The birth of a new phenomenon
Environmental movements in several European countries recently have held unusual forms of protest pointing to the alarming situation caused by global pollution, warming, and the exponential increase in the emission of harmful gases. To demonstrate the gravity of the problem, they used an unusual form of protest by destroying valuable works of art, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Claude Monet’s “Les Meules” impressionist artwork. When destroying Monet’s painting, which was estimated at over 100 million euros, the organization Letzte Generation said that the works of art would not be worth anything because “people are starving, people are freezing, and people are dying” and that by 2050 there will not be enough food and that ecosystems will be completely destroyed and that life on earth will practically not be possible due to the high level of pollution.
Climate change, protests, making senseless social activism.
Global climate change is a challenge that, according to experts in the field of ecology and environmental protection, requires a quick response and finding solutions that will reduce the emission of harmful gases into the atmosphere, which creates a greenhouse effect. The anthropogenic factor and the result of its activity are directly related to the consumption of fossil fuels, which are the cause of the emission of harmful gases. Measurements show that the average temperature on earth has increased by about 0.8°C since temperatures have been officially and continuously measured in cities around the world since 1880. The surface of the earth in Europe has warmed by 1.4°C. Analyzes indicate that temperature changes increase the chance of irreversible and potentially catastrophic consequences of global warming.
An interesting fact is that the temperatures on earth have been increasing since the moment when industrialization began. Dramatic climate and ecosystem changes are possible if the average temperature rises by 2°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures.
Institutions of all countries are dealing with the anthropogenic factor that affects the spread of the greenhouse effect, numerous variables that adversely affect the environment through increasing pollution of water, air, and soil. We will place special emphasis on significant international institutions such as the United Nations and bodies of the European Union, as well as on the non-governmental sector. The United Nations has adopted several important documents concerning environmental protection and the reduction of harmful gas emissions. The most significant is the Paris Agreement, which entered into force in November 2016. We will also mention the 2030 Agenda, whose goal is to preserve peace, improve life in developing countries, and preserve the environment. Hundreds of ecological movements around the world promote the preservation of the environment, participate in the creation of models for decarbonization and reduction of the greenhouse effect, and promote the use of renewable energy sources in order to prevent pollution in the future. It is important to point out that green agendas have become an indispensable element of political programs of parties, which indicates the fact that the importance of political action within state institutions that contribute to the realization of environmental protection.
When we talk about non-governmental organizations, their number is growing, so the movement’s activism is also visible in the public eye.
In Serbia, the work of such movements is focused on banning the construction of buildings near protected ecosystems, actions to clean riverbeds, reforestation, and protests against the construction of a lithium mine in the Donje Nedeljice, that is, in the area of Jadar. The environmental movement March from the Drina leads a national campaign against the mining of lithium, boron, and similar metals in Serbia. The mission of this organization is to protect Jadar from the pollution of fertile soil from potential mining activities in this part of Serbia. One of the methods of struggle of this organization is the protests, which we will compare with the protests of the Letzte Generation organization to point out similarities and big differences.
Characteristics of the protest
Protest is defined as a strong expression of criticism and disapproval. Protests are a form of public action by groups gathered around the same idea, interest, or ideology. This form of action is characterized in the broadest sense by the struggle for freedom of speech and public expression of attitudes and human rights. In authoritarian regimes where freedom of speech is limited and access to the media is difficult, protests represent the only way of public communication and promotion of the values that activists are fighting for.
Civil disobedience is defined as an illegal, public and non-violent act. The goal of action is aimed at change unjust laws. Legal positivism does not justify civil disobedience, while legal neutralism finds understanding for this type of organized activity that is directed towards unjust laws and other acts that are contrary to basic human rights. Although the mechanisms of disobedience are directed towards unjust systems of government, rules exist in the sense that this act is non-violent and not destructive in any sense.
In recent months, we have witnessed unusual protests in which representatives of environmental movements in Great Britain and Germany protested against the consumption of fossil fuels and the increasing emission of harmful gases. Both acts were unusual in that the activists destroyed two works of art. Claude Monet and Van Gogh. The pictures are poured with tomato soup and mashed potatoes. Activists asked the question, what is more valuable, a work of art or human lives, and pointed to the problem of environmental pollution. The Letzte Generation movement is aware that the act is violent and illegal and is ready for prison and fines. Although such actions cannot find a foothold in legal neutralism and even less in positivism, we will agree that human life has no price.
Why is this type of protest unusual? For the reason that the destruction of valuable and old works of art, and the destruction of cultural heritage was chosen as the subject of the demonstration of dissatisfaction. The justification of the Letzte Generation movement is that the protest was designed in such a way as to attract as much attention as possible to the world public. Museums and the very act of destroying works of art have been transformed into a powerful and very effective communication channel that has reached the largest part of the world’s public. The act of protest contains elements of performance, which we justify by the fact that we live in a period of spectacle society in which theatricality plays a significant role.
The Letzte Generation environmental protest gathers young people for whom modern information technologies are the basis for communication, which is why they know that the trigger for gaining the attention of as many people as possible is an act that initiates the effect of surprise. The phenomenon of a protest performance in a museum for the purpose of environmental protection could also be the subject of a philosophical discussion.
Knowing that art, unless it is socially engaging and promotes, for example, greater energy consumption and industrialization, is thematically related to the fundamentals of the movement. However, Monet and Van Gogh are the wrong choices in that sense. One gets the impression that a direct link between art and environmental protection was not sought, but the goal was to destroy and render valuable works of art meaningless. The Letzte Generation movement is active on social networks, where they posted a protest against the destruction of a painting by Claude Monet. The comments below that post were shared. The percentage of people who support this kind of activity is smaller. The majority directs sharp criticism, seeing in the protest a violation of socially unacceptable behavior and an illegal action that is counterproductive. The strangeness of the protest can best be explained by comparing it with the protests of other environmental movements. The Marš sa Drine ( March from the Drina) movement in Serbia has so far organized a series of protests supported by numerous public figures. It is a practice for associations that have the same goals to unite and perform together. The concept of the protest is such that rallies are held in front of the institutions of the Republic of Serbia, and the leaders of the protest address the citizens with the support of famous figures, primarily from cultural life, thus putting direct pressure on the decision-makers in the country. Thus, on one occasion, the doyen of the Serbian theater scene, Svetlana Bojković, stopped a truck with construction waste that was to be unloaded at a landfill in the natural habitat of Reva in the vicinity of Belgrade. One of the more significant protests, the March from the Drina movement, in cooperation with the organization Kreni promeni (Go for Change), organized a peaceful rally in the form of a three-day camping in front of the Presidency of the Republic of Serbia in the aim of the Parliament passing the Law on banning the exploration and exploitation of lithium and boron in Serbia. On that occasion, they brought the citizens agricultural products that are grown on fertile land near which there are lithium deposits, pointing out the fact that lithium mining would be carried out near fertile fields and rivers. Common to both protests is that they are organized in places where the environment is threatened or in front of institutions that make decisions related to legal regulations on environmental protection. In this way, the organizers exert direct pressure on decision-makers or prevent wrong decisions from being implemented by actions in places in the country where pollution has increased, or there is a threat of potential pollution.
What is the difference between the described protests and acts of destruction of works of art?
Letzte Generation chose the wrong place and object of protest. True, it did attract the attention of the public, which resulted in negative reactions and criticism of the organizers of the protest. On the other hand, the March from the Drina organizes protests in front of the institutions that make decisions on whether lithium will be exploited or not. The elements of the protest are directly related to the potential problem of environmental pollution, and their message is clear, and therefore the organization’s actions are productive. Analyzing the previous work of Letzte Generation, it was observed that the wrong places and dates of protests are often chosen. That the messages are confusing and cause more negative than positive reactions. The activities of the Letzte Generation movement cannot be classified as a classic form of protest or civil disobedience. Applying the method of binary oppositions as a methodological tool of the philosophical direction of Poststructuralism, the opposition of protest is anti-protest. However, the activities of the movement cannot be classified in that category either, because they are not in opposition, but supposedly on the side of the ideology of environmental protection. It is certainly a new form of activist activity that we must pay special attention to so that we can recognize them in the future. The reason for this is the fact that acts such as the destruction of valuable art paintings render the work of non-governmental organizations, international institutions, and countries that are looking for models to preserve the environment meaningless.
We will call the new form of protest Vanitas protests.
The word Vanitas of Latin origin means meaninglessness, relativization, and transience. Vanitas is a style of painting that depicts still life. At the beginning of creation, skulls were represented in the paintings, which indicates mortality and transience. The meaning of the word fully imitates the referent of a new form of social action, and we can define and identify it as Vanitas Protest.
Social actions in the form of civil protests and more radical in the form of civil disobedience are known forms of action and exerting pressure on state and international institutions in order to protect basic human rights, social equality, and greater freedoms. Nowadays, the climate crisis requires action in all fields, that’s why protests represent a significant activity that leads to changes for the better. Vanitas protests can relativize the previous work of the non-governmental sector, state, and international institutions. Vanitas protests threaten to relativize past achievements and the further progress of activities that will prevent new pollution and the survival of ecosystems as we know them. That is why the definition and identification of Vanitas protests are important. Mapping them and creating a distance from them will prevent further relativization of realistic plans and activities in the field of ecology and environmental preservation. A clear identification of the Vanitas protest will preserve the credibility of the previous work of the organizations and institutions that are making a huge effort to prevent new and reduce existing environmental pollution.
Climate Change Analysis, Climate Action Plan, European Commission 2014 klimatska-akcija.pdf (europa.rs)
Paris Agreement legally binding international treaty on climate change, United Nations 2016, The Paris Agreement | UNFCCC
The Paris Agreement | UNFCCC United Nations 2030 Agenda, 2015,
News report on the activities of green parties in the European Union and the Western Balkans, BBC Serbia, 2022, Ekološke stranke i pokreti u Srbiji: Zašto je zeleno postalo omiljena boja u srpskoj politici – BBC News na srpskom
The mission of the organization to ban mining in Serbia, March from the Drina, 2022, O nama – Mars Sa Drine
Snežana Pantelić, Marija Čukanović, Sociology, PIM University, Banja Luka, 2014 Sociologija-pdf.pdf (univerzitetpim.com)
Ivana Krešo, Justification of civil disobedience, University of Zagreb, 2017, view (unizg.hr)
News about Van Gogh’s Sunflowers destroyed in Great Britain, Guardian News, 2022, (7) (7) Just Stop Oil activists throw tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting at National Gallery – YouTube
Footage of the destruction of a Claude Monet painting Green Movement protest The Last Generation, 2022, (7) Aktivisti bacili pire krompir na sliku Kloda Monea vrednu 110 miliona – YouTube
News about the blockade of the road to the natural habitat of Reva in Serbia, the report was published by Nova S television, 2021, Ćuta o protestu: Ovom kamionu se “desila” Ceca Bojković (nova.rs)
Guy Debord, Society of Spectacle, 146.pg, 1967, The Society of the Spectacle Annotated Edition.pdf (libcom.org)
Poststructuralism, A very short introduction, 46 pg, Službeni Glasnik, Belgrade, 2002.
The origin and meaning of the word Vanitas, Vanitas Definition & Meaning | Dictionary.com