A University of Guelph art historian sympathizes with climate protests vandalizing famous paintings like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Monet’s Les Meules but views the acts as unconvincing performance art.  

Dr. Sally Hickson is an art history professor in the School of Fine Art and Music and the director of the School of English and Theatre Studies in the College of Arts. Her research interests include Renaissance visual and material culture and the history of art collections.  

Close-up of Dr. Sally Hickson
Dr. Sally Hickson

For Hickson, the protesters’ message is “that if we don’t have a planet, we won’t have any of the things in it that we value,” and that includes recognizable Old Master works.  

“I think the protesters want to ‘desecrate’ something that people immediately associate with value and with culture,” she explains. “The shock value of the act is attention-getting, but the connection to climate change is tenuous in the minds of most people without the accompanying explanation. I’m not convinced they’re going to change anything.” 

What the protesters will affect is public trust, she says. As she puts it, “they’re destabilizing the idea that public galleries are ‘safe’ spaces for works of art.” 

So far, the targeted paintings have been protected by glass and the protesters have used substances that have left the art relatively unharmed.  

If the protesters’ acts escalate and cause more harm to the works, Hickson predicts two things will happen.  

First, people will insist on arrests. There may also be increased security at galleries, although, ironically, “there’s nothing inherently criminal about carrying a container of tomato soup or mashed potatoes,” says Hickson. 

Second, the outrage might prove the protesters’ overall point.  

“People will be outraged by the damaging or destruction of something ‘priceless.’ But maybe that means we need to reconsider our values as a society, which is what the activists are asking us to do,” she says. 

Hickson recently discussed the climate protests with Fox News. She is available for interviews. 


Dr. Sally Hickson