Why climate action needs the arts

Andrew Simms writes: “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 Anglian 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 to directly influence the climate debate.

That is all now changing. [Continue reading…]

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