Artwork-Based Activism, Climate Change and the Right to Protest

Posted on: June 26, 2023 by

Laocoön and his Sons, Hagesandros, Athenedoros and Polydoros, 40-3- BCE

On 12 June 2023 two environmental protesters were convicted by a Vatican court of aggravated damage  to the Laocoön statue, one of the most precious treasures of the Vatican Museums’ collection, believed to have been carved in Rhodes around 40-30 BCE. The protestors, Guido Viero and Ester Goffi, are members of the group Last Generation and had glued their hands to the statue’s base and affixed a banner to it which read “Ultima Generazione: No Gas e No Carbone” (Last Generation: No gas and no carbon).  A third protestor, Laura Zorzini, filmed the protest.  The court ordered Viero and Goffi to pay 28,000 euros in restitution and imposed a suspended prison sentence of nine months and fines of 1,620 euros each, whilst Zorzini was fined 120 euros.

Public protests centred around statues, artworks and memorials have increased dramatically in recent years. In many of these, the statues themselves have been the subject of bitter dispute, with protestors calling for their removal where they glorify controversial figures from the past such as the colonialists and slave traders.

But the Vatican case represents a different kind of activism. Here the work in question was not the object of the protest but, rather, was being used to enhance the reach of the demonstrators’ message. And the Laocoön statue case is just the most recent in a line which includes eco-protestors gluing their hands to the glass cover of Botticelli’s Primavera at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Just Stop Oil protestors throwing soup at the glass cover of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and taping apocalyptic images of climate change over Constable’s The Hay Wain at The National Gallery, London.

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821

How are we to think of these acts of artwork-based environmental activism?  In particular, to what extent, if at all, are such protests across Europe covered by the right to freedom of expression under the continent’s leading human rights instrument, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). And to what extend should they be?  (Albeit, it should be noted that, ironically, the Laocoön protest itself would not be covered since the Vatican is not a signatory of the ECHR.)

The right to demonstrate in public space to those in power, and to one’s fellow citizens, on matters one believes to be important is at the very core of our conception of democracy.  In Europe this right is protected by Article 10 of the ECHR and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has long stressed that political expression and expression about matters of public concern requires the highest levels of protection.  Moreover Article 10 covers symbolic political expression in the form of conduct. For example, in Genov and Sarbinska v. Bulgaria it was held that the action of political activists who spray-painted a monument to “partisans” on the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in the context of nation-wide anti-government protests was covered by Article 10.

Crucially, however, the right to freedom of expression is not absolute; under Article 10(2) it may be limited as long as that limitation is set out in law and is proportionate in its pursuit of a legitimate aim such as preventing “disorder or crime”, or protecting the “rights and freedoms of other”. Thus, a balance must be struck, with expression placed on one side of the scales, set against the reasons for restriction on the other.

When it comes to protests focused on works of art the ECtHR has outlined the circumstances in which a criminal conviction may, or may not, be considered a proportionate limitation.  It has stressed that even where “legitimate motives” have inspired the expression at issue, sanctions may be proportionate since public monuments [are] often physically unique and form[..] part of society’s cultural heritage”. In this context the factor that carries the “greatest weight”, whilst not the only consideration, is whether “physical damage” has been caused.  Where damage has not been caused, however, the question becomes “more nuanced”. In such cases “important considerations” include: the precise nature of the act; the intention behind it; the message sought to be conveyed; the social significance of the monument; the values or ideas which it symbolises; and the degree of veneration it enjoys in the community (see e.g., Genov, above).

Clearly there are few matters more pressing or of greater public interest than anthropogenic climate change.  The message that governments, corporations and citizens should be taking action is of the highest importance.

It is significant that in these protests hitherto little damage has been caused – and what damage there has been seems to have been to the bases, frames or glass covers of the artworks involved (although in the Vatican case the base of the statue is integral to it and did sustain some damage from the glue and solvents used).

The choice of these specific artworks as targets in these environmental protests is significant: Laocoön was a Trojan hero whose warnings about the Wooden Horse went unheeded.   The parallel symbolism of humankind ignoring the portents of climate disaster is obvious. Likewise, protestors’ choice of Primavera, Sunflowers and The Hay Wain – all depicting a natural world now put at risk by climate change – have obvious relevance to the subject matter of the protests.

The huge significance of these artworks, their uniqueness and their centrality to the canon of western art spanning over two millennia suggests that if damage had been caused then criminal sanction might well be considered by a human rights court to be a proportionate interference with freedom of expression (depending on the level of penalty).

But in cases where there has been no damage, the question – as the ECtHR says – is more nuanced. Is the choice of these artworks commensurate with the gravity of the threat to human existence and therefore justifiable?  Alternatively, could it be argued that these works are priceless elements of our global heritage in the same way as the natural world, and even to risk damaging one in order to highlight the threat to the other is a seriously problematic trade-off?

It will be fascinating to see how courts, applying human rights principles, ultimately balance these considerations. But setting legal arguments aside, for this blogger at least (who cares deeply about both the natural world and cultural heritage) it might be ventured that whilst these protests are certainly important and attention grabbing, perhaps a wiser course for activists would be to target them with laser-like focus at multinational fossil-fuel corporations, polluters and governments, rather than at humanity’s priceless cultural patrimony.

Image Credits:

Hagesandros, Athenedoros and Polydoros, Laocoön and his Sons, Vatican Museums via Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0 – File:Laocoon and His Sons.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

John Constable, The Hay Wain, National Gallery via Wikimedia Commons – public domain