Anti-Oil Paintings: eco-protests and the ‘new iconoclasm.’ How do the recent iconoclastic protests of environmental activists both conform to and differ from iconoclastic movements of the past?

Over the past few years scientists have produced studies warning people of the effect that burning fossil fuels such as oil and gas is having on our atmosphere. Activists have used many strategies to raise awareness of the implications of these fossil fuels regarding the rapid changes that may occur to the climate. The year 2022 saw the emergence of a surprising trend in climate activism: the vandalism of valued art works in art galleries and museums internationally, which otherwise can be termed as iconoclasm: the intentional destruction of images for political or religious reasons.

This thesis, which draws on a range of secondary sources such as interviews conducted with the protestors, analytical data from Google and other web research, and a review of literature from experts on the subject matter such as Dario Gamboni, explores the historical and theoretical context surrounding iconoclastic movements, particularly in relation to an evolving public sphere. It argues that the international spectacularised protest used by the activists builds on earlier practices and examples of iconoclasm but in itself is a unique form of protest. The primary research finding was that largely due to the increasingly virtual nature of the modern public sphere, the concept of iconoclasm has adapted and become ‘virtual’ in much of its methodology and impact. The addition of technology and digital age media sets this movement apart from anything that we have witnessed before in history. It is unique in the fact that the works attacked in almost every case can be completely physically recovered, which implies that the damage that has been done to the art works is inherently virtual, but still clearly effective in eliciting a reaction as powerful as if real, physical damage was done to the art work.

Further implications of this study are first, that iconoclasm -physical and virtual- regularly emerges as a practice in times of major political uncertainty or upheaval; and secondly, that it has such a strong capability as a tool for disrupting public order and harnessing public attention that we could potentially see it used more frequently as a modern form of protest, especially in a contemporary society that places significant value on both the visual and the deemed visually-authentic.

Image: Just Stop Oil Protesters Phoebe Plummer, 21, and Anna Holland, 20, splattered Heinz Tomato Soup on "Sunflowers" by Vincent van Gogh and then glued themselves to the wall below it in protest against in-action on climate change as part of a series of protests throughout the UK by the environmental group. Antonio Zazueta Olmos,