May 22, 2023 - 1:00pm

It gives me no pleasure to report that the climate protestors are at it again. After Just Stop Oil threw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and glued themselves to Constable’s Hay Wain, a related group is following their lead and vandalising artistic monuments.

This time it’s Rome’s iconic Trevi Fountain: an 18th-century Baroque landmark and one of the most famous fountains in the world. An Italian offshoot of Just Stop Oil, Ultima Generazione (Last Generation), poured diluted charcoal into the water, blackening it and prompting angry backlash from authorities about the absurdity of an environmental “protest” that will necessitate the further wastage of thousands of litres of water to clean the fountain.

A common objection to these actions is how counterproductive they are. If your aim is winning hearts and minds, why incur the ire of ordinary people by attacking iconic and much-loved artworks? On the face of it, this makes no sense at all — at least not if you assume the idea is to carry the culture with you. Attacking artworks makes more sense, though, understood as protests not against oil but against culture as such. 

Both Hay Wain and Sunflowers are intelligible within the wider arc of art history, and exist in dialogue with one another — just as the questions with which both grapple exist in dialogue with the Baroque sculptural style of the Trevi Fountain. All these artworks express aesthetic paradigms characteristic of their age’s dominant cultural assumptions. 

In its structure and original purpose, the fountain itself captures the historic sweep of that dialogue: though the existing stoneworks were completed in the 18th century, there’s been a fountain on this spot since 19 BC, created to serve the people of Rome with fresh water in the days before plumbing. The spring that feeds the fountain is some 13km outside Rome, and water travels via an aqueduct originally built by the Roman statesman Agrippa. 

In other words, this fountain’s cultural history has taproots all the way to ancient Rome, itself one of the civilisational roots of the culture still (mostly) globally hegemonic today. Why, then, invite the anger of pretty much everyone by attacking something whose history runs so deep? 

But if you view these attacks as a continuation of the Western artistic dialogue, they do make sense. To the extent that the emergence of fossil-fuel-intensive modern society is inextricable from the broader cultural arc that produced these artworks, it’s perhaps understandable that a movement that wants to end fossil fuel use would aim its energies at the wider worldview that sees that use as indispensable — including its artistic legacy.

To put it another way: this isn’t simply an eye-catching method of garnering publicity. At some level, these are anti-cultural interventions, in a millennia-long cultural dialogue. The most charitable interpretation of what these anti-cultural interventions mean is as a warning to change course before we ruin everything: that is, as a warning that if we can’t clean up our act, all of Western culture is headed for destruction. 

A bleaker reading is that these protestors view all of Western culture — including its highest aesthetic expressions — as responsible for our current destructive trajectory. And if this is so, the vandalism and even outright destruction of that heritage — Trevi Fountain and all — is simply a sad but necessary step along the road of saving the world from ourselves.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.