How artists can rewrite the climate story

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You've probably come across a version of this guilt trip: when there's so much injustice and destruction in the world, and so little time to change it, isn't art a trivial indulgence?

Cartoon by Greg FoysterIt's a false dichotomy, of course, as if art and positive social causes cannot co-exist, and it ignores how creativity and beauty can bring meaning to even the most meagre material circumstances. But I've still found myself thinking it from time to time. When your ethics are grounded in real-world problems and each news cycle serves up fresh tragedy, art can indeed seem a guilty pleasure.

Last month, an interesting paper (PDF) by Dr Samuel Alexander at Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute argued the opposite — that far from being a petty distraction from the world's problems, aesthetics are a crucial part of the solution. Cultural change may in fact precede macroeconomic or political change, and art is our best tool to reimagine culture.

It begins with the premise that the human condition is inherently aesthetic because reality is experienced through the lens of language. We interpret everything through concepts and vocabularies, organised into narratives — the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. 'Cultures are, and have always been, founded upon stories, myths, and narratives that are always evolving, defining the contours of civilisation,' writes Alexander in the opening essay of Art Against Empire, which features a collection of provocative images.

To Alexander, 'politics and economics are tools in the service of story'. For example, the concepts of freedom and happiness can have different interpretations depending on the underlying 'story' of a society. If politics is partly about securing freedom, and economics is partly about advancing happiness, then how we imagine those concepts will flow through to the political and economic structures we create.

As Daniel Quinn laid bare in his great philosophical novel Ishmael, the big story of industrialisation — our foundational myth — is that we can continue to achieve rising affluence through technological progress. And so we look forward to better gadgets and more wealth, expecting each generation will have higher 'standards of living' than the last. We use the language of 'development' to imply that rich nations have reached maturity while poorer nations still have some growing to do. At an individual level, the story is of material wealth as a proxy for happiness.

Within this consumerist culture, aesthetics play a role in the sense of 'tastes'. In the 1980s, French intellectual Pierre Bourdieu demonstrated the link between taste and class: while preferences in clothing, music and literature may seem natural, children pick it up from the society around them, and so certain cultures of consumption are markers for socio-economic status. What one civilisation considers wealthy or prestigious, another may consider shameful or tasteless. Our conventions around what is a 'normal' level of consumption aren't innate but arise from culture and society.

 

"To change the future, we must imagine it into existence. What we need, then, is inspiring visions of a better tomorrow. For this art isn't a trivial indulgence, it's vital work."

 

So where does art come into it? Well it's art and artists who shape tastes. Creating a new grand narrative of a more sustainable society is an act of imagination. This cultural change will foster systemic and structural changes in other realms of human endeavour. Alexander quotes the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, who wrote 'art can­not change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world'. Or, as the novellist J. G. Ballard wrote, 'many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic'.

Reading Alexander's essay prompted some interesting observations. First, while a lot of effort goes into campaigning for action on climate change, few people are challenging the old story of technological progress and economic growth at any cost. In fact, clean energy sources like wind farms and solar panels are widely popular partly because they fit the narrative of never-ending technological advancement. But if the environment movement ultimately wants to question this paradigm, then will all the clean energy cheerleading look counterproductive in a decade's time?

Second, while there's now a plethora of artistic responses to the environmental crisis, so much of it is negative — either criticising the excesses of the present, or predicting destruction in the future. Where are the positive stories of a new, sustainable culture? This is the greatest contribution art can make, yet for every vision of a better world there are a hundred bleak dystopias.

From a creative point of view, this kind of negative art is predictable and timid. Criticising current society and then mapping its decline is easy because the detail already exists in people's minds. You don't have to invent new social, cultural or political structures, merely show the existing ones unravelling.

On the other hand, imagining a new, better society is much more difficult because all these details have to be invented, and then they inevitably come across as impossible or unrealistic to people still immersed in the current story. That's why there are so few works of utopian fiction: it's damn hard to pull off.

But to change the future, we must imagine it into existence. What we need, then, is inspiring visions of a better tomorrow. For this art isn't a trivial indulgence, it's vital work. That's why the activist's guilt trip — that we shouldn't waste time on aesthetics when there are bigger problems in the world — isn't very helpful. Instead, we should encourage artists to engage with the social and environmental issues, creating a new story for us all.

 

 

Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Main image: 'Prosperous Descent', designed by Samuel Alexander, Greg Foyster and Andrew Doodson. Illustrated by Greg Foyster.

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, art, climate change


 

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Excellent article.
Mary Condon | 08 November 2017


Famous art historian, Director of London's National Gallery and the Keeper of the King's Pictures, Kenneth Clark, had this to say about landscape painting: "Nature as a whole is still disturbing, vast and fearful, and lays open the mind to many dangerous thoughts. But in this wild country man may enclose a garden."
Pam | 08 November 2017


Thanks Greg for your very insightful article, but I am afraid it may be too late. I think we are now witnessing the death of the visual artist, metaphorically, and I speak of this as a visual artist who no longer practices. Mainly, its because of the lack of appreciation or the view as you put it well, that it is seen as a dalliance or luxury or trivia we can ill afford. As an alumni member of a college with one of the few remaining arts courses, it has been depressing and disappointing to watch my peers trying to negotiate a future, where they can remain hopeful for their future in trying to keep up a visual art practice, where probably about 80 % of artists can' make a decent living. We lament jobs and careers for females, in particular, but art is one career where both men and women face these daunting statistics. As a religious person I believe that my art is a gift for me to share with the world, but now I believe that like some divine visitation that was presented to the world, the visual artist was to be rejected and scorned. Sounds familiar, because we know it from popular culture from the lives of the famous artists, for instance, Vincent Van Gogh or from the life of Jesus, where he said that the stone rejected was in fact the keystone. Thanks for trying to revive the dying artist but I think it maybe too late.
Rosanne | 09 November 2017


Thanks Greg for this really insightful and positive article. Also, we surely feel for Rosanne's experience of a marginalising of aesthetics. In today's 'digital electronic world' the public imagination is given little scope. People are pawns to be manipulated by aggressive techno-industrial commerce. A scientifically-false goal of humans as inter-stellar planet colonisers is promoted by vested interests (why 'scientifically false' - see 'Humanitarian Cosmology' free on web. Also, see Francine Crimmins' article in ES of 20th Sept. 2017). Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathi spoke the truth: "We have ONE planet and we are ONE people." The 'new frontier' is not space but place. That is a bringing of every human being to a place of freedom, justice and provision. Surely that's challenge enough for all our great sci-tech-economic pretensions? Perceptive artists and musicians and writers could really do a great job in conveying a non-political, global message: NOT SPACE BUT PLACE. For over 100,000 years our human predecessors understood this very well -it isn't a new message (see 'The Anthropocene Misnomer' free on web). To survive, humanity's future must be thoroughly leavened by our ecologically-balanced far past. Richly depicting novel past/present blends should be something Aussie artists specially excel in.
Dr Marty Rice | 10 November 2017


''How artists/novelists/film directors can rewrite the climate story with powerful storytelling'' - an interview with Australian literary critic Greg Foyster https://cli-fi-books.blogspot.tw/2017/11/how-artistsnovelistsfilm-directors-can.html
Dan Bloom | 10 November 2017


Thanks, Dr Marty Rice for making an acknowledgement of my comments regarding the marginalisation of the artist, but as we know it is not only artists that are marginalised but our poets and our wonderful eco- theologians and eco -feminist theologians. I would like to acknowledge where I first read about the concept of the divine visitation. It was in "An Ecological Feminist Reading of the Gospel of Luke" A Gestational Paradigm by Dr. Anne F Elvey, and I think she referenced Mark Coleridge also with regard to this concept. I often think of colonisation of our own Aboriginal peoples, the concept of divine visitation, and lost opportunities to engage with the divine plan. William Barak comes to mind where it has been said that he had a bible always at hand when it came to dealing with the white population. Here was a great opportunity to embrace Aboriginal Australia, and I wonder if more could have been made of this opportunity and also with opportunities currently presenting with our Asylum Seekers plight on Manus and Nauru. Thanks again Greg Foyster for inspiring reflection and comment.
Rosanne | 11 November 2017


Professor James Carson, Head of the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science at Griffith University, recently gave a seminar where he emphasised two foundations for future thinking: First that we respectfully obtain a thorough understanding of the enduring survival skills of pre-citified peoples; Second, that we creatively imagine how the best of their wisdom can be braided together with our citified peoples' ways of life. Whilst we can't go back to the pre-Neolithic, we certainly can hybridize with its sociologically- and ecologically-robust advantages. This has richly innovative potentials for artists, musicians, playwrights, poets, film-producers, and other authors. Within the whole human story, surely this is our KAIROS moment. After 300 years, WATIC (Western Aggressive Techno-Industrial Commerce) is on track for a global catastrophe. NOW, then, is the time for aesthetics, ethics, culture, & theology to step up and open attractive perspectives on more sensible and satisfying ways of life. The arts are crucially important in richly providing alternatives to the cognitive prison & fatal trajectory of scientistic techno-futurism. With humility & humour we can provide rich alternatives to the hubristic and hypnotic monomania of WATIC. Surely, beyond all other crises, this is THE issue of the moment?
Dr Marty Rice | 11 November 2017


For those still following Greg Foyster's great article and cartoons: there's a notification in the current issue of Cosmos magazine - "Research shows that directly confronting people’s beliefs actually has a tendency to reinforce them. Stuart Macmillan’s work transcends the facts and encourages readers to think about the relevance of historical events in a less direct way. 'Climate Café: Can cartoons transform our attitudes to climate change?' will be held at ANU on November 27 at 12:15pm. More details about the event and free tickets are available online."
Dr Marty Rice | 22 November 2017