Ten-Herng Lai and Chong-Ming Lim
Protest and Cultural Artefacts
Environmental activists adopt diverse strategies to raise awareness of the urgency and seriousness of the climate crisis, and push for policy changes to mitigate the crisis. Some of their activism sparks more controversy than others. “This isn't the way to protest,” said Florence mayor Dario Nardella, after labelling activists “barbarians” for their disobedience activity that involved defacing the walls of Palazzo Vecchio – a town hall building dating back to the 14th century. This isn’t the first time in recent years that climate activists have targeted art and heritage sites. In May 2022, a protestor smeared cake on Mona Lisa. Earlier this year, climate activists spraypainted the logo of the oil and gas company Woodside on the 1889 painting Down On His Luck. More generally, examples of activists targeting cultural artefacts as part of their protests abound. For example, a significant moment in the movement for women’s suffrage involved an activist, Mary Richardson, slashing The Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery in London in 1914. Breton separatists destroyed, in 1932, the Monument to the Union of Brittany and France. And so on. Indeed, a term – “cultural terrorism” – was even coined to describe a large class of politically motivated actions directed at cultural artefacts (Gamboni, 1997, p. 104).
As bad as targeting cultural artefacts may initially seem, we believe that many instances of this kind of protest are potentially justifiable. Key to this defence is an important but oft-omitted detail: the protests do not typically involve permanent damage to the cultural artefacts. For instance, the walls of Palazzo Vecchio were defaced with easy-to-wash-off paint; both Mona Lisa and Down On His Luck were behind protective glass (as is standard practice). Further examples abound. Indeed, ARTnews, maintaining a list of the artworks that have recently been targeted by activists, states that “none of the artworks…have been damaged as the activists do not glue themselves to the art works but their frames, pedestals, or...protective glass”. Indeed, it is not due to luck that the targeted cultural artefacts remain unscathed. The climate activists in those cases appear to have planned their protests to ensure that their actions leave no permanent mark.
Our discussion here comprises two parts. First, we consider how protests that do not cause permanent damage to cultural artefacts can be justified as civil disobedience. Next, we turn to the more difficult question, of whether protests that causes permanent damage to cultural artefacts can be justified.
Civil disobedience is standardly understood as an illegal yet primarily communicative act of protest aimed at changing laws or policies. Acts of civil disobedience paradigmatically possess several key features, which are commonly regarded – within a significant portion of the philosophical literature – as crucial for their justification: the illegal actions are taken as a last resort, when lawful measures have proven to be futile or ineffective in bringing about timely political change in response to severe injustice; the protests are carried out publicly; the protests are not violent; protesters do not coerce their audience to accept their message, but instead present the latter with relevant facts to improve their political decision-making; and so on. This conception of civil disobedience draws from a narrow and potentially sanitised reconstruction of some acts of political resistance during the Civil Rights era (Pineda, 2015; Terry & Shelby, 2018). A broad range of political protest falls within this conception of civil disobedience – including, but not limited to, some boycotts, marches, and occupying public or private spaces (such as sit ins or roadblocks).
The climate crisis has already caused severe threats to human life and public. Countries and cultures face total and permanent submersion. Political action, on the other hand, has been slow. The political influence of oil and gas companies continue to be strong. New mines and drill sites – which can severely degrade the environment – are still being approved. On the assumption that other political and legal measures have been futile or ineffective, civil disobedience in the form of mass protests and the occupation of roads and public spaces appears to be morally justifiable as a last resort. The full justification of these protests depends, of course, on their satisfaction of other requirements, such as those identified earlier.
Outspoken critics of protests in museums do not appear to have shown a similar degree of concern with protecting [...] cultural artefacts [exposed to the elements, due to climate change]. A genuine concern with threats to cultural artefacts should commit us to protecting the latter equally.
Protests that do not cause permanent damage to cultural artefacts appear to possess these features of civil disobedience. Protestors engage in them as a last resort, in the face of ineffective legal and political methods. The protests are carried out publicly. The protestors do not coerce their audience to adopt policies by holding the cultural artefacts hostage; their protest is primarily communicative – to highlight the urgency of their cause. Indeed, the inconveniences they cause are trivial even in comparison to other standardly accepted forms of civil disobedience, such as mass protests that block traffic.
A significant aspect of the outrage in response to such protests concerns the possibility of permanent damage to unique and irreplaceable cultural artefacts. With reference to the standard account of civil disobedience, we can understand this as a concern with violence upon cultural artefacts. As we have seen, however, this concern seems misplaced in response to protests that carefully avoid and thus do not cause permanent damage. More importantly – and observing the responses to such protests – we see that this concern is inconsistently applied. A significant number of cultural artefacts are not encased in museums but embedded in sites of cultural significance. These cultural artefacts are exposed to the elements, and threatened by the increasingly extreme weather conditions that are part of the climate crisis (Sesana et al., 2021). For instance, coastal erosion and cliff degradation threaten the integrity and existence of the Mo’ai in Rapa Nui. Rising sea levels threaten to permanently submerge cultural artefacts and sites in Kilwa Kisiwani in India, the Mosque City of Bagerhat in Bangladesh, and more generally, those situated near or below sea level. Human activities also often directly affect cultural artefacts – for instance, Woodside’s gas projects threaten the Murujuga Aboriginal rock art which dates back nearly 50,000 years. Moreover, the climate crisis does not discriminate based on race or geography – it equally threatens embedded cultural artefacts in the US, UK, and other “Western” developed countries. Outspoken critics of protests in museums do not appear to have shown a similar degree of concern with protecting these cultural artefacts. A genuine concern with threats to cultural artefacts should commit us to protecting the latter equally – in this case, including mitigating the climate crisis.
[...] mass marches and roadblocks are generally considered as part of the standard repertoire of civil disobedience[,...] even though many of the injustices that see people take to marches or roadblocks are not related to traffic
Another significant aspect of the rejection of such protests concerns the seeming irrelevance of cultural artefacts to the climate crisis. Specifically, it does not appear that cultural artefacts contribute to create or sustain the climate crisis, at least not in morally significant ways. Two responses are available. First, cultural institutions (including, and especially, museums and galleries) routinely accept, at least in some countries such as the US or the UK, donations from corporate polluters. These donations enable the continued access to, and appreciation of, cultural artefacts within them. Importantly, however, museums' acceptance of such donations may allow corporate polluters to obscure their destructive impact on the environment, to rehabilitate their public image, and even augment their ability to lobby against governmental regulations seeking to mitigate the climate crisis. It is thus arguable that cultural artefacts housed within such institutions are, at least in some cases, relevantly connected to the climate crisis, and activists target them partly for this reason. Second, and more importantly, standard accounts of civil disobedience do not typically require that the inconveniences imposed, or activities disrupted, should be connected to the injustice in such ways. Notably, mass marches and roadblocks are generally considered as part of the standard repertoire of civil disobedience. This is so even though many of the injustices that see people take to marches or roadblocks are not related to traffic.
Our discussion so far has left open the question: are protests that permanently damage cultural artefacts justifiable? This question about radical protest is not of mere theoretical interest. Environmental activists – such as those belonging to the Just Stop Oil coalition – have already threatened to follow the example of suffragettes who slashed paintings to get their messages across. There is, then, a risk that at least some cultural artefacts will be irreparably damaged by protestors in the near future. In what follows, we identify two considerations that are relevant to the justifiability of such radical protest.
we do (and should) not assume [...] that moral considerations always trump those pertaining to aesthetics or history (which counsel against damaging cultural artefacts).
Two points of clarification are important. First, we do not hope that protestors will permanently damage cultural artefacts, nor do we encourage them to do it. The defeasible considerations we identify are not conclusive – they must be weighed against other morally relevant factors. There is no guarantee that the former will always trump the latter. Second and relatedly, we do (and should) not assume, moralistically, that moral considerations always trump those pertaining to aesthetics or history (which counsel against damaging cultural artefacts).
the stringency of protecting such a cultural artefact may depend on whether there are others of its kind (or, even more generally, others similar to it).
The first consideration centres on the significance of cultural artefacts. We may think that cultural artefacts offer us a connection to the past that we would otherwise lose (Matthes, 2013), or that they instantiate some value that is outstanding, unique, and universal (Fabre, 2022), and so on. Here, at least two responses are available. First, our concern with such cultural artefacts is often undergirded by a concern for the people who care about them, or the communities and cultures in which they are embedded. Yet the climate crisis threatens the very existence of the people who care about cultural artefacts. Second, some cultural artefacts may be one of numerous instances of the same kind of artefact. Suppose that there are thousands of surviving and complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible. While damaging any one of them would be a significant loss, the magnitude of such loss is not so great as when there are only a dozen surviving copies. That is, the stringency of protecting such a cultural artefact may depend on whether there are others of its kind (or, even more generally, others similar to it). When taken together, these responses open up the possibility that we may sacrifice at least some cultural artefacts, if doing so would serve legitimate and important goals.
Second, and relatedly, the significance of cultural artefacts is not (and cannot be) always overriding relative to other values. In some circumstances, our duty to preserve cultural artefacts may be overridden by our need to preserve or promote other values, such as securing the conditions for people to live minimally decent lives. This is especially so, if preserving cultural artefacts uses up resources that are required to further other important goals (Thompson, 2000). The climate crisis could potentially constitute such circumstances. Despite the severity of the ongoing and prospective crisis, most people do not appear to recognise, or respond appropriately to, the gravity of the problem. If civil disobedience (that does not damage cultural artefacts) ends up being ignored, protestors may have to escalate their tactics – including damaging cultural artefacts or even harming persons – in order to raise public awareness about the climate crisis. If damaging cultural artefacts can help us to mitigate the climate crisis, it can be justifiable on the basis of a lesser evil consideration (in light of the even more drastic tactics that might have to be taken).
the significance of cultural artefacts is not (and cannot be) always overriding relative to other values [...] our duty to preserve cultural artefacts may be overridden by our need to preserve or promote other values, such as securing the conditions for people to live minimally decent lives.
This is, of course, a big “if”. But our rejection of such radical tactics must depend, in part, on claims about how they feature in the causal network leading to the mitigation of the climate crisis. Such claims are distinct from the normative one we make here – namely, that if damaging cultural artefacts can help mitigate climate change, then doing so is potentially justifiable on lesser evil grounds. Claims about the causal contribution of particular protests are, moreover, notoriously difficult to evaluate. When people angrily react to radical protests and state “I agree with your cause, I just don’t like your methods,” their claims may sometimes be taken literally: “reduced support for the protesters had no impact on support for the demands of those protesters”. Yet radical groups can increase support for protestors who employ moderate methods, thus increasing the likelihood of securing the desired goals (Simpson et al., 2022). What we must not do, is to preclude such radical tactics from the realm of the justifiable.
Fabre, C. (2022). Tanner Lectures. 10-12 May 2022, Stanford University.
Gamboni, D. (1997). The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution. Reaktion Books.
Matthes, E. H. (2013). History, value, and irreplaceability. Ethics, 124(1), 35–64.
Pineda, E. (2015). Civil disobedience and punishment: (Mis)reading justification and strategy from SNCC to Snowden. History of the Present, 5(1), 1–30.
Sesana, E., Gagnon, A. S., Ciantelli, C., Cassar, J., & Hughes, J. J. (2021). Climate change impacts on cultural heritage: A literature review. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 12(4), e710.
Simpson, B., Willer, R., & Feinberg, M. (2022). Radical flanks of social movements can increase support for moderate factions. PNAS Nexus, 1(3), pgac110.
Terry, B. M., & Shelby, T. (2018). Introduction: Martin Luther King, Jr., and Political Philosophy. In To Shape a New World (pp. 1–16). Harvard University Press.
Thompson, J. (2000). Environment as heritage. Environmental Ethics, 22(3), 241–258.
Ten-Herng Lai currently teaches at the University of Melbourne, and will soon start working for the University of Stirling as a Lecturer. He is interested in talking about illegal activism.
Chong-Ming Lim is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His current research focuses on the normative aspects of political resistance.