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How artists can rewrite the climate story

  • 08 November 2017


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?

It'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