Radicality of climate protests: shock therapy for the future

Only moderate actions can win majorities, the climate protectionists like to reproach. But it is not that simple.

Activists in front of a painting in the museum.

Just Stop Oil activists tape in front of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London Photo: Just Stop Oil/Reuters

It is disputed when “contemporary art” began. Abstract Expressionism is often marked as the end point of classical modernism and the beginning of “contemporary art” in 1954, when Jasper Johns reshaped an everyday object with “Flag” – the US flag. It was a first flash of what later came to be called “Pop Art”. Again, some would cite Andy Warhol’s soup can paintings as the first icons of “contemporary art,” which reproduced a consumer item that everyone knew. Recently, climate protectionists have one Van Gogh picture showered with soup, and of course the lover of subversive self-referentiality in me would have longed for Campbell’s soup to be poured over Warhol’s Campbell silkscreens. Well, you can’t have everything.

That the radical Climate activist protests Not just aiming at art, but also citing stylistic devices of avant-garde provocation (perhaps not even consciously), has been noticed many times, from the anti-art of Dadaism to Nitsch’s Schüttbilder, Arnulf Rainer’s overpaintings or the shock strategies of performance art. “All art is propaganda”, George Orwell already remarked, and so every destruction of art is also art and propaganda at the same time. Or so.

Of course one can object to the attacks on works of art, although no works of art have been destroyed so far, but mainly glass panes behind which the works of art were located were soiled or damaged. One objection would be: The actions are forcing museums to tighten their security measures, which not only costs money but can turn museums into high-security institutions, and that certainly doesn’t make the world a better place. In the case of protest actions, it is also undoubtedly advisable that the concrete action of civil disobedience is in a comprehensible relationship to the message. If you protest against tank deliveries, you’re more likely to occupy tank factories than Herr and Frau Maier’s apartment. “What can a Klimt picture do for the climate collapse?” The question is not only posed to philistines who would not approve of protest actions anyway, not even if you stick yourself to your SUV in the morning traffic. At least the trace of a causal chain of associations can certainly not hurt.

Revolution yes, but nothing should get dirty. “Extremists” and even “Climate Terrorists”, the activists are scolded, which of course is nonsense. The actions are not extremist, but they are what one activist called “drastic”. The problem with drastic actions of this kind is that they deter majorities and possibly even antagonize those who are actually sympathetic to the concerns of those involved.

Wimps change little

But the really interesting issue is: Should movements that want to radically change a society take actions that can be immediately supported by majorities? Or is it more promising to act in drastic ways to shock majorities on the one hand and activate determined minorities on the other? There is no easy answer to this key question, especially given the lessons of history. Committed minorities can often change societies better than wimps, who always crave approval from all sides.

Let’s bring in some systematics: First of all, one can of course point out that the friendly type of activism that “Fridays for Future” used so far and made, for example, Greta Thunberg a global celebrity, received a lot of friendly encouragement and solidarity, but not had the desired successes, namely the resolute ecological turnaround. However, the objection does not yet mean that a more radical approach would have been more successful. Most likely, it would have been even more “unsuccessful” if “success” was understood to mean clear, measurable consequences.

The danger with radical actions is not only that of the “criminalization” of the protest, but above all the social isolation of those involved. However, the danger with moderate involvement is that, because of the desire to remain compatible with majorities, the demands and programs that change society are washed away so softly that in the end hardly anything remains. Or in the worst case, that one snuggles up to an imagined majority in such a way that one becomes unable to shift this majority in one’s own direction.

What can a Klimt picture do for climate collapse? This causal question does not only come to mind for philistines

This is not trivial, as one is constantly being shown. Across the globe, a hard right has massively transformed politics and discourse in recent years, not by acting “moderately” or “reasonably,” but through extremism and the daily poison of brutalization with which it contaminates entire societies Has. Trump, Meloni & Co are not successful because they act soft and flattering, but rather by acting ruthlessly and aggressively, while the other side is more defensive and “reasonable”.

This fact fuels the suspicion that not only does “ruthless” action run the risk of ending in isolation, but that, conversely, there is also a risk of overly reasonable action, namely remaining defensive and ineffective.

The fact is: throughout history, it has always been radical minorities that set the processes of change in motion by putting a topic on the agenda and forming groups of committed people who set the changes in motion. Even more radical parts of these committed people have always “exaggerated”, i.e. shocked broad parts of society. And moderates, in turn, won majorities afterwards, who translated the accentuated demands into compromises that, at best, brought the world forward.

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