Climate activists have struck again — after throwing soup at a Van Gogh in London, cake at the Mona Lisa in Paris, and mashed potatoes at a Monet in Potsdam, they’ve scribbled all over a print of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup I in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. The artwork remains unaffected, protected by thick glass — just like the other works that were attacked.
It’s clear that the point of the protests is not to do any actual damage. It is simply to make a big visual splash and draw attention to their cause. And few are as familiar with the power of the visual and as well-versed in its making as the generation that has grown up with social media. Far from being politically disengaged, as they’re usually characterised, Gen Z is using platforms like Instagram and TikTok — more frequently associated with displays of vanity and dance trends — to communicate urgent messages and questions. Consider the viral clips now emerging from Iran of young people running up behind members of the clergy and knocking their headgear off as yet another way of protesting against the theocratic state.
This also means that protest can now be more individual-centric. No longer is it necessary to have the backing of a group or a movement — although those are always helpful, as seen when prominent social media influencers used TikTok to organise support for the Amazon labour union this year. The internet is a town square where anyone can get on their soapbox and the politically-conscious young can lodge a protest from, for example, their bedrooms — just like the 17-year-old in the US who concealed a message about the treatment of Uyghurs in China in a TikTok make-up tutorial. In the social media age, the act of protesting has travelled a long, imaginative distance from the more traditional placard and picket line.