Why Climate Nihilists Target Beloved Art

Emmet Penney

Why Climate Nihilists Target Beloved Art

A video that circulated online Tuesday showed two young men from the soft eco-terror organization Just Stop Oil dump black liquid over Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. JSO has lately risen to notoriety by attacking classic works of art with soup and superglue, blocking traffic, and vandalizing buildings—all in the name of halting climate change.

To many, JSO’s tactics amount to an attack on civilization and the institutions that preserve our precious cultural heritage. But the protesters’ apparent anti-art posture is in fact aligned with the dominant values of the major institutions of Western art and culture, which long ago embraced the once-scandalous values of the avant-garde, commodified and deprived of any utopian horizon. The elite art world’s futureless nihilism largely lines up with JSO’s.

The activists’ choice of targets hints at this alignment. To date, they have picked works by the masters of representational art—Vermeer, Van Gogh, Monet—and not iconic abstract works like, say, Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, completed in 1915, the same year as Klimt’s Death and Life.

On one level, the logic of this choice is straightforward. Abstract art has proved difficult for the public to digest, and it typically inspires little affection in the average museumgoer. Because JSO’s activists aim to communicate that climate change will assault our way of life in much the way they assault beloved works of art, it makes visceral sense to target paintings to which the public is sentimentally attached. It’s the logic of an abusive parent or lover: “Look what you made me do_._”

But there is more to the outfit’s selections than this. The gesture of defacement achieves its most dramatic effect best on artworks that have a face: a recognizable, figural representation. The activists who targeted Klimt obscured his undulating forms and exquisite palette with a glob of undifferentiated blackness—in effect bringing the more approachable Viennese modernist closer to the stark and forbidding work of his Russian contemporary Malevich.

The Russian avant-garde in the era around the 1917 Revolution shared some of the sensibility of today’s anti-art protesters. As Boris Groys explains, Malevich and his comrades “accepted the total destruction of all the traditions of European and Russian culture” as a necessary condition of revolution. This demanded a remarkably unsentimental attitude toward the past. In 1919, when the Soviets fretted that the ravages of civil war would threaten the masterworks held in Russia’s museums, Malevich published a brief essay, “On Museums,” that laid bare his anti-nostalgia.

Wrote Malevich: “Life knows what it is doing, and if it is striving to destroy, one must not interfere, since by hindering, we are blocking the path to a new conception of life that is born within us. In burning a corpse we obtain one gram of powder: accordingly, thousands of graveyards could be accommodated on a single chemist’s shelf.” The same logic, he argued, should apply to art. In fact, Malevich mused, such a pharmacy could make for a novel sort of museum: “We can make a concession to conservatives by offering that they burn all past epochs, since they are dead, and set up one pharmacy.” The intention would be identical to the museum: “even if people will examine the powder from Rubens and all his art—a mass of ideas will arise in people, and will be often more alive than actual representation (and take up less room).”

Though we might recoil from it, from this vantage we can approach the non-mimesis of Black Square. It doesn’t attempt to describe a possible future nor critique the past. Rather, it is “the apocalyptic event itself,” as Groys tells us. But contrary to appearances, this is not nihilism: It reflects a profound faith in the future. “True faith in the revolution,” Groys explains, “paradoxically presupposes the belief that the revolution does not have the capacity for total destruction, that something always survives even the most radical historical catastrophe.”

Malevich’s ominous black square appears as a blind alley of history’s march toward a freer world. This faith flowed downstream from the two-plus centuries of thermodynamic accumulation we have come to call the Industrial Revolution, which ripped humanity from “natural” limitations that plagued the premodern world, undermining the conception of a “natural standard” that hemmed in society’s potentialities.

Now, industrial development and the consumption of energy appear to be more of a burden than a boon. The impetus for JSO’s recent uptick in activity was the latest UN report that we won’t be able to avoid 1.5 degrees of global warming. The movement’s activists have echoed the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who has said the new report is “a code red for humanity.”

“What use is art when we face the collapse of civil society?” the group asked in a statement following the infamous souping of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. “The art establishment, artists, and the art-loving public need to step up into civil resistance if they want to live in a world where humans are around to appreciate art.” It’s a curious position: defacing art to insist that art doesn’t matter when compared to the alleged apocalypse on our hands—but also that the crisis calls for greater participation from the art world in committing soft terrorism to create change.

"The revolutionary agenda of the avant-garde has been subsumed into the art world’s corporate blob."

In fact, the art establishment and even a non-negligible portion of the “art-loving public” share JSO’s perspective, whether or not they embrace the group’s tactics. After all, JSO receives funding from an heiress to the Getty oil fortune, an influential force in the international art world that presides over the stewardship of the very works JSO sees as existentially trivial. JSO’s anti-art provocations reveal not a continuity with the avant-garde of old, but how the revolutionary agenda of that avant-garde has been subsumed into the art world’s corporate blob. What was once rebellion has now become the grammar of the status quo.

Malevich’s approach to the legacy of Western art was cavalier, but he retained a faith that something would survive. Art was transhistorical, belonging to humanity in perpetuity. Such was the conviction of many radical modernists whose work emerged in a rapid flux of history that supplied as much opportunity as it did danger; a new world was being born.

JSO, meanwhile, believes that the world sits on the brink of death. In truth, if the world stopped consuming oil today it would result in the deaths of billions—deaths that don’t appear at all in the IPCC prognostications for climate change’s impact—and would hinder any attempt to build what we need to reduce carbon emissions in the long term. At present, the world is feeling the effects of waning investment in fossil fuels as it wades deeper into an energy crisis. Regardless, activists demand sacrifice for a horizonless tomorrow—especially sacrifices from everyday people trying to go about their lives: that they turn down their thermostats, cease commuting to the jobs that pay their bills on weekdays, and forgo the enjoyment of art on weekends.

In Malevich’s day, industrial modernity posed the question of which regime was better suited to carrying progress forward: communism or capitalism? Three decades after the Iron Curtain fell, a different challenge faces us: the question of whether modern society has any future. JSO believes that human achievement should be sacrificed for bare survival. It would be easier to dismiss the activists’ outbursts if their animating sensibility were not also that of our ruling elites.

Emmet Penney is the editor-in-chief of Grid Brief.

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