Every age rewrites its history in its own image. Each age produces art that reflects that image, whether consciously or not.
When power and patronage are in the same hands then social, religious or political agendas are clear, from Medici Popes to twentieth-century totalitarian regimes. Today, the link is less obvious and often a matter of contention amongst art historians – for example, the extent to which the Land Art movement in the final quarter of the last century – or perhaps that should read, the last quarter of the final century – was a response to the environmental crisis pointed up by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
Commissioned art can often tell us what mattered to the chattering classes in any given period. There is a long history of a strong and productive association between the art community and Amnesty International reflecting the importance placed on human freedom in the period after World War II. We demand of our artists that they respond to present dangers. Criticism of the recent exhibitions of contemporary American art in London, at the Serpentine gallery and the Royal Academy, has commonly focused on the failure of American artists to respond effectively to post 9/11.
How might historians fifty years from now – if there are any – judge the image that the early twenty-first century had of itself? Has the time come for the creative community to take up the cause of global warming in the wake of the Stern Report or is the English novelist Ian McEwan correct when he said in an essay published last year that “we know in our hearts that the very best art is entirely and splendidly useless”.1
Of course, the function of the artist is to produce good art not save the planet and yet, perhaps, we should expect our art to be rooted in contemporary issues. So what might the individual artist do? Be informed, join the debate, act like a good citizen in striving to ensure that their art practice is as carbon neutral as possible – don't use toxic materials or overdo the advertising and exhibit locally and regionally; wear the badge, buy the t-shirt, jump on the bandwagon, adopt a polar bear, hug a husky! Perhaps, too, such personal responses should be taken up collectively by the artistic and cultural community, with a commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) by gallerists, arts funding bodies and other arts professionals.
How about doing eco-art, like the artists involved in the Cape Farewell Art and Climate Change Exhibition at the recent Liverpool Biennial? [If you missed the exhibition then you can see for yourself how artists responded to their trip to the Arctic in 2005 by buying the book or the DVD Burning Ice: Art and Climate Change.] According to the show's curator, artist David Buckland, artists have a role to play in the battle against global warming and the Arctic is the front line. August's edition of Art Review magazine has a series of articles on environmental art, including a piece by Janet Owen Griggs on the mounting green tide of artists set to save the natural world, going back to Beuyss and his 7000 oaks and through to contemporary, collaborative, community-driven reclamation projects and site transformations.
There are a number of institutions that are already taking a lead in the move towards ecologically-committed arts practice in the UK. Research in Art, Nature and the Environment (RANE), based at University College Falmouth hosted two conferences last year, and Dartington College of Arts has recently completed a symposium on Art and Ecology. The London School of Economics hosted a conference organised by the RSA – Royal society of Arts – entitled No Way Back? as part of their Arts and Ecology programme.
Artist-led organisations that can lend a helping hand to would-be eco-artists are the Landscape and Arts Network, a UK charity whose artist members are committed to fostering art in the environment, both built and natural, and Artists in Nature International (AiNIN), that provides information about commissions and competitions mostly for ephemeral, installation art in natural surroundings.
Art can profoundly affect the human condition. Its power needs to be harnessed for the well-being of the planet; discussions on the role of the artist need to encompass matters of social responsibility and the extent to which artists' practice should respond to society’s needs and expectations. The Earth needs a Guernica.
1. Ian McEwan, ‘Save the boot room, save the Earth’, The Guardian, March 19, 2005.
Originally published in the UK by a-n Magazine. Image by Eileen H.