ART IN THE ANTROPOCENE: The potential for art as a vehicle for transformation
Article by Jared Spears
Amid such critical issues as renewable energy, transport emissions, and political strategy at London’s first-ever Climate Action Week, the week-long series of government-sponsored events closed with a panel discussion on art’s potential to inspire change.
As London convened, the magnitude of the global crisis cannot be overstated. The U.N.’s IPCC report has given the world 12 years to dramatically reduce carbon emissions for even a chance of staving off the most catastrophic heating scenarios. That clock is ticking, and signs of strain — sea level rise, intensified storms and wildfires, desertification, political instability and refugee movements — are already manifest. Fundamental transformation of global economic systems is now required — that is, if rapid man-made extinction and biodiversity loss doesn’t wreck food systems first.
In the face of the twin crises of climate change and ecosystem collapse, and in light of the profound systemic societal changes these crises demand, it’s worth asking: what role does art have to play in climate and ecological action?
The mention of art in this discussion may strike some as superfluous. The science is clear, and governments have an array of measures as their disposal to halt global heating and begin addressing its symptomatic effects. As a spokesperson for the U.N. IPCC report observed, however, “the final tick box is political will.” Given the insufficiency of government responses — which range from dithering and delay to outright denial — what’s called for are social and political movements.
Comprehending the scope, complexity, and intersections between the struggle for environmental justice with pre-existing social justice struggles, what’s actually called for is a coalition of diverse movements. Entrenched interests are aligned with forces of racism, chauvinism, xenophobia, economic inequality and greed. Complacency, despondency, and misinformation conspire to maintain an untenable status quo. Bringing the demand for just transition to bear on power, and holding that power to account, is the struggle of this century. Its scope is without precedent, but many different streams of historical struggle flow into it.
In advancing this cause, what can art achieve that can’t be more effectively handled by direct action, dissemination of facts, and rational argument?
Artist Olafur Eliasson headlined the London panel ahead of a major exhibition of his work at the Tate Modern. Eliasson’s name has attained global preeminence in discussion of climate-minded artwork. His iconic Ice Watch, a series of human-scale installations in which melting ice sculptures are arranged in public spaces, has had several incarnations across European cities. The 2015 installation in Paris, a public intervention of art amidst the U.N. COP21 Climate Conference, garnered particular media attention.
Art interventions like Ice Watch contribute to a necessary raising of the alarm, quite literally bringing a far-off reality of global warming and thrusting it into the paths of peoples’ daily life. So long as the need for such confrontations persists, this type of creative intervention into public life remain important in shifting public discourse.
Confronting such art in-person offers a means of cutting through tired discourse to engage sense-perception at a direct level. Yet, as the spectacle of provocations like Ice Watch lend themselves to social-media propagandizing, that potential often becomes diluted. The language of art is immediate and immersive, but when flattened to a meme, art is reduced to everyday discourse.
And increasingly, public majorities in the U.K. and the U.S.A. already acknowledge the reality of man-made global warming. Consensus of the climate crisis’ existence is not the only issue. Looking ahead with urgency to the next hurdle, the problem of political will remains. The question then becomes: how can responses to the realities of climate and ecological collapse be channeled into the collective pursuit of radical solutions?
Crucially, this is not a question of plastic straws or recycling. Nor is it exclusively about your car, your diet, nor any set of individual lifestyle choices. The need to build grassroots capacity and challenge existing power structures demands the collective imagination of radically different futures . This involves imaginative engagement not only with environmental and technological futures, but social and political ones as well.
Considering such acts of reimagination, we cannot underestimate the power of inherited ideas and unconscious biases to limit radical collective re imagination. Humanity is, after all, a social being; our language, behaviour, even the very logic of our thought are all profoundly shaped by social acculturation. Logics and narratives that give sense to the complexity of modern life become ingrained, calcifying into comforting prejudices which society scarcely acknowledges.
20th century poet-innovator Ezra Pound labelled such prejudices “the unwritten fallacies of general credence.” As a champion of the 20th century Modernist movement in literature, Ezra Pound was particularly attuned to the ways entrenched ideas could inhibit radical change. He saw in art the capacity to spark new ways of thinking and seeing. This ability to “prevent one from getting swamped in contemporaneous, from thinking things must be or necessarily are as they should be” he considered vital to art’s role in public life.
What does being “swamped in contemporaneous” look like in the Anthropocene? Plenty of tired ideas pervade the way pressing issues are thought of and talked about. Ideas of endless economic growth, of how wealth is distributed within society, and about the means and ends of a good life—deludedly valoured as “the hustle”— swarm in a tangled knot of pervasive, semi-conscious ideas which now seem beyond their expiry date. This tangled knot of beliefs is encapsulated in the concept of neoliberal thinking.
Such mental stagnation is also found in in discussion of “what’s politically possible” today. A memorable exchange between a U.S Senator and a group of school-age climate activists in 2018 offers a flagrant example. With self-certain condescension, Senator Diane Fienstein told a group of pre-teen petitioners, flatly, that the crisis “is not going to get turned around in 10 years.” The prudence of decades of bitter political experience only read, given the stakes, as either a failure or refusal to re imagine possibilities that circumstance demands.
If “what’s realistic” doesn’t include continued human habitation on Earth by billions, what’s needed is not lower expectations, but new paradigms of possibility.
What is wanting, then, is art that will live up to its promise of transcending these fixed ways of thinking. Art that can function as a vehicle for a collective raising of consciousness. Ezra Pound proposed the “sudden liberation” one can experience in the face of great art (a possibility he also connected to sensations of being in nature). He defined art, at least in part, in terms of this affective potential to induce a sense of “freedom from time limits and space limits, that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” This fleeting capacity was, he wrote, key to art’s function in public life: “precisely that it does incite humanity to continue living; that it eases the mind of strain, and feeds it…as nutrition of impulse...” Directed against mental inertia, art could be an accusation. Looking beyond the contemporaneous, art could be a vehicle for an awakening even more profound.
Today, what we typically think of as “art” by no means has sole claim to society’s imaginative faculties. No matter what corners they come from, public acts of creative re-imagination are now desperately needed. The important thing is the awakening—if art can live up to this higher promise, it will need to serve as a vehicle for shifting consciousness. Arts practitioners are just one group who happen to be trained and positioned to make such provocations.
In the Anthropocene, such acts need not necessarily look like the “protest art” or “climate art” to make an impact, as Pound’s writing reminds us:
A work of art need not contain any statement of a political or of a social or of a philosophical conviction, but it nearly always implies one…
The strength of the arts is this. Their statement is a statement of motor forces. Argument begets but argument and reflective reason, if stated only as reflective reason, begets either a state of argumentativeness or a desire for further information…The artist presents his case, as fully or as minutely as he chose. You may agree or disagree, but you cannot refute him…
What such art actually looks like is as impossible to prescribe now as it was then. One promising current over recent decades has been from the “land art” movement to more widely-encompassing forms of ecological art. Seeking to preserve, re mediate, or vitalise Earth’s ecology—life forms and sustaining patterns—ecological art contains the capacity both to critique existing human relationships to our surrounding ecologies and to suggest new possibilities by reframing those relationships. Such art practices are characterised by their working with such ecological patterns, not opposing them.
Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, featuring artist Agnes Denes, a pioneer of Ecological Art. © 1982 Agnes Denes
Likewise in literature, Kenneth White has proposed the new field of “geopoetics.” White has described this orientation as an attempt, via language, to “move out of pathological psycho-history, along encoded paths, into fresh existential, intellectual, poetic space…always connected to sensed space, a lived existence.” These two parallel developments share an aspiration to transcend the existing anthropocentric paradigm. They both seem to answer what poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire envisaged in the early 20th century, when he wrote that new art would take “the infinite universe as its ideal” in order to seek “an ideal beauty that will no longer be merely the prideful expression of the species…” They are attempts to unfetter practitioner and audience alike from our preconceived ways of thinking about mankind’s relationship to Earth.
As in all times, art will continue to be an outlet for sincere emotional expression, carrying with it the power to move others. But these are not normal times. Moving forward, climate and ecological activism calls for societies worldwide to rapidly reconsider what's possible, daring to imagine radically new futures.
Theorist T.J. Demos, for example, emphasizes art’s potential as a mode for such critical speculative thinking:
It’s a place where people can propose both criticisms of the present world order and its relationship to economic governance, social and political forces, and can also offer creative alternatives to those fields, through forms of ecological sustainability, or ways of living—in a radically democratic way, or…an economy of sharing.
Considering the role of optimism in inspiring positive action, such speculative imaginings ought to include narratives extending beyond “climate disaster.” That includes projections of positive systemic transformation—art that implies radical transformation not just in our relationship to Earth, but our social relations as well. How can such deeply ingrained aspects of our social reality change as rapidly as they need to? What will society and its institutions look like once transformed?
Of course, all of this is only possible when art is collectively given the time and space within public life to make full, vigorous engagement widely accessible. If art is to serve in the defining struggle of the 21st century, it will need to be given the chance to live up to its full transformative potential. The words of American naturalist Adolph Murie must apply as well to art as they did to conservation. “Let us think on a greater scale,” he implored. “Let us not have those of the future decry our smallness of concept and lack of foresight.”
If art can have any chance at fulfilling this higher calling, it must above all share in this audacity.