Madeleine Bunting

“Art has been slow to grasp the significance of climate change…”

Mathematical Nature Painting: Nested, 2008 by Keith Tyson

Contemporary art about climate change is still sometimes seen as the frivolous dilettante who has showed up late to what it thinks might be an interesting party.

Writing about both the Royal Academy’s Earth: of a changing world and RETHINK Contemporary art and climate change exhibitions in today’s Guardian in an article titledThe Rise of Climate Change Art, Madeleine Bunting states, “Some activists have wondered why the art world has been slow to grasp the significance of climate change.”

Actually, activists think everyone is slow to grasp everything, but anyway… It’s less that art has been slow to grasp the significance, more that art rarely produces the kind of loud kazoom that activism does – or wants it to.

To many this remains a source of huge frustration. James Mariott of Platform, which programmed the lively 100 Days strand at the Arnolfini in the run up to COP15, expresses continued frustration at the artworld’s timidity.

“The arts stumble along the fault line between representation and transformation,” Marriot said to Bunting. “But, until 50 or so years ago, all art was about transformation and persuasion. Look at Goya: he wanted to persuade you of the horrors of war.”

Almost the polar opposite view comes eloquently from artist Keith Tyson. Tyson told Bunting how he had gone to a lecture on climate change at Cern, Swizterland. To hear scientists talking baldly among themselves about the true graveness of our situation was an experience he recalls as “terrifying”. But still he does not quite see himself as one of Marriott’s more focused “persuaders”:

“[The role of art] is not to advocate solutions. It is something much deeper and more subtle – to make us reflect and rethink what it is to be a human being in the 21st century. We don’t have that much power. It’s nature that creates us. That’s the kind of education too subtle to put on a syllabus: that’s the important role of art.”

Earth: Art of a changing world was also on this morning’s Today programme, there reporter David Sillito gave a third view of what art could be doing at the party, claiming: “For those who are immune to debates in science and politics, culture –  art, songs, stories jokes – can have a power far greater than any scientific paper.”

Art, Sillito seems to be saying, has the disruptive power to reach the mass unconverted by activism and reason.

You see, it’s not so much that art is even late to the party. But it is true that at times art is not exactly sure what it is doing there.

In a few days the Culture|Futures symposium kicks off in Copenhagen. The symposium, led by the Danish Cultural Institute and a partnership of arts organisations from around the world, is based on the premise that the scale of the transition to the environmental age is so massive that just waiting for the right technological or political solution to show it self is not enough. It requires fundamental cultural change, and very fast change.

It’s a chance for the symposium to start asking those pesky student union bar questions that could help us understand what, if any, art’s role in int he transition is going to be. Does the kind of activist art James Marriott has curated at Bristol actually change any minds – if so, where’s the evidence for that? Do “deep and subtle” explorations make any difference outside a gallery or theatre? Is art really a shortcut to the unconvinced? Do we even have the time to be “deep and subtle?”

Apologies for the hiatus over the last few days: swine flu.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

10 ways of looking at Radical Nature

The critics pass judgement on  Radical Nature, at the Barbican and elsewhere:

PERCEPTIVELY Hari Kunzru The GuardianNature is in crisis… It’s not even really beautiful any more. It’s a problem, a remnant, something that needs to be conserved and argued for. The chances of being romantically overwhelmed are slim.

PROVOCATIVELY Regine Debatty We make money not artAs long as these artworks do not step out of museums and galleries most people hardly ever visit … , I fear that the impact of their work might be somewhat limited.

NEGATIVELY Edwin Heathcote, Financial TimesThe show just doesn’t hang together. “Museums,” said Smithson, “are tombs, and it looks like everything is turning into a museum.” Forty years on, we’re still in the museum.

POSITIVELY Madeleine Bunting in The GuardianOn every side, artists are putting their shoulder to the wheel, trying to prompt the revolution in values and attitudes required to deal with environmental crisis.

ARTISTS SHOULD STICK TO ART-ISHLY Rachel Campell-Johnston, The TimesIt’s all very worthy and often delightful… But do artists contribute anything practical?

THOUGHTFULLY Skye Sherwin in The GuardianFrancesco Manacorda, identifies… a dangerous dualism concerning how we think about nature and culture:.. but while many artists here lament the rift or attempt to close the gap, only a few explore its potential…

DEFEATEDLY Christopher Werth: Newsweek: That somewhat defeated tone pervades much of the newer work, which reveals little of the excitement[… ] found in the campaigns of Beuys and Ukeles. Perhaps that’s only natural after 40 years of environmental art, when for most of that time, so few have paid attention to the message.

ENTHUSIASTICALLY Throughstones blogThe Radical Nature project is an extremely important landmark exhibition, and groundbreaking in the degree to which it reaches out to the public and integrates with real life as it is lived. It will for sure have a far-reaching influence for many years to come.

OBTUSELY Rowan Moore The Evening Standard: Saving the planet is more to do with the Chinese changing the way they build power stations, or Americans changing the way they make cars, than anything an artist can do.

LOOK AT US, WE’RE CYNICAL AND ENVIRONMENTALISTS-ARE-ALL -FASCISTS ANYWAY-ISHLY Anorak.co.uk on the Tree Radical parade through central London: One man has painted his face and others are raising their arms in the air, in the manner of Moseley’s mob. The driver tells us that these are the Green Shirts not the fascist Black Shirts. Old Mr A says “same difference”.

Some are thoughtful, some are downright enthusiastic; some seem distinctly rattled, too.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

Madeline Bunting in today’s Guardian: the “quiet powerhouse” that is RSA Arts & Ecology

Radical Nature’s The Dalston Mill project

Radical Nature’s The Dalston Mill project

Madeleine Bunting’s article on the role of arts in changing perceptions about the environment kicks off by looking at Radical Nature’s The Dalston Mill project, and discusses new work Gustav Metzger and new thoughts from Tim Smit and gives a very warmly appreciated nod to the RSA Arts & …

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology