Tomato versus Van Gogh's Sunflowers. But art and nature are on the same side

Is art or life worth more? If the activists who threw tomato sauce at Van Gogh's Sunflowers had studied a little more, they would have realized that art and nature are on the same side and that according to Van Gogh himself, the two concepts overlap.

“What is worth more, art or life?” Here, if the two activists who threw tomato sauce at the glass protecting Van Gogh’s Sunflowers had studied a little more, they evidently would have been careful not to put the question in such peremptorily Manichean terms: for Van Gogh there was no distinction between art and life. Van Gogh was convinced that art was the means of observing, seeing, feeling nature “through a temperament.” So he wrote, on July 11, 1883, in a letter to his brother Theo, echoing a passage he had read in an article by Zola (“a work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament”). But not only that. Van Gogh, an artist of great culture and an avid reader, still writing to his brother on June 19, 1879, had made his own a rather well-known definition by Francis Bacon, which he must have read somewhere in French, since he quotes it in that language, in a missive written in Dutch: Ars est homo additus naturae. "They know of no better definition of the word Art,“ he wrote to Theo, ”than this: ’L’Art c’est l’homme ajouté à la nature’: nature, truth, but with a meaning, with an interpretation, with a character which the artist brings out and to which he gives expression, which he liberates, which he reveals, releases, elucidates."

Between art and life, between art and nature there is, according to Van Gogh, a sincere and total overlap. The great artist knew well (indeed, loved them) the painters of the Barbizon school, who in turn were moving from Rousseau and his sensitivity to nature, which obviously could not admit of utilitarian exploitation. Nature is life, and for Van Gogh, who spent almost the entirety of his existence immersed in nature, art is the means by which one tries to convey the vitality of nature to one’s fellow man. In short, Vincent van Gogh was the wrong artist for an action moved by the respectable and more than shareable intention of raising public awareness of the need to respect and preserve nature to ensure a future for the next generations.

A few days ago, Frieze magazine had the idea to interview the two activists bringing out further details: the young women reiterated their choice to protest by throwing tomatoes at Van Gogh because such an action would be capable of provoking a “gut reaction” in people (who, according to them, would respond by saying “I want to protect this thing that is beautiful and has value”), because Van Gogh was a “poor artist” and “if he were alive today, he would be among those who would be forced this winter to choose between eating or heating their homes,” and because “the painting is protected by glass, but millions of people in the global south are not protected and future generations are not protected.” Rather than theoretical reasons for claiming action against activities that accelerate climate change, they sound like high school slogans. Leaving aside the babbling about what Van Gogh would have done or said today, who has not been with us for over one hundred and thirty years and consequently cannot be bothered to imagine him alive to interact with us, what can be done is to point out how the juxtaposition between protecting art and protecting people can only be false and specious.

L'azione contro i Girasoli di Van Gogh
The action against Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

For a work worth millions that is protected by glass, there are ten thousand scattered across the land that do not enjoy the same protection. Just at the beginning of September, in England the Museums Association was sounding the alarm about increases in operating costs that could also lead to drastic decisions on protection: if you pay more to keep the halls open to visitors you have less money, for example, for restorations, and thus for that protection of works of art that you would like to contrast with the protection of nature. And, just days after the two activists protested, news emerged that the Merz Barn, the workshop that Kurt Schwitters, after leaving Nazi Germany, set up in England’s Lake District, was to be put up for sale: it is not known what will happen to a building that is an expression of the way of making art by one of the most original figures of the 20th century, and that is simply because the small nonprofit that has run it so far no longer has the financial strength to maintain it, and has not received adequate public subsidies. But the gaze could flood to Italy, where there is a vast minor heritage that is often left to its own devices: churches that are closed or abandoned, works lying in storage, small museums that fail to take adequate action on the works, illegal excavations that take important finds away from the community. And we, to use activist slang, are in the “global north.” Let us think about what happens to cultural heritage in the “global south.” It is not true, then, that we prefer art to nature. We often fail to take care of art either.

Besides, it was certainly not Van Gogh who chose to make his work worth a certain amount: if it has to be put on that level, a protest against the institution itself would have made more sense, or perhaps even better against one of those centers that have the power to make the economic value of a work of art multiply even simply through a collector’s pass can we imagine Just Stop Oil activists raiding BIAF, TEFAF, Frieze Masters?

Yes, I know that for a protest to be striking it cannot care about what seem like insider niceties: a strong gesture feeds on extremes, otherwise it would not be a strong gesture. But art and nature I believe are on the same side of the fence. In the Frieze interview, one of the two activists wonders why people don’t have, when faced with the destruction that the fossil industry is causing to the planet, the same reaction as they had when throwing tomatoes at Van Gogh. In the meantime, it is conceptually and dialectically wrong to make a comparison between a radical, sudden and deliberate action and a daily trickle. It is as if, in order to focus attention on the shortage of funds for widespread heritage, an art activist went and daubed a monumental fir tree in the Stelvio Park, wondering why people were outraged by his gesture and not by the degradation that led to the collapse of the roof of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami or the Arco Borbonico or the precarious conditions threatening Palazzo Gradenigo in Piove di Sacco. Indeed, the attempt to impose on the public the reasons why they should be outraged has counterproductive effects. Of course, the activists continued to say that theirs was a nonviolent action because it did not damage the painting, which was protected by glass: I believe, however, that it can be considered an action moved by misdirected prevaricatory will, first because the goal seemed to be more to impose a vision than to inform or raise awareness, and then because, although devoid of physical violence, the action nonetheless forcibly asserted a separation between the public and the work, causing harm not to the institution nor to power nor even to the fossil industry, but to museum visitors as well as, in a small way, to the community (the work was not damaged, but frames, during actions such as these, usually bear damage that must then be repaired). But perhaps the main effect was to assert the economic value of the work: the vast majority of the media focused more on this aspect than on the activists’ motives. The activists themselves have claimed this claim among their reasons for choosing Sunflowers.

If, however, Van Gogh’s painting has taken on an economic value over time, this is not Van Gogh’s problem: it remains first and foremost the product of a nature-sensitive soul that as such must be respected, otherwise one ends up falling victim to the very logic of consumption that one wishes to criticize: the action, in addition to entailing, as is obvious, all the consequences of the case (risk of emulation by people who may not be as inclined tomorrow to choose works protected by glass, more rigmarole to enter museums, less opportunity to see works without glass and therefore less direct relationship with art for those who want to observe it, and so on), has not emphasized the value Van Gogh has for our lives, but has, if anything, highlighted its economic value. Which Van Gogh, if we really enjoy the futile exercise of imagining him alive and present, probably would not have appreciated.