I’ve never been on a protest, but I have been in a painting. Bear with me – I want to tell you why I admire the people who’ve been gluing themselves to art and doing go-slows on the motorway this week. I want to praise the disruptors.
First, the painting. John Constable once said of the English countryside which he liked to paint that “as long as I do paint, I shall never cease to paint such places” and recently I went to the most famous of those places: the little mill by the pond in Suffolk that is the subject of Constable’s Hay Wain.
I realise that a lot of people think the painting is pure cheese and that’s probably because lots of grannies and great aunties, including mine, had bad prints of it on their walls. But there was something remarkable about being there, about effectively standing in a painting and realising that the place had barely changed since it was painted in the early 19th century.
What particularly struck me as I stood there, looking at the little white mill by the little green pond, was that there must be very few such places left in Britain, which was the main point of the protest staged by a couple of students at the National Gallery in London this week. Their target was The Hay Wain.
What Eben Lazarus and Hannah Hunt did was they stepped over the rope barrier and attached their own version of the Hay Wain on top of the original. Theirs showed the countryside made famous by Constable scarred by progress and pollution; instead of a shallow pond, there is a motorway. Instead of sylvan countryside, there are dead trees. And overhead a jumbo jet looms. Then they glued themselves to the picture frame.
If I’m honest, my reaction to the incident wasn’t entirely positive: Mr Lazarus is the kind of person who is normally quite triggering for me. He wears his hair in a bun on the top of his bonce. He is a member of JSO, which is either a protest group or a boy band from the 90s. And he says things like “When billions of people are in pain and suffering, what use then is art?” Only Bono could be more annoying.
I also think Mr Lazarus is wrong in what he says about art. If you haven’t read it, I recommend the novel Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world in which, despite the chaos, a group of actors continue to perform Shakespeare. The novelist’s point is that when people are in pain and suffering, art and culture is even more important. It’s why people get books and records on Desert Island Discs and I understand it: if the zombie apocalypse does come, the greatest comfort to me before my brain is eaten will be a good book.
In other ways though, I admire what Mr Lazarus and Ms Hunt have done. I also admire the people who deliberately drove slowly down motorways this week to protest against the price of fuel even though the two groups of protestors had entirely different aims. It takes considerable chutzpah to stage a protest that may attract counter-protest, anger or arrest and I don’t have it in me. As I say, I have never been on a protest.
The activists on the roads and in the galleries – there was a similar protest by JSO at Kelvingrove – are also acting in the way they are for perfectly good reasons. It’s often said by their critics that protesters of this kind are only inconveniencing others; many also wonder what can be achieved by forcing people to sit in a go-slow or watch national treasures such as the Hay Wain being man-handled.
The critics are missing the point: on a political landscape where everyone is a Tweeter, in a world where the ignorant have a megaphone, and in a country in which leaders deny the facts and refuse to accept the truth, how do you make people listen? It’s not by sending a Tweet or writing to the PM; it’s by taking direct action; it’s by gluing yourself to a picture or going slow down the A92. How else will you be heard? How else will they listen?
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