Activism, Behaviour, Communication
Why Climate Action needs the Arts
by Andrew Simms
Whether to engage in debate or change opinion & behaviour, Arts can play a key role in the cultural awakening of the masses to the perils of climate change
Ice Texts by David Buckland, 2004
“Art is not a mirror to reflect reality,” wrote Bertolt Brecht, ”but a hammer with which to shape it.” His view was clearly shared by the judges of Anglia Ruskin University’s recent sustainable art prize. The winning piece, a large tombstone themed on climate change, carryies the words Lest we forget those who denied, while a constant stream of engine oil runs over the memorial. The names of well-known British climate change deniers are also featured in this 'oil painting' with a difference. The fact that the names of six prominent 'climate sceptics' are on the tombstone led Britain's right wing Daily Telegraph to denounce it as “tasteless and obnoxious”.
From Goya, who darkly interpreted the horrors of Europe at war, to the romantics who conjured the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution, art has always explored and assimilated the experience of upheaval. More than that, from Milton’s pamphleteering, to the British artists and writers who fought in the Spanish civil war against Franco’s fascism, art has put itself at the service of explicitly political campaigns throughout history.
It is only odd, perhaps, that it has taken climate change so long to become a significant and controversial theme for the arts. The relative absence from daily political and cultural life of something as fundamental as a threat to a climate stable for humanity, has been weird. There will always be those who argue that didactic art is bad art. But equally, art that doesn’t notice, or remains unaffected by, epochal shifts in the world it inhabits, is variously asleep, suffocatingly self-absorbed or simply not looking.
If anything, the willingness to accept high-profile sponsorship from fossil fuel companies suggests that the art establishment has been worse than indifferent, and actively obstructive to the challenge of tackling climate upheaval. The social licence to operate, and normalisation that such cultural relationships gift to oil companies, can dissipate the urgency for action and sponsorship can seek to directly influence the climate debate.
That is all now changing. Uncomfortable light is being shone on sponsorship deals by campaigns like Liberate Tate, more artists are engaging with the issue, and the Guardian, for example, chose to couple its Keep it in the Ground campaign on fossil fuels with poems curated by Carol Ann Duffy. But the question will remain and grow about whether art is there to help us see something, engage with it or change it. Should, and can, art be part of a campaigning agenda to change opinion and behaviour?
There is a long tradition of so-called environmental art that explores an intimate relationship with the landscape. Artists like Andy Goldsworthy do so by subtly rearranging small elements, making patterns and new forms from leaves, rocks and snow, as if in testimony to a longed-for benign and beautiful symbiotic cultural relationship between nature and human society. Others, like Richard Long, do so simply by walking through the landscape and being and observing, encouraging us all to see better and be more fully present in the world.
Bolder has been the pioneering Cape Farewell project that takes writers, actors, artists and musicians to witness first-hand the impact of global warming in the Arctic circle. The hoped for outcome is for the experience to be reflected in the subsequent work such that it has a cultural ripple and awareness raising effect. Ian McEwan, for example, wrote a novel, Solar, with a climate theme and several visual artists have produced pieces seemingly spellbound by the encounter with an alien world of ice under threat.
How effective this approach is we’re unlikely to know until decades from now we find ourselves either in a world of uncontrolled warming, or not. The leading comedian Marcus Brigstocke travelled twice with Cape Farewell to see the melting ice. That in itself was an achievement as he feared for his life on the first trip and swore never to go again. But the prospect of a bigger ship going closer to shore and with more time on land meeting affected Inuit communities persuaded him. It left a huge impression on him, and he performed a whole routine on the theme at the 2015 Hay Festival, but still carries some reservations.
“I concluded that the artistic community is not well placed to deal with the urgency suggested by the scientific case,” argues Brigstocke, who warned about the danger of being seduced by the subject matter. We should, he said, “be careful about being in love with the tragedy of melting ice (because) it needs to translate into something that makes sense of it.” While warning that comedy can’t be expected to change things directly, he does (as you’d hope and expect) wave the flag for it. It can, he says, “attach something bleak to something warm and fluffy.”
In June 2015, the 2 Degrees Festival ran with a focus on art, activism and the environment. One of the pieces by artist Steve Lambert was a bright neon-lit hoarding, something in the style of a 1950s American Diner, which asks ‘Capitalism works for me: True? False?’ It will also be positioned on streets around London inviting passers-by to engage in conversation and then vote. That may sound ridiculously simple. But the preferences of financial markets and the privilege of capital, not the common good or the survival of our species, is still the ultimate reference point in our political process.
The fact that organisers Arts Admin were turned away from every site in the City of London where they asked for official permission set up the work, suggests that for all its power and dominance, capitalism and its institutions find it deeply uncomfortable to have their existence openly questioned. Simply revealing that is a good outcome for a piece of art. Tipping Point and Stories of Change is another exciting, experimental, long term project bringing artists, academics, story tellers and more together.
For some, perhaps, art may be a hammer with which to shape reality, for others it’s a window opening on a world seen in a compellingly new way. But it can also be a feather that tickles you through a difficult idea to a new understanding and frame of mind. Whichever works for you, climate action abhors a cultural vacuum. We need more.
◊ Publ. here 28.6.2015