Ian Mcewan

What is it that art could do for the environment?

This post comes to you from Ashden Directory

Kellie Payne reports on the Green Alliance’s summer debate about the arts and the environment.

For their summer reception, the environmental think tank Green Alliance hosted an evening of opera and debate at the Royal Opera House. In conjunction with The Opera Group, the evening began with a fifteen minute excerpt of Luke Bedford‘s new opera Seven Angels, is inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost and has environmental degradation as its theme.

Following the opera taster, there was a panel discussion entitled ‘What have the arts ever done for the environment? The panel included a mix of representatives from the worlds of policy, the arts and academia. It was chaired by Julie’s Bicycle’s Alison Tickell, and panellists included: The Southbank Centre artistic director, Jude Kelly, RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor, Arcola Theatre executive director Ben Todd, the sculptor Peter Randall-Page and David Frame, fellow of Oxford University. In her introduction, Tickell indicated that the Seven Angels was one among a crop of new work being made by British artists that addressed nature or the environment among those artists she listed were Antony Gormley, Ian McEwan, Jay Griffiths.

One of the main themes of the evening was an attempt in the discussion to answer the general question of what it is that art can do for the environment. It was generally agreed that one of the strengths of art was that it was well equipped to deal with the complexities that many environmental issues such as climate change raise. Matthew Taylor saying that art should be one of the many interventions required to tackle climate change.

One of the most eloquent responses came from the scholar, David Frame, who highlighted art’s ability to deal with complexity and tension. He felt that as climate change and environmental problems are so complex in nature, with for instance climate change knowledge dispersed amongst many specialists without a graspable whole. He said that the arts community has ‘a unique ability to convey complexity, delicacy, and beauty and among the things you can do is you don’t need to simplify…’

He pointed to the deficits in mediums such as Twitter or the 1,000 word Op Ed piece and contrasted this with the length of a novel or a film where he said ‘the possibilities for the ideas you can upload to people is phenomenal.’ This type of medium he said was also more able to cope with uncertainties. ‘You leave interpretation open which isn’t considered acceptable in other forms and I think that in doing so you can bring out tensions between these parallel values’.

Changing values seemed to be one of the key roles identified for art that emerged from the discussion. Alison said she has observed what she describes as a ‘palpable’ shift in values taking place rapidly and for her ‘the arts do have a role to play in reflecting and shaping and engaging with those values.’ While Matthew didn’t agree with Alison the extent to which values have already changed in the positive direction Alison described. In fact, he warned that during this current time of disturbance there is a clear dissatisfaction with current values but which way public opinion would turn was not decided. He said the dissatisfaction could lead in two ways, and not necessarily in a progressive direction he lamented that ‘it can go in a dangerous direction as well.’

The question of how politics should be addressed raised differing opinions. Jude Kelly began by announcing she ‘didn’t mind a bit of bad art’ provided that art had some sort of message. She went on to say, ‘I don’t think it’s a hanging offence to produce a message’ However if it’s not particularly interesting it might ‘bore me after awhile’. Further, ‘I don’t mind artists having a go. I really dislike the idea that artists shouldn’t be allowed to take centre stage to comment on things.

While Peter conceded that there was ‘nothing wrong with political art’, for him it was less the politics which art was best equipped to address. He was more of the mind that art’s quality was that it didn’t have a direct ‘purpose’ that it was its intrinsic values alone that made art great. He believes that ‘arts are not well placed to (do) issue based lobbying’ contrasting what he finds often to be the pragmatism of the environmental movement with the arts ability to nourish imagination and the spirit in the way the natural world does. ‘I think the role that I feel for the arts in environmentalism is that it… reminds us that we’re not all bad. If we only feel negative it’s impossible for us to move forward and remove this exclusively pragmatic approach to looking after the world.’

Matthew wanted to introduce a third way of thinking about the issue agreeing that art shouldn’t attempt to kick us around the head. However, he felt art could ‘challenge people to live differently and value things in slightly different ways.’ Providing a vision of how ‘a different, deeper kind of understanding about what makes life worth living and what it is society wants to be.’ This task he felt art was ‘incredibly well suited’. That is, ‘art is there to explicitly to get you to think about what the good life is.’ He concluded this thought saying ‘art shouldn’t be ashamed to say that art is here to help you rethink what our values are and I don’t think that requires you to revert to a kind of crude placard waving.’

In addition to the discussion about art and politics, the panel also touched on the controversial issue of artists lifestyles and the high carbon footprint of the arts. The general attitude on the panel was that this shouldn’t be paid as much attention as it has been. Jude Kelly saying that this arts requires face-to-face interactions and not allowing artists to fly amounts to a cultural boycott. But Matthew Taylor thought artists should be accountable, and if they want to have influence on others they have to take account of their own actions.
Increased collaboration amongst artists was encouraged, suggesting that the problem of the environment is one that artists should attempt to do together. Arts organisations such as Cape Farewell and Tipping Point were highlighted as doing exceptional work, helping to inform artists of climate change and bringing the topic to their consciousness.

It was edifying to see an organisation such as the Green Alliance, who normally deals with more policy related issues such as building a sustainable economy, investigating climate and energy futures, designing out waste and political leadership to host a conversation with the arts community. A cursory glance over badges of audience members saw representatives from business and policy, including the Department for Energy and Climate Change and The Environment Agency, so the wider these issues can be encountered and discussed the better. It’s time the arts community made it’s voice heard in the conversation about climate change. Peter concluded well, stating that it is artists who need to create metaphors and narratives which make it possible to go into the future.

“ashdenizen blog and twitter are consistently among the best sources for information and reflection on developments in the field of arts and climate change in the UK” (2020 Network)

The editors are Robert Butler and Wallace Heim. The associate editor is Kellie Gutman. The editorial adviser is Patricia Morison.

Robert Butler’s most recent publication is The Alchemist Exposed (Oberon 2006). From 1995-2000 he was drama critic of the Independent on Sunday. See www.robertbutler.info

Wallace Heim has written on social practice art and the work of PLATFORM, Basia Irland and Shelley Sacks. Her doctorate in philosophy investigated nature and performance. Her previous career was as a set designer for theatre and television/film.

Kellie Gutman worked with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for twenty years, producing video programmes and slide presentations for both the Aga Khan Foundation and the Award for Architecture.

Patricia Morison is an executive officer of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, a group of grant-making trusts of which the Ashden Trust is one.

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U-n-f-o-l-d. A Cultural Response to Climate Change

This post comes to you from Cultura21

Art exhibition and various events at Columbia College Chicago – March 14–April 23, 2011

Museum of Contemporary Photography (600 South Michigan Avenue) – Glass Curtain Gallery (1104 South Wabash Avenue), Chicago, IL (USA)

U-n-f-o-l-d. A Cultural Response to Climate Change presents the work of twenty-five artists who participated in Cape Farewell expeditions to the Andes and the High Arctic. Each artist witnessed firsthand the dramatic and fragile environmental tipping points of climate change.

Featured Artists: Ackroyd & Harvey, Amy Balkin, David Buckland, Adriane Colburn, Sam Collins, Nick Edwards, Leslie Feist, Francesca Galeazzi, Nathan Gallagher, Marjie de Haas, Robyn Hitchcock + KT Tunstall, Ian McEwan, Brenndan McGuire, Daro Montag, Michèle Noach, Lucy + Jorge Orta, Sunand Prasad, Tracey Rowledge, Lemn Sissay, Shiro Takatani, Clare Twomey and Chris Wainwright.

More info at: this website

Cultura21 is a transversal, translocal network, constituted of an international level grounded in several Cultura21 organizations around the world.

Cultura21′s international network, launched in April 2007, offers the online and offline platform for exchanges and mutual learning among its members.

The activities of Cultura21 at the international level are coordinated by a team representing the different Cultura21 organizations worldwide, and currently constituted of:

– Sacha Kagan (based in Lüneburg, Germany) and Rana Öztürk (based in Berlin, Germany)

– Oleg Koefoed and Kajsa Paludan (both based in Copenhagen, Denmark)

– Hans Dieleman (based in Mexico-City, Mexico)

– Francesca Cozzolino and David Knaute (both based in Paris, France)

Cultura21 is not only an informal network. Its strength and vitality relies upon the activities of several organizations around the world which are sharing the vision and mission of Cultura21

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Can literary fiction ever do climate? Part 2

… and, as if  to continue that very thought above in the post about Ian McEwan, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine have just announced Dark Mountain Festival Uncivilisation 2010, from May 28 to 30. In an email, Paul says:

It is deliberately staged to clash with the opening weekend of the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival: as civilised literature’s establishment grandees gather in Hay, we will muster an opposing army at the other end of Offa’s Dyke, for a very different kind of cultural weekend.

Uncivilisation 2010 will be held in Llangollen “at the other end of Offa’s Dyke” among the  “dark mountains of Wales” and will include contributions from Alastair McIntoshGeorge MonbiotTom HodgkinsonMelanie ChallengerGlyn Hughes and Jay Griffiths. There will also be music and workshops from Vinay Gupta (Institute for Collapsonomics), Briony Greenhill (The Blended Lifestyle), Anthony McCann (Beyond the Commons).

On the surface the ideas proposed by the Dark Mountain Project is very much the opposite of the RSA’s own worldview. They are broadly pessimistic, inviting us to imagine collapse and to look it in the eye, scoffing at ideas of sustainability.

The festival’s webpage says:

UNCIVILISATION is a festival for anyone who’s sick of pretending that we can make our current way of living “sustainable”, that we can take control of the planet’s reeling systems, that “one more push” will do it. It’s time to acknowledge that “saving the planet” is a bad joke. We are entering an age of massive disruption and the task is to live through it as best we can and to look after each other as we make the transition to the unknown world ahead.

But what’s positive about the project is that it is bent on finding new ways to reimagine our present and future, believing that writers and artists can and should be taking on the riskier task of creating the narratives that are currently so absent in our culture. I suspect that behind the darkness of their mountains lurks a glimmer of light.

Tickets are available here:
http://www.eventelephant.com/uncivilisation

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Ian McEwan: Can UK literary fiction ever “do” climate?

There is a sense of anticipation about Ian McEwan’s new novel, Solar, out in a few weeks. Well… maybe we better not get our hopes up.

Of course I hope to be proved wrong. As a young novelist, McEwan was extraordinarily radical; The Cement Garden was scary, edgy and transgressive. He remains, without doubt, a brilliant talent. However as with Martin Amis, he’s been part of the literary establishment’s drift towards neo-conservativism, most visibly with his anti-Islamic pronouncements.

Acrtually, that’s less the problem; it’s as much that his books have become more conservative in their scope. Atonement, say, may have been a brilliantly constructed piece of work, but it was about polishing the form. The grand British novel is an old art form; despite a few post-modern pieces of trickery, it has settled down at the start of the 21st century as a form that tells stories in very conventional start-to-finish ways. The truth is, though Atonement appeared to encounter ideas of cognitive psychology, of how we can deceive ourselves, it was hardly a novel of ideas. The ideas were a device around which a novel hung. Whether McEwan has the will to encounter ideas about climate in a novel remains to be seen.

I thought my views on McEwan being able to write about climate were pessimistic until I came across Paul Kingsnorth of The Dark Mountain Project writing about him:

McEwan, over the last few years, seems to have been nominated by the guardians of our high culture (the broadsheets, Radio Four and the kind of people who hang around at Soho literary parties) as the Grand Old Man of contemporary letters. Every new novel is pored over and dissected in the TLS by professors of literature. McEwan is interviewed glowingly in broadsheet culture sections, and given thousands of words to muse ponderously on weighty subjects like September 11th or climate change. His utterances are quoted reverently by the kind of people who think that  straight-bat banalities become profundities when uttered by novelists rather than cabbies.

And the whole thing is a fraud. That someone as dull and weightless as McEwan can be christened as some kind of literary godhead just shows how callow and flaccid the English novel is at this moment in history. McEwan is a man with nothing to say, who says it at great length, and is admired for it by people who have nothing to say either and enjoy reading about others like themselves. His style is as conservative as his worldview, which is narrrow, secular and bourgeois to a tee.

The trouble with McEwan’s conservatism of form is that it leaves the novelist increasingly hamstrung when it comes to tackling something big and real like climate change. How do you tackle new ideas when you’re still tinkering with an old machine? Ian McEwan has been on one of the Cape Farewell expeditions. He remains involved with the organisation and has written passionately in the newspapers about the need for us to tackle climate.

But when it was announced that he was writing a book about the subject, McEwan himself back-pedalled, to say it wasn’t “about” climate change; that climate change science was the milieu it was set in, it was “the background hum“.

Reasonably, this may be seen as an artists’ natural inclination not to be boxed in by assumptions about what his work is about. But it’s also the product of the kind of formalistic conservatism McEwan and his peers have embraced.  Great British novels usually aren’t “about” very much. Maybe they shouldn’t have to be. Maybe to have climate as “the background hum” is enough.

Interestingly, though, while the grand names of British literary fiction have become increasingly strait-jacketed by the form, it’s the ungainlily-named genre Young Adult that has become the radical one in the last decade. Keen to keep up with the rampant imaginings of teenagers, novelists like Mark Haddon and Philip Pullman appeared far less constrained by a sense of what novels should be like. As a consequence, it’s in Young Adult fiction, rather than literary fiction, that you currently find the novels of ideas – especially when it comes to climate change.

Saci Lloyd’s The Carbon Diaries tackled the idea of how teenagers personal carbon budgets in the near future of 2015 (clue: not very well) head on. Kate Thompson’s new book The White Horse Trick also takes on climate with no sense that it’s a “difficult” subject. In fact, Young Adult fiction allows itself to use all the tricks that literary fiction deems gauche, but which are actually extremely useful when deailng with subjects as big as the environment and our future.

Kate Thompson’s rambunctious children’s book is set in two separate existences, one of which is an apocalyptic future in which Ireland’s topsoil is washed away by storms and its inhabitants struggle to survive in a Burren-like future in which trees are cut down too quickly to replace themselves. Characters cross from there to the Celtic mythic landscape of the West Coast, of Tir na n’Og, the land of eternal youth. As the Independent’s critic Nicola Baird notes approvingly, Thompson pulls off  “the impossible”:

Despite the heavy theme, this is a positive tale that helps readers envision different ways of living. It does so without once lecturing about energy efficiency or using the bus.

It’s a matter of some pride that the book owes its life partly to a residency oragnised by the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre and Situations in Bristol. Kate Thompson kindly opens the book with a dedication which underscores the importance of that residency.

I’m sure Kate Thompson would not want her work compared to that of Ian McEwan’s any more than McEwan would relish having his work discussed in the context of Young Adult fiction. All the same, it’s continually interesting how different art forms feel empowered, or unempowered, to tackle the weighty subject of climate. If McEwan’s novel really does fail to get to grips with a subject he himself has harrangued politicians to take more seriously, then does it leave British literary fiction looking increasingly irrelevant; the fodder of genteel book groups rather than the real and urgent world?

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

How literature tackles climate change


A few months ago I reported on Ian McEwan, currently writing a book inspired by his Cape Farewell
journey to the Arctic, who was saying how hard it was to was to tackle such a “virtuous” topic in a novel.

The trajectory of a short story is very different from a novel, but Helen Simpson manages it deftly in her story “In-flight Entertainment” which appeared in Granta 100. In it, two men who meet in the first class cabin of a transatlantic flight discuss global warming, while, next to them, another passenger dies of a heart attack.

“Four hours’ delay,” volunteered Alan, “thanks to those jokers at Heathrow. Alan Barr, by the way.”

“And I’m Jeremy Lees. Yes, those anti-flying protesters. A waste of time.”

“Complete time-wasters.”

“I suppose so,” said Jeremy. “What I meant, though, was it was a waste of their time. They’re not going to change anything.”

“Exactly.
It’s nonsense, isn’t it, this global warming stuff. Trying to turn the
wheel back. Half the scientists don’t agree with it anyway.”

“Actually
I think you’ll find they do. Ah, red please,’ said Jeremy as the air
stewardess offered him wine. ‘What have you got? Merlot or Zinfandel?
I’ll try the Zinfandel. Thank you. No, they do agree now, they’ve
reached a consensus. I ought to know, I was one of them. No, it’s not
nonsense, I’m afraid. The world really is warming up.”

“Merlot,” said Alan, rather annoyed.

It was published well before the Heathrow decision, but manages to include the line: “Heathrow will get its third runway any time now.”

Nominations for other pieces of contemporary lit which tackle this sort of stuff?

Picture: Still from The Coming Race by Ben Rivers 2006. “An indistinct, slow-moving sea of humanity clambers valiantly up a rocky mountain.” Showing as part of Figuring Landscapes at the Tate Modern, February 6 – 8. Details here.

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