Just Stop Oil demonstrators are considering slashing famous works of art as they threaten to “escalate” their protests.
The controversial climate activists have also issued a call to England captain Harry Kane to wear an armband carrying their message at the World Cup in Qatar.
The group is planning more disruption in the run-up to Christmas in its campaign of direct action, which has included blocking roads, spraying orange paint on buildings and defacing famous artworks.
Among the protests, demonstrators have thrown soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting and glued themselves to the frames of several masterpieces, prompting one art critic to brand them “morons”.
Alex De Koning, a spokesman for Just Stop Oil, said it was “insane” that “more people are outraged” about the activists targeting artwork than the devastating floods in Pakistan, which displaced millions of people.
The 24-year-old – who describes himself as a “climate scientist” – told Sky News that the protest group may follow in the footsteps of suffragettes who “violently slashed paintings in order to get their messages across”.
In 1914, Mary Richardson attacked Diego Velazquez’s painting The Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver in a protest against the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst.
Later that year, suffragette Anne Hunt entered the National Portrait Gallery and hacked away at a painting of Thomas Carlyle, one of the gallery’s trustees.
Mr De Koning said targeting famous art had “marked an escalation” in Just Stop Oil’s action and warned it will “continue to escalate unless the government meets our demand” to stop future gas and oil projects.
He told Sky News: “If things need to escalate then we’re going to take inspiration from past successful movements and we’re going to do everything we can.
“If that’s unfortunately what it needs to come to, then that’s unfortunately what it needs to come to.
“We’re fighting for our lives, why would we do any less?”
Asked directly whether future protests could involve slashing artwork, the spokesman replied: “It could potentially come to that at one point in the future, yeah.”
‘Not intimidated by jail’
Two Just Stop Oil activists, Hannah Hunt and Eden Lazarus, are due to face trial on Tuesday accused of causing criminal damage to John Constable’s The Hay Wain.
The pair glued themselves to the frame of the painting and attached their own image of an “apocalyptic vision of the future”.
Last week, a Just Stop Oil protester was jailed for gluing himself to the frame of a Van Gogh painting in a London gallery.
A judge said the 18th-century frame had been “permanently damaged” by the stunt, as Louis McKechnie was imprisoned for three weeks and fellow activist Emily Brocklebank received a 21-day sentence, suspended for six months.
Mr De Koning said Just Stop Oil activists were “not going to be intimidated by potential prison time”.
“At least in prison you get three meals a day and shelter and water,” he said.
“In 20 years’ time, who knows if that’s still the case for millions of people.”
Why are protesters targeting art – and are they gaining support?
Climate activists have been targeting famous artworks around the world in recent months.
In Germany, demonstrators threw mashed potatoes at Monet’s Les Meules painting in a protest against fossil fuel extraction.
And in Australia, two climate activists were arrested after gluing themselves to the frame of Picasso’s Massacre in Korea.
After Just Stop Oil activists threw soup at the Van Gogh painting, art critic Waldemar Januszczak branded the stunt “pathetic”.
“Take it out on the oil companies you morons, not on innocent art,” he wrote on Twitter.
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However musician and activist Bob Geldof voiced his support for the protesters, saying their actions were “1,000% right” and it was “clever” to deface the famous 1888 painting while it was covered with a glass screen.
Mr De Koning said the stunt had “sparked international conversations” and the protests targeting artworks were “probably” more effective than blocking roads.
“It really got a lot of people talking about the climate crisis in a way that other protests in the past have not done,” the PhD student at Newcastle University said.
“We’ve tried protesting outside the Chinese embassy and doing other things and it just doesn’t get coverage.
“Because there was no damage (to the Van Gogh painting), there was a lot of support that actually came out as well as a lot of controversy.”
Who is organising the worldwide art protests?
Mr De Koning refused to say who first suggested climate protesters should target works of art, saying he couldn’t discuss it for “legal reasons”.
The groups involved, including Germany’s Last Generation and Just Stop Oil in the UK, operate independently and no one person is believed to be directing the actions.
According to TIME, clinical psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon is perhaps the closest thing to a global mastermind of the protests.
She is the executive director of a group called The Climate Emergency Fund (CEF), which distributes money from wealthy donors to “support disruptive protest”.
She told the magazine that the CEF does not fund anything illegal with its grants, which generally range from $35,000 (£29,000) to $80,000 (£67,000).
But Ms Salamon added that disruptive protests are like a fire alarm to “shake us awake”.
“Playing by the rules, going step by step through normalcy, we’re walking off a cliff,” she said.
Just Stop Oil considers ‘new tactics’
Asked whether the activists felt any guilt over defacing art, Mr De Koning said: “It’s obviously terrible. Yes, of course, we don’t want to be doing things like that.
“The question you need to be asking is why on earth would students, grandparents, engineers, doctors, nurses, do something like that? It’s because our government is behaving criminally.”
He added that if action isn’t taken to stop new oil and gas projects then “millions more people are going to die and can’t appreciate that artwork”.
“We’re not even going to have a habitable planet for this artwork and for us to live on,” Mr De Koning said.
The Just Stop Oil spokesman confirmed more disruption is planned in the run-up to Christmas, saying it would be “mostly road blocking” but it was “always good to have new tactics”.
The group has said it will stop its direct action if the government announces it will immediately halt all future licences for the exploration and production of fossil fuels in the UK.
Who are Just Stop Oil?
Just Stop Oil ‘should be named a terrorist group’
Call for Kane to wear Just Stop Oil armband
Just Stop Oil has now urged Harry Kane to wear a captain’s armband displaying its message at the World Cup in Qatar, which has one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves and oil reserves.
Kane was due to wear a OneLove armband in support of the LGBT+ community at the World Cup – with homosexuality illegal in Qatar – but England abandoned the plan after FIFA threatened to book players who wore it.
Mr De Koning said: “A lot of people really respect Harry Kane… so a lot of people would be swayed by (him wearing a Just Stop Oil armband).”
The spokesman pointed out that Gary Lineker tweeted a message about Just Stop Oil after a protester disrupted a Premier League match and Formula One star Lewis Hamilton defended the activists after they invaded the Silverstone track during the British Grand Prix.
“These people have such a platform they can use so I would ask them to consider their responsibilities to future generations and do something as simple as put on an armband,” the Just Stop Oil spokesman said.
“It’s not going to make a massive difference to (Kane’s) everyday life but it could have a great effects for people down the line.”