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Climate protesters campaign by throwing food at art, but does that work?

Masterpieces by Monet, Van Gogh and Vermeer were all targeted by climate campaigners this month.
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From cake smeared over the “Mona Lisa" to soup splashed over “Sunflowers,” recent climate protests at art galleries have grabbed international headlines but also raise questions about the effectiveness of these high-profile guerrilla tactics. 

Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” was the latest painting to fall victim to art-based activism, which has seen environmental campaigners target famous artworks, almost always with cheap food products, to draw attention to the usage of fossil fuels.  

Two men wearing “Just Stop Oil” T-shirts jumped the rope separating the priceless 1665 Dutch masterpiece from the public at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague on Thursday. A video posted on Twitter showed one of them pouring a can of a red substance over the other, who then appeared to attempt to glue his head to the glass-protected painting.

“How do you feel when you see something beautiful and priceless being apparently destroyed before your very eyes?” one of the men, who has yet to be identified, said with his hand stuck to the wall. “That is that same feeling when you see the planet being destroyed,” he said later.

Like the other targeted artworks, the painting was not damaged by the stunt, which came a day after a report from the United Nations found that the world is on track to increase greenhouse gas emissions — widely believed to be responsible for human-caused climate change — by 10.6% compared with 2010 levels. 

“The aim of a lot of these actions is to get a platform that thousands or more people are watching so that they can communicate very clear lines — that the climate crisis is happening, it’s bad, and we all need to wake up,” Chris Saltmarsh, a climate activist and author of “Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice” told NBC News on the telephone Friday

Saltmarsh, who was not connected with the protests, said that they had an immediate payoff in terms of successfully gaining media coverage, but he questioned their long term effectiveness.

“It’s superficially radical and disruptive but is not part of a long-term, coherent strategy for building communities and power,” he said.

But Colin Sterling, an assistant professor of heritage and museum studies at the University of Amsterdam, said the protests had the potential to remain in the public consciousness for a long time.

The “Rokeby Venus,” slashed multiple times with a butcher’s knife by women’s rights activist Mary Richardson at the National Gallery in London in 1914, “is still discussed today,” he said.

He said that the image of the ruptured painting by Diego Velasquez was “on the cover of books as a moment of iconoclastic protest.”

The annual United Nations climate change conference, known as COP27, which this year will be held in Egypt in November, was a kind of galvanizing force across many different dimensions of the climate movement, Sterling said, adding that there was “always an uptick in actions” around the time of the conference.

But he said that war in Ukraine, the cost of living and energy crises had added urgency to the protests.

While politicians have taken note of the protests, they have tended to criticize the way they have been carried out.

“Demonstrating is a great thing and everyone has the right to make a point. But please: leave our shared heritage alone. Attacking defenseless works of art is not the right way,” Gunay Uslu, the Dutch culture and media minister tweeted Thursday.

British Foreign Minister James Cleverly was more blunt after activists threw soup on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London earlier this month.

“Let’s stop giving these attention-seeking adult toddlers the coverage they clearly crave,” he said on Twitter.

On Wednesday the British government passed a public order bill designed to make protests, such as those seen in art galleries and disruptive actions on roads, more difficult for activists who will face harsher sentences if prosecuted.

But Saltmarsh said he doubted the legislation would be effective.

“What we’ve seen from Extinction Rebellion and other climate activist groups is that they’re very prepared to go to prison,” he said.

“Having a lot of environmental campaigners in prison is strategically important,” he said. “It’s a way of building support and creating a crisis for the government.”