland-based visual artist and climate activist Favianna Rodriguez says at this point, fighting climate change and its perpetrators requires an arsenal of approaches, including doing whatever it takes to get people's attention.

FAVIANNA RODRIGUEZ: I think we need to look at a spectrum of engagement because frankly, when we speak nicely and we use the data, it has not worked. Data has not moved people.

VELTMAN: Rodriguez says she would be happy if someone threw food at one of her artworks as a form of protest.

RODRIGUEZ: Art is supposed to elicit emotions, and if my art can elicit so much emotions that people lose their [expletive], I am like, success.

VELTMAN: And she says Vermeer, Van Gogh and Monet would probably feel the same way, too. Chloe Veltman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX SONG, "ROME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.