“Art is not a mirror to reflect reality,” wrote Bertolt Brecht, ”but a hammer with which to shape it.” His view was clearly shared by the judges of Anglia Ruskin University’s recent sustainable art prize. The winning piece was a large tombstone themed on climate change, blackened by oil and carrying the words “Lest we forget those who denied.”
The fact that there were also the names of six prominent climate sceptics on the tombstone led the Telegraph newspaper to denounce it as “tasteless” and “obnoxious”, and for one of those named, Christopher Monckton, to claim the artwork constituted a death threat.
From Goya, who darkly interpreted the horrors of Europe at war, to the romantics who conjured the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution, art has always explored and assimilated the experience of upheaval. More than that, from Milton’s pamphleteering, to the British artists and writers who fought in the Spanish civil war against Franco’s fascism, art has put itself at the service of explicitly political campaigns throughout history.
It is only odd, perhaps, that it has taken climate change so long to become a significant and controversial theme for the arts. The relative absence from daily political and cultural life of something as fundamental as a threat to a climate stable for humanity, has been weird. There will always be those who argue that didactic art is bad art. But equally, art that doesn’t notice, or remains unaffected by, epochal shifts in the world it inhabits, is variously asleep, suffocatingly self-absorbed or simply not looking.
If anything, the willingness to accept high-profile sponsorship from fossil fuel companies suggests that the art establishment has been worse than indifferent, and actively obstructive to the challenge of tackling climate upheaval. The social licence to operate, and normalisation that such cultural relationships gift to oil companies, can dissipate the urgency for action and sponsorship can seek todirectly influence the climate debate.
That is all now changing. Uncomfortable light is being shone on sponsorship deals by campaigns like Liberate Tate, more artists are engaging with the issue, and the Guardian, for example, chose to couple its Keep it in the Ground campaign on fossil fuels with poems curated by Carol Ann Duffy. But the question will remain and grow about whether art is there to help us see something, engage with it or change it. Should, and can, art be part of a campaigning agenda to change opinion and behaviour?
There is a long tradition of so-called environmental art that explores an intimate relationship with the landscape. Artists like Andy Goldsworthy do so by subtly rearranging small elements, making patterns and new forms from leaves, rocks and snow, as if in testimony to a longed-for benign and beautiful symbiotic cultural relationship between nature and human society. Others, like Richard Long, do so simply by walking through the landscape and being and observing, encouraging us all to see better and be more fully present in the world.
Bolder has been the pioneering Cape Farewell project that takes writers, actors, artists and musicians to witness first-hand the impact of global warming in the Arctic circle. The hoped for outcome is for the experience to be reflected in the subsequent work such that it has a cultural ripple and awareness raising effect. Ian McEwan, for example, wrote a novel, Solar, with a climate theme and several visual artists have produced pieces seemingly spellbound by the encounter with an alien world of ice under threat.
How effective this approach is we’re unlikely to know until decades from now we find ourselves either in a world of uncontrolled warming, or not. The leading comedian Marcus Brigstocke travelled twice with Cape Farewell to see the melting ice. That in itself was an achievement as he feared for his life on the first trip and swore never to go again. But the prospect of a bigger ship going closer to shore and with more time on land meeting affected Inuit communities persuaded him. It left a huge impression on him, and he performed a whole routine on the theme at last week’s Hay Festival, but still carries some reservations.
“I concluded that the artistic community is not well placed to deal with the urgency suggested by the scientific case,” argues Brigstocke, who warned about the danger of being seduced by the subject matter. We should, he said, “be careful about being in love with the tragedy of melting ice (because) it needs to translate into something that makes sense of it.”
While warning that comedy can’t be expected to change things directly, he does (as you’d hope and expect) wave the flag for it. It can, he says, “attach something bleak to something warm and fluffy.”
This week, the 2 Degrees Festival runs with a focus on art, activism and the environment. One of the pieces by artist Steve Lambert is a bright neon-lit hoarding, something in the style of a 1950s American Diner, which asks ‘Capitalism works for me: True? False?’ It will be positioned on streets around London inviting passers-by to engage in conversation and then vote. That may sound ridiculously simple. But the preferences of financial markets and the privilege of capital, not the common good or the survival of our species, is still the ultimate reference point in our political process.
The fact that organisers Arts Admin were turned away from every site in the City of London where they asked for official permission set up the work, suggests that for all its power and dominance, capitalism and its institutions find it deeply uncomfortable to have their existence openly questioned. Simply revealing that is a good outcome for a piece of art. Tipping Point and Stories of Change is another exciting, experimental, long term project bringing artists, academics, story tellers and more together.
For some, perhaps, art may be a hammer with which to shape reality, for others it’s a window opening on a world seen in a compellingly new way. But it can also be a feather that tickles you through a difficult idea to a new understanding and frame of mind. Whichever works for you, climate action abhors a cultural vacuum. We need more.
Once upon a time ... Magritte Duane Michals, René Magritte, 1967
René Magritte is world famous for his strange and poetic images. He was born on 21 November 1898 in Lessines, (Hainaut) Belgium. When Magritte is 12 years old, he attends drawing classes above a sweet shop! At 18, because the art of painting seems somehow 'magical', he decides to make this his career and he enrols at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brussels. Georgette and René Magritte, 1922
At 15, Magritte meets Georgette at a fair. A few years later, they meet again and marry. She becomes his favourite model and she lets him stage the scenes where he paints her in all sorts of outfits and in some surprising poses and places. A great complicity unites them throughout their lives!
The man who became a painter René Magritte, Woman on Horseback, 1922, RMFAB
During his years at the Academy, Magritte meets a lot of other artists who later become hi…
Todos os anos, diversas agências de notícias e de fotografias, selecionam as melhores fotos do ano. Visitando os diversos sites, escolhi algumas que mais me tocaram. Possivelmente não sejam apenas belas, mas me surpreendi com a alta frequência de fotos relacionadas com as mudanças climáticas. Ou foi meu olhar de pesquisadora?
Inicio com uma seção de mundo, natureza, humano...
As paisagens se modificam, com diversos conflitos climáticos! Não pude me esquivar das políticas fascistas em plena ascensão, que coadunam com as catástrofes ecológicas, e que forjam a migração desesperada neste mundo contemporâneo.
Entre territórios e desterritorializações, parece que o poder político dos sexos, racismos, preconceitos e violências promovem a extinção da própria Terra. Contudo, quiçá novas linhas de fuga possibilitem o esperançar do pulsar da VIDA!
Que em 2019, as tribos usem suas máquinas de guerra contra Thanatos. E que os coletivos poéticos consigam emergir com a força de Eros!
Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images An Artist Ahead of His Time, and Ours Images: John Baldessari's gallery design features Magritte's Personal Values next to Vija Celmins's Untitled (Comb), with Jeff Koons's stainless steel Rabbit in the right foreground.Left: the entryway to the exhibition, with Magritte's The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe) on the far wall. Installation photos by Steve Oliver. The InstallationNOTHING WILL QUITE PREPARE YOU for the setting of LACMA's astonishing new show featuring the works of René Magritte and thirty-one contemporary artists. As Suzanne Muchnic wrote in the Nov. 12 Los Angeles Times, “John Baldessari, a pioneering conceptualist represented in the show, has designed an installation intended to turn the galleries—and visitors' experience—upside down. The entrance will re-create ‘The Unexpected Answer,’ a Magritte painting of a door with a cutout silhouette of a gh…