How should the artworld be responding to the issues of sustainability and the environment? Dialogue editor Lucy Gibson looks at why the arts should be leading the way on climate action, rather than looking to corporations and science for moral leadership.Â But inÂ aÂ sector made up of many individuals and small organisations, alongsideÂ enormous institutions,Â why and how can change really be affected?
It should make the art world blush to hear a leading arts and environment activist stating that Walmart, followed by Coca-Cola, Unilever and Tescos, have done more than most in dealing with the impact of climate change. But that is exactly the message from Alison Tickell, Director of Julieâ€™s Bicycle at the Arts Council Englandâ€™s â€˜A Low Carbon Future for the Arts?â€™ consultation meeting in February. â€˜Why do we expect moral leadership to come from corporations and science?â€™ asks Tickell, â€˜Surely the meaningful nature of the arts in society puts it in a position to take a lead on climate action?
Heart of Darkness by Cornelia Parker, 2004 fromÂ Earth: art of a changing world, London 2009
This is Climate Action on Cultural Hertitage week â€“ itâ€™s an initiative championed byÂ Bridget McKenzie as a response to the growing number of individuals and organisations calling for a more clearly defined sense of purpose from the arts and heritage sector. Â People like Al Tickell of Julieâ€™s Bicycle ask: â€œWhy do we expect moral leadership to come from corporations and science? Surely the meaningful nature of the arts in society puts it in a position to take a lead on climate action?â€
There are two aspects to this. Firstly itâ€™s about how we behave ourselves. Art fairs, say, have become an example of the muscularity of the art industry. As curators/criticsÂ Maja and Reuben Fowkes have asked, Â is this world of global art jamborees a sustainable one? Gustav Metzgerâ€™sÂ Reduce Art Flights was one of the artistâ€™s passionate â€œappealsâ€, this time to the art world to reconsider how they had been seduced into transporting themselves and their works around the globe. Furtherfield.orgâ€™sÂ We Wonâ€™t Fly For Art was equally explicit, asking artists to commit to opting out of the high profile career track that conflates your ability to command air tickets with success.
Industries can change the way they behave. Tickellâ€™s work with the music business has already shown how a cultural industry can transform itself in terms of process.
But thereâ€™s also the role of art as a spoke in the wheel of culture. Science itself changes nothing. To become a transitional society requires more than policy. The real change must be cultural.Â So should climate be the subject matter of art?
Pause for thought: Do we want rock stars enjoining us to change our ways? Please God, no. See? If it doesnâ€™t work for rock music, why should it work for other art forms?
In an article being published next week on theÂ RSA Arts & Ecology website, Madeleine Bunting will be arguing strongly against the urge to push artists into an instrumental role in climate:
â€œThe visual arts offer a myriad of powerful ways to think and feel more deeply about our age and our humanity, but it is almost impossible to trace the causal links of how that may feed through to political engagement or behaviour change,â€ she cautions.
It is time to accept that artists donâ€™t simply Â â€doâ€ climate. Even the most obviously campaigning art is of little value if it is simply reducible to being about climate. They may be inspired to create by the facts of science and economics, as Metzger and Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett of Furtherfield were in those examples above, but if you asked them to make art about climate theyâ€™d almost certainly run a mile.
What was interesting about the RA exhibitionÂ Earth: art of a changing world was the way that made that explicit. Artists like Cornelia Parker and Keith Tyson were clear in saying their pieces that they werenâ€™t necessarily conceived with climate in mind at all, (though both are passionate about the subject). The decision to include Parkerâ€™sÂ Heart of Darkness as an a piece of work to make us ponder the destruction of our planet was a curatorial one.
Thereâ€™s a kind of separation between church and state needed here; institutions shouldnâ€™t just be looking to their carbon footprints, they should be looking to see how they can contextualise this cultural shift with what they show their audiences â€“ whatever the artform. It is up to the curators, directors and art directors to take on this role. In this coming era, we urgently need events, exhibitions and festivals that make us feel more deeply about the change taking place around us â€“ and we need them to find new audiences for those explorations too.
But what we shouldnâ€™t be doing is asking artists to make art about climate.