Maybe It’s Time to Stop Crying Over Spilled Soup; An Attempt to Answer Climate Activists’ Query, ‘Art or Life?’

Lily Henderson

In one of the final scenes of Glass Onion:  A Knives Out Mystery, Helen, seeking revenge for her sister’s murder, sets flame to billionaire and murderer Miles Braun’s art collection, including his latest acquisition, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.[1] Director Rian Johnson admitted that in real life, Helen’s rampage would probably not be a “heroic action,” yet in the context of the film, the act appears almost just in relation to the far more tragic destruction, the death of a family member, that underlies Helen’s rage.[2]

While Knives Out is pure fiction, over the past year climate protesters have thrown soup cans at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers and have tossed mashed potatoes at Claude Monet’s Grainstacks; even the real Mona Lisa fell victim (attempted destruction by cake rather than flame this time). The guttural reaction that Johnson hoped to evoke in Knives Out is one that has similarly been felt by the public in the wake of these protests. Many of the protestors face criminal charges, and some have received sentences that include jail time.[3] Although these works of art largely survived the incidents unscathed, unlike in Knives Out, many are outraged and question the nexus between the destruction of art and the call to protect our environment.[4]

The protestors often accompany their actions with commentary; Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland asked, “What is worth more, art or life?” after splashing soup on Van Gogh’s painting and gluing themselves to the work. It is hard for the spectator to resonate with the protestor’s message given the first-glance disjunction between art and environmental activism—the preservation of art and saving the environment are not mutually exclusive. Climate change may seem more nebulous, far stretching and maybe even an intangible phenomenon to some (although the effects of global warming are increasingly hard to ignore) compared with these discrete acts of protest that limited individuals can be held responsible for.[5] It appears that most people agree with the message of the underlying activism but not the method of its advancement; their reasoning is anchored in this seeming disjuncture.

However, Knives Out may help mediate our initial response of disgust with the more tempered, obvious answer—life wins out in reply to Plummer and Holland’s question.[6] The more I mull over the spilled milk (soup), the less I am tempted to shed a metaphorical tear, and the more I understand the relevance of the protestors’ chosen medium.

In an opening scene of Knives Out, Braun (whose art collection is later set in flames) talks about valuing “system disruptors.” However, when Helen disrupts his system—physically his security system and figuratively his sense of ascendancy within a larger system of social hierarchy—by destroying the Mona Lisa, Braun is left in anguish.[7] He screams, “Do you feel better now? I hope your…tantrum gave you closure because it accomplished nothing.” But, in fact, burning the painting did achieve Helen’s goal to ruin Braun’s reputation. While Helen sought a different outcome than climate activists hope to accomplish, the interaction can help characterize the dialogue between protestors and spectators. Braun’s reaction largely parallels that of the public in the wake of this past year’s protests. At first, the protests only seemed to evoke anger. In the public’s mind, the protests achieved nothing but the protestors weren’t looking for sympathy, they were looking to evoke a broad societal response, which they successfully solicited. Targeting art created a far greater response than storming oil refineries.[8] The protestors tested how far our allegiance to saving the environment extends and many people chose to defend art. Ultimately, the question of life or art is easier to realize in Johnson’s movie, as destroying Braun’s reputation is a more tangible and direct result of Helen’s “tantrum” (and there was no threat to any real painting as it is a work of fiction), but the more abstracted message of the movie may help frame our answer to the simple question, “art or life”? The answer is life even when we are forced to reckon with actions that disrupt our system.



[1] Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (Netflix 2022).

[2] Michael Boyle, Glass Onion Director Rian Johnson Explains the Significance of the Big Mona Lisa Scene, /Film (Jan. 23, 2023, 1:04 PM), [] [].

[3] See Vittoria Benzine, Here is Every Artwork Attacked by Climate Activists This Year, from the ‘Mona Lia’ To ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’, Artnet (Oct. 31, 2022), [] [].

[4] Although not completely safe, as some frames were damaged, glass protects the paintings themselves. See Benzine, supra note 3. See e.g. Angelica Villa, More than 90 Museum Leaders Decry Climate Protests in Institutions, Citing Fragility of Art, ARTnews (Nov. 10, 2022, 11:56 AM), [] []; see e.g. Jerry Saltz, Mashed Potatoes Meet Monet, CURBED (Dec. 6, 2022), [] [].

[5] “Life may be more valuable than art, but that doesn’t mean that art… must be needlessly harmed for a cause that is only tangentially related to art in the first place.” Saltz, supra note 4.

[6] Id.

[7]Glass Onion:  A Knives Out Mystery (Netflix 2022).

[8] Saltz, supra note 4.