Should we still be flying for art’s sake?

When Emma Thompson joined the protest against the third runway at Heathrow earlier this year, MP Geoff Hoon was scathing. “She’s been in some very good films,” he said. “Love Actually is very good, but I worry about people who I assume travel by air quite a lot and don’t see the logic of their position.”

I remember being extremely disturbed by what he said. Shocked even. Here was a former Defence Minister and Chief Whip, one of the tough guys, publicly coming out in favour of an excruciatingly meandering rom com. One of Richard Curtis’s worst, in fact.

Less surprising was Hoon’s attack on an actress for joining the ranks of the climate protestors. When artists lend their weight to a cause they open themselves to charges of hypocrisy. Who is she, an actress who flies across to Hollywood on a regular basis, to tell us not to fly?

The poets John Kinsella and Melanie Challenger are currently writing a work for the RSA Arts & Ecology website called Dialogue between the body and the soul, which grew out of both the poets’ decision not to fly to poetry readings. Now, even if every published poet in the world gave up flying, it would hardly make a major statistical dent in the world’s carbon footprint, but for each of them it is a major decision. Poetry is an endangered species of an artform, and practitioners have to take their audience wherever they find it. For Challenger, who is a new poet starting out, this is the kind of public commitment that could hobble her career for good.

Interestingly, there have been rumbings of unease elsewhere in the art community about the amount of too-ing and fro-ing required by the modern international art scene. Two years ago Gustav Metzger initiated Reduce Art Flights; a manifesto contribution to Sculpture Projects Münster that called for artists to go cold turkey on their addiction to international travel.

With full cognisance that it is ‘a drop in the ocean’, the RAF ‘manifesto’ nevertheless invites voluntary abandonment – a fundamental, personal, bodily rejection of technological instrumentalization and a vehement refusal to participate in the mobility increasingly endemic to the globalized art system.

And earlier this year artists Marc Garrett and Ruth Catlow invited colleagues to sign a “I will not fly for art“ pledge. Garrett and Catlow are the founders of and HTTP Gallery. The Geoff Hoon in you might feel tempted to note that both are committed to the ideas of virtual art in networked space. Give up flying? Well, maybe that’s easy for them to say.

The point is there is no one-size-fits-all pledge. That’s the unfairness of Hoon’s jibe.  We may accept that air travel has been the UK’s fastest growing emissions sector in this decade, and carbon emitted by planes in the atmosphere is three times more damaging than carbon emitted by cars on the ground. We may perfectly reasonably oppose plans for further airport expansion. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want Emma Thompson to fly to the US to make Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang. (OK. Bad example.)

As Dialogue between the body and the soul winds to a conclusion, I’m going to use it as an excuse to ask writers and artists their thoughts on what they do — and don’t — feel comfortable to commit to .

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology