What do you get when you combine the age-old question of ‘the purpose of art’, and the contemporary issue of the planet falling to pieces? I’ll give you a hint: it’s a pretty dreamy coupling. It’s often been said that the most successful art makes us think: in theatre, we’ve been taught by countless practitioners to avoid performance purely for entertainment; music critics like to make a habit of ripping ‘shallow’ modern chart music to shreds, mourning the fact (which is, for the record, absolutely untrue) that “nobody writes lyrics like Johnny Cash these days”; in film, the Oscar never goes to the relatable chick flick, but rather to the poignant, beautifully crafted masterpiece of the year. Whether or not you agree with the responsibility this places on the arts, it must be acknowledged that art absolutely influences the consumer. So, what are fine artists doing to contribute to the fight against climate change?
The IPCC report is invaluable to proving the necessity of acting, and acting fast. But, at the end of the day, your average Joe isn’t going to sit down after a long day at work and read it from cover to cover. The reason that the arts are so invaluable in combating social and political crises is that they make things accessible. The environment has, as you might expect, been a focal point of fine art from the moment the first paintbrush touched the first canvas: painters love nature. Artists like Turner, Rousseau, Cezanne and Van Gogh are famous for their interpretations of the world, but it would actually be pretty challenging to find an artist who hasn’t produced at least one piece of work inspired by nature. The fact that these works aren’t contemporary shouldn’t matter: in fact, it’s incredibly powerful to look at paintings of the earth which were created long before we realised exactly what we were doing to it. If art galleries want to share their portion of the burden, they should be focusing on environmental paintings across the ages. When we begin to notice just how central the planet is to everything we create, we cannot help but feel motivated to protect it.
But – contrary to popular belief – art is still being created today. When studying art, we tend to forget contemporary art; and, arguably, it’s more important than the entire catalogue of human creative output pre-2000 because it’s responding to today’s issues. Alexis Rockman is an American artist who creates dystopian paintings which predict the future of our landscapes if we continue behaving so destructively. He has always been fascinated by the natural world, painting observations of insects and other living creatures in his early career, but as he travelled more extensively and gained deeper insight into the effects of global warming and plastic pollution, his trajectory shifted. He channelled his concerns through art, resulting in an archive of activist paintings which force the consumer to come face-to-face with the future of the planet. Facts and figures are massively important in jolting people into making a difference, but there is nothing in the scientific world which can trigger emotions quite like the arts can.
However, there is also an intriguing point at which science and art intersect. The result is a creative medium called data art. Scientist Ed Hawkins created, in 2016, a piece of data art called ‘Climate spiral’ which presents data in an accessible and understandable way. The piece is a moving image which tracks the average global temperature from 1850 to 2016. The viewer watches as the spiral inches nearer and nearer to two red lines around the edge of the circle, one representing a 1.5-degree increase and the other representing the dreaded 2-degree increase. The Washington Post claimed it was the “most compelling global warming visualisation ever made”, shattering the illusion that endeavours in science and art are mutually exclusive methods of tackling climate change.
2018 saw the introduction of Imperial College London’s Grantham Art Prize, commissioning six artists who collaborated with climate scientists to produce pieces of art specifically intended to explore the dangerous state of the planet, and the way we can kick-start discussions about it through art. Famous street artist Banksy supposedly responded to Extinction Rebellion protests in London with a new piece on a wall in Marble Arch, depicting a young girl holding a sign which reads “From this moment despair ends and tactics begin”, sparking discussion about the ethics behind Extinction Rebellion as well as making it clear that climate activism is being definitively dominated by young people.
The climate crisis is arguably the first crisis in the history of our species which poses an existential threat to every single one of us. Because of this, encouraging conversation is the most important thing we can do – and this has been the role of the arts throughout history.