Painting

“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

New Mexico Art & Ecology BFA and MFA program

An installation being constructed by the University of New Mexico art and ecology students.

The University of New Mexico has a BFA and MFA program in art and ecology. I’m not sure when it started, but from their website, it seems that the program builds on previous eco-art classes and the university’s Land Arts of the American West program.

Read all about it at art.unm.edu/ecology.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me is that if you go to the UNM Art and Art History homepage, the genres listed are:

  • painting and drawing
  • photography
  • ceramics
  • sculpture
  • art history
  • printmaking
  • electronic arts
  • art and ecology

I have to say that I’m surprised (and sort of enjoy) that this is an area or genre of study now. But I hope that it doesn’t result in other students thinking less about how ecology and environmentalism might play a role in their work.

From my experience, dividing students into specific genres has it’s positives and negatives. I’m thankful that I’ve studied in schools that are relatively open to interdisciplinary work while also engaging the medium-specific skills and information, if a young artist needs that in their work.

To a certain extent, any genre or “area” serves the needs of an academic institution, but I’ve always thought of eco-related art as spanning existing genres and would be hesitant to define it as its own medium. While eco-art may have its own concerns, I’ve been noticing that many young artists today—regardless of genre—think a lot about the environment and how artists can make work about it. As a result, much of the art that interests me isn’t overtly or obviously tied to environmentalism, but I believe it is there as an undercurrent.

Here’s hoping that this new program can help students find new and interesting ways to think about art and the environment, and that the “art and ecology” area adds to UNM’s other areas of study.

Go to Eco Art Blog