Double Check: Was the Van Gogh souping a psyop?

By: tori marland&
October 24 2022

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Double Check: Was the Van Gogh souping a psyop?

On April 22, 2022 - Earth Day - climate activist Wynn Bruce self-immolated in front of the United States Supreme Court. Around the world, the news barely registered. Yet, on October 14, 2022, two activists affiliated with the campaign group Just Stop Oil threw soup over Van Gogh's Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London, causing a wave of breaking news alerts, opinion pieces, and rolling coverage. The incident continues to dominate the news cycle, largely debating whether the protest was acceptable, with outrage and sympathy from all corners of the globe. However, there has also been speculation that the stunt was a devious plan by Big Oil to turn public opinion against climate change activists – to borrow a term from military intelligence, a "psyop." 

While columnists clutched their pearls at the stunt, social media quickly went the conspiracy route. In a two-part TikTok video that went viral, with hundreds of thousands of views and shares, by a relatively unknown user – who has since made their account private – the TikToker claims that the protest was funded by big oil to make the climate activists look stupid, calling the stunt "cartoonish," pointing out the activists' links to oil firms, and noting that they have a cryptocurrency account for donations. Searching for "van gogh soup" on TikTok brings up several related searches, with the addition of keywords such as "scam," "conspiracy," and "fake."

A screenshot of the related searches for "van gogh soup" on TikTok

A screenshot of the related searches for "van gogh soup" on TikTok

Over on Twitter, one user explicitly pointed to their "Conspiracy brain telling me the souping of the Van Gogh was an op to make environmental activists look ridiculous." They subsequently quote-tweeted themselves, garnering roughly twice the likes of their original tweet, pointing to an article showing that Just Stop Oil is funded by so-called "oil heiress" Aileen Getty, along with other articles detailing her extreme wealth. Another tweet pointing to Getty highlighted the cryptocurrency connection, noting that "multi-billionaire" Adam McKay – director of the mediocre climate change movie Don't Look Up – was also on the board of directors. Millionaire computer scientist Paul Graham also waded in, observing that the stunt was funded by "three rich Americans who became concerned about climate change after their houses in Malibu were threatened by wildfires in 2018," which was clearly intended as a swipe at the organization's founders, but nonetheless as valid a reason as any to become concerned about climate change.

The links to Aileen Getty appear to be the main source of misinformation about the protest; the argument can best be summed up as "she has links to big oil; therefore, this protest cannot be made in good faith." But what, specifically, does link her to either the protest itself or the concept of a big oil psyop? Aileen Getty is a member of the family who operated and owned Getty Oil. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2013 and was subsequently bought out by Texaco. The Getty family has absolutely no connections to the oil industry as of 2022, and this is especially true of Aileen. 

If this was a psyop, would all this information be easily found with a simple 30-second Google search? 

In fact, according to her personal website, "Aileen has been an active philanthropist throughout her adult life [...] Most recently, she has dedicated the bulk of her time and philanthropic resources to addressing the climate emergency." Her foundation, Climate Emergency Fund, is the parent organization for Just Stop Oil, information that is easily accessible on its own website. If this was a psyop, would all this information be easily found with a simple 30-second Google search? 

That is not to say that rich people are released from criticism. Many philanthropists donate to or involve themselves in foundations to explicitly launder their reputation or to influence politics and avoid tax. Even if Getty is motivated by a desire to cultivate a benevolent image, it is preferable that this happens in plain view. 

As for the cryptocurrency claim, yes, there is an option to donate to the cause with crypto – normally understood as an extremely environmentally unfriendly endeavor. However, Just Stop Oil's website only accepts Ethereum, claiming that Ethereum's new upgrade has cut emissions by more than 99 percent. Ultimately, Ethereum is no longer created by the energy-intensive process known as "mining," although it still involves energy and computer power. Bitcoin is still a large contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Just Stop Oil is a relative newcomer to the protest scene, leading to criticism from established activists that the young protesters - Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland – were not given guidance or support in their actions, a radical departure from the usual gallery protests. That certainly does not hinder the spread of related conspiracy theories. The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union's Culture Group issued a statement following the incident, decrying Just Stop Oil's tactics and inviting the organization to engage with them more productively: "PCS Culture group has worked fruitfully over the past decade with climate protest organizations such as Art Not Oil, BP or Not BP and Culture Unstained. In return, these groups have supported our picket lines and campaigns." PCS also pointed out that its members supported climate activists and were largely against fossil fuel sponsors.  

It is clear the incident has provoked a strong response from many disparate groups. Since the protest, the activists have given interviews, which appear to have swayed public opinion more in their favor. Prominent historian Greg Jenner shared a clip in which Plummer explains the reasoning, stating that he was "happy to admit" he was "likely wrong" about the protest being a badly executed stunt. In the clip, Plummer explains that they knew the painting was behind glass, so no harm would come to it. She shows awareness of how the stunt came across as "ridiculous," but explains that she wanted to start a conversation. She clarified in an interview with Frieze that "using such a beautiful piece of artwork was poignant because, when people saw it, they had that gut reaction of, 'I want to protect this thing that is beautiful and valued.' Why don't people have that same response to the destruction the fossil fuel industry is causing to our planet and our people?" 

Perhaps the act was ridiculous, but that shouldn't immediately force people to jump straight into conspiracizing; instead, it might be more worthwhile to focus on the message of protest. 

Plummer has achieved her desire: the act dominated the news in the U.K. all last week (or, at least it did until Liz Truss' resignation). This is despite continuous and much more disruptive action from Just Stop Oil that has included blocking the Dartford Crossing near London, preventing oil tankers from moving product; throwing paint over Harrods and Aston Martin car dealerships; and throwing yet more soup – only this time over a government building. Perhaps the act was ridiculous, but that shouldn't immediately force people to jump straight into conspiracizing; instead, it might be more worthwhile to focus on the message of protest. 

The notion behind a "psyop"  is to manipulate the public's perception. But of course, that's exactly what protest is supposed to do, and direct action like blocking a tanker wasn't as good at shifting perception as throwing some soup. In this case, the disgust everyone instinctively felt was exactly the feeling the protestors were going for and was not the accidental by-product of "Kids These Days" doing a badly planned stunt. It's clear they wanted to draw a contrast between horror at a ruined painting and our relative apathy towards a ruined world. This effect appears to be a one-time-only deal, however; a similar stunt funded by the same people has not received quite so much attention. 

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