Climate Activists Smear Paint on Degas Sculpture’s Glass Case

Sitting beside “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” the protesters urged Biden to declare a climate emergency

Protesters in front of Little Dancer
Climate activists with the group Declare Emergency spread paint on the plexiglass case of Edgar Degas' Little Dancer, a sculpture on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Ellie Silverman / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Yesterday morning, two climate protesters entered the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and approached Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Edgar Degas, the famous French Impressionist. They proceeded to spread black and red paint—meant to symbolize oil and blood—over the sculpture’s glass case and pedestal.

“Today, in non-violent rebellion, we have temporarily sullied a piece of art to evoke the real children whose suffering is guaranteed if the death-cult fossil fuel companies keep removing new coal, oil and gas from the ground,” said Joanna Smith, a protester from Brooklyn, New York, in a statement. “As a parent, I cannot abide this future. This little dancer is protected in her climate controlled box, but people, animals and ecosystems currently struggling and dying in extreme weather events are not.”

She urged President Joe Biden to declare a climate emergency and halt extraction of fossil fuels on federal and Indigenous land—appeals that are also among the goals of the climate activism group Declare Emergency, which organized yesterday’s protest.

The second protester, Tim Martin of Raleigh, North Carolina, also called for the United States government to “[look] out for the health and safety of our children,” reports Hyperallergic’s Hakim Bishara.

Following the demonstration, the museum closed the gallery holding Little Dancer and several connecting galleries, all of which have now reopened. One of the protesters was detained by police but quickly released, according to Agence France-Presse.

The incident is just the latest in a series of climate protests targeting works of art, though they happen more often in European galleries. Last fall, for example, activists in London threw soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, while protesters in Germany tossed mashed potatoes at Claude Monet’s Grainstacks. Security at Norway’s National Museum stopped protesters before they managed to glue themselves to Edvard Munch’s The Scream

Like the acts that preceded it, smearing paint on Little Dancer is “purely performative protest,” says Dana R. Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies protests and social movements, to the Washington Post’s Ellie Silverman. 

“It’s disruption as shock,” she adds. “Nobody’s going to like these guys for throwing paint at Little Dancer … but that’s okay. That’s not their point. If the goal here is to get general attention and to shift the conversation to focus more on climate change, there’s a lot of evidence that this is more effective.”

While these protests are designed to shock, they typically don’t damage the artworks themselves, which are often covered by glass barriers. Little Dancer, which is protected by a plexiglass case, has been taken off view at the National Gallery of Art while experts evaluate potential damage. 

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation is assisting in the investigation, which is still active,” says Kaywin Feldman, director of the gallery, in a statement. “We unequivocally denounce this physical attack on one of our works of art and will continue to share information as it becomes available.”

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