Since the publication of Goya’s The Disasters of War series in 1863, art and activism have had an intimate relationship. From Picasso’s spectacular Guernica to the Guerrilla Girls and their slogan-based works, a large part of art’s avant-garde reputation throughout the twentieth century has come from artists’ willingness to make progressive political statements through their work. It is no surprise, then, that the art world started talking about “the climate crisis” decades before pickets reached our Instagram feeds. Environmental concerns entered the mainstream artistic conscience in the 1960s. A changing definition of what constituted art ushered in a new generation of artists, one of whom was Joseph Beuys. Enigmatic and highly political, as part of an action work in 1962 Beuys created Elbe River Action, which was essentially a proposal to clean a German river.
This year the Venice Biennale, considered the final bastion of that most traditional of cultural institutions, the International Exhibition, was filled with allusions to climate change. The pavilion that drew the most attention, Lithuania, hosted an artificial beach where opera singers vocalised our apparent indifference about the fate our planet. Striking, perhaps, but surely less revolutionary than Beuys work almost half a century ago.
Despite stating its concerns loudly in slogans and spectacle for decades, the art world continues to blithely perpetrate the same irresponsible behaviours as any other industry. The calendar of fairs, central to the sustaining of the art market, demand that exhibitors, experts and visitors make multiple long-distance trips to be in attendance. They also necessitate the specialised transportation of art works, which results in a far bigger footprint than an economy airline passenger. The Venice Biennale draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to a city already sinking, both literally and metaphorically under the weight of tourism on its pavements. And the very nature of the avant-garde itself creates an endless need for the new.
In 2018 renowned artist and climate activist Olafur Eliasson, whose current show at the Tate Modern made up one of the slew of ecoart exhibitions in major galleries this summer, flew 30 blocks of ice from Greenland to London. The records of this action on display in Eliasson’s current Tate exhibition state that the carbon impact of this was the same as flying two classes of schoolchildren from Germany to London. He defends his work on the basis of its didactic value. It is only one action in a sea of other environmental anomalies; exhibitions are accompanied by guidebooks and flyers, institutions release leaflets on their upcoming events. Artists themselves use high impact materials frequently. The most famous of the Land Artists, the movement from which ecoart was born, Christo and the late Jeanne-Claude, have been criticised throughout their careers for the lasting impact of their sculptures, which frequently involve wrapping entire buildings, beaches, rivers and lagoons in thousands of square metres
Perhaps one issue that is impeding artists’ progress is the same one that we prefer to shy away from: what is happening to our planet? How much of it is our fault and what can we do about it? I am a vegetarian, second-hand clothes wearing, keep-cup carrying carbon off-setter but I couldn’t really, honestly tell you what my actions are for. If you have never tried looking into the science behind climate change, I implore you to do so. What you will find is a sea of thoughts and good intentions obfuscating science that struggles to agree on a quantifiable cause and effect. This vagueness is indicative of a very unhealthy socio-political environment wherein to question the accepted rhetoric around climate change puts a scientist or law-maker at risk of being labelled a climate-change denier. This silencing has spread to (or perhaps spread from) the art world, causing a sector that should be fostering radical difference of opinion to become homogenised.
And finally, we should reflect on how much our society needs art: is Eliasson justified in claiming didactic immunity? The work of Jean Claude and Christo, and Eliasson are works of public art, and much more likely to be seen by people who would not usually enter a museum. If we want art to maintain its relevance, this is surely how best to ensure that happens. The art world might be poorly informed when it comes to matters of the environment, but so are we. It might fail to engage with debate, but so do we. It might talk the talk without walking the walk, but so do we. In this way, as in so many other ways, the art world is a brash reflection of our own society’s shortcomings.