An epistolary exploration of art’s moral responsibilities
“In the era of not yet, barely daring to guess of how soon,” wrote Welsh-British writer Horatio Clare about the melting sea ice, the planet’s air conditioner, in his book Icebreaker, published less then two years ago. Now the scientists dare to guess, and red lights on the control panel are blinking – too soon. The world’s leading climate scientists have warned we have twelve years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5°C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people, and continuous extinction of animal species. Since 1970, humanity has already wiped out sixty percent of animal life on earth. It is called the sixth extinction. Do we realise it?
“Though we know about it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” asked Bill McKibben, American author, environmentalist, and activist, in an essay What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art in 2005. “We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?” Unfortunately, McKibben’s voice sounds worryingly urgent even fourteen years later. Or more than thirty years later: in 1988 he wrote The End of Nature, the first book for a common audience about global warming.
Do artists, writers, and musicians have a responsibility to give us new languages and tools to actually do something about our deteriorating world?
“Point of no return”, “urgent change needed”, “extinction domino effect”, phrases collected from last month’s headlines sound like a broken record to many. As if climate change was just a tedious trend, a sad emoji, a fleeting hashtag. Scientists desperately wave their hands, like tiny people with tiny voices, while those in charge continue to stomp like deaf giants, leaving carbon footprints all over the planet. Can artworks, books, poems, plays and “goddamn operas” help scientists to be heard, I wonder?
Besides, is it just a choice or rather a responsibility to do something? “Responding to the ecological crisis is certainly the moral imperative of our time,” says Justin Brice Guariglia, American artist and activist known for his large-scale photographic, sculptural and public works that address ecological issues. Like keeping a promise or telling the truth, or not hitting anyone in the face – other examples of moral imperatives.
I started to send out letters to artists, writers, philosophers and scientists and asked them one question: Do visionaries – artists, writers, musicians, – have a responsibility to give us new languages and tools to actually do something about our deteriorating world?
Artists David Bramwell, Justin Brice Guariglia, Olafur Eliasson, Antony Gormley and Jonathan Meese, writers Jay Griffiths, Caspar Henderson, Dahr Jamail and Barry Lopez, poet Craig Santos Perez, philosopher Graham Harman, and scientist Peter Wadhams wrote me back.
British artist, musician, performer and broadcaster David Bramwell is author of a one man show The Cult of Water, that was premiered in Brighton Festival last spring and was showed this January in Soho Theater in London. It is a psychogeographical journey up the River Don, back in time to explore our relationship with waterways, river deities and rituals.
Shortly before his death in the late 1980s, the writer and researcher of comparative mythology Joseph Campbell said: “In the 20th century we began dismantling many of our myths because they no longer served us.” Campbell was referring to the established order of Christian dogma, patriarchy, scientific certainty and unquestioning obedience to authority. But his observation ended with a caveat: “What the world desperately needs right now are new myths to live by.”
More recently Alex Evans, senior fellow at New York University’s Centre on International Co-operation, argued in his book The Myth Gap that we are unlikely to stay engaged with climate change through facts alone. Evans argues that to tackle climate change denial we need better stories.
Whether we like it or not, our lives are driven, guided and determined by narrative. The very systems we live by – financial, legal, economic etc. – are complex fictions, held together by our collective belief. Yuval Noah Harari refers to these ‘inter-subjective realities’. For a practicing magician, such as the comic book writer Alan Moore, narrative and magick are interchangeable.
In 2017 I had the good fortune to create a four-part podcast series with the author John Higgs, based around his book Watling Street. John and I travelled the length of Watling Street from Dover to Anglesey interviewing people with diverse stories to tell. During our long drives it was discovered that we shared a mutual sense of optimism. Put it another way, we have little truck with the company of those who default setting is cynicism and pessimism. As such, John cheekily coined the phrase “pessimism is for lightweights”. It struck a chord with one of our podcast guests, author Salena Godden, who turned it into an epic poem and first performed it at the Women’s March in London last year. One poem grew into a published collection. Pessimism is for Lightweights has become something of a party piece for Godden, who continues to perform it around the globe. It’s heartening to witness an audience respond to her words as they appear to let out a collective sigh of, “Thank god. We’re allowed to have hope again.” And remember, all this came about through four words that happened to chime with Salena.
So yes, I do believe that visionaries have a responsibility to give us new languages and tools to help us take responsibility for our planet and each other. And I do believe that they can make a difference. More crucially, I believe that it’s up to all of us to play our part in shaping the new myths of the future. Myths we can really live by. I’m with Higgs. Let’s stop being lightweights.
Justin Brice Guariglia
American artist Justin Brice Guariglia regularly collaborates with philosophers and scientists to unearth the complexities of our rapidly changing world. Guariglia is participating in group exhibition Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum, a collateral event of the Venice Biennale at Complex of the Church of Santa Maria delle Penitents, on view until 24th November. The show features 73 artists of international backgrounds whose works are in response to environmental crisis in the age of climate change.
Artists play an increasingly important role in society today. While in the past artists created fictions, today we are living in a world of fictions, and artists need help us access reality. Artists can do this effectively by creating tools for us to better understand the world around us.
When we talk about global warming, environmental degradation, and ecological collapse, we can easily be talking about abstract sciences — rising temperatures, gigatons of melting glacial ice, tons of carbon dioxide, and so on. But art has the unique ability to humanise these abstract things, making them accessible to the public.
Responding to the ecological crisis is certainly the moral imperative of our time, and art plays an important role in this response, but are artists responsible to take action?
Well, action or inaction are both ultimately political choices, and in light of the existential ecological crisis today, not responding becomes a political choice with long term consequences for future generations. To determine if one is responsible to respond, one must first decide which side of history one wishes to be on.
Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson is known for sculptures and large-scale installation art employing elemental materials such as light, water, and air temperature. In December last year Eliasson re-created his public artwork Ice Watch: he brought large blocks of glacial ice from the waters surrounding Greenland and placed them in public spaces across London, where they were left to melt. The Tate Modern in London will bring together more than 30 works from nearly three decades of Eliasson’s works in an exhibition Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life, open from 11th July 2019 to 5th January 2020.
Art, I believe, can be especially effective in making the reality of climate change tangible. It can be persuasive where data, sadly, is not, and it can make us feel the immediacy of what is happening in our world today. There is a tendency to view climate change as something far away and in the distant future, and to despair at the enormity of the problem. This is where I think that art can help. Research has shown that people are more persuaded by experiencing something directly than by reading about it abstractly. I made the public artwork Ice Watch to give people an immediate experience of the reality of climate change. To each location – in Copenhagen in 2014, Paris in 2015, and London in 2018 – I brought large chunks of ice from a fjord in Greenland, arranged them in a circular formation in public squares, and allowed them to melt over the course of the installation. When visitors come into contact with this ancient glacial ice, they are able to experience the reality of the melting Greenland ice sheet, to reach out and touch it as it disappears. This contact I hope will drive action. Yet the tools for dealing with our changing climate will have to come from all fields; we all need to work together – scientists, artists, architects, businesses, governments – if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Sir Antony Gormley, OBE, is a British sculptor. His best known works include the Angel of the North, a public sculpture in Gateshead in the North of England, commissioned in 1994 and erected in 1998, and Another Place on Crosby Beach near Liverpool. On the sacred island of Delos, Greece, Gormley’s installation SIGHT is on view till 31st October. It marks the first time that an artist has taken over the site since the mythological island was inhabited over 5,000 years ago. Gormley repopulates the island with iron ‘bodyforms’: 29 sculptures made during the last twenty years, including five specially made new works.
The zone of art is a landscape full of possibility: a ground on which to test potential human futures. As our trust in politics and religion wanes, so the open space of art becomes more and more important. Now, when citizens are put to work in the scheme of late capitalist economy, we have lost our time. In both making and looking at art time is returned to the participating observer. Here arises another value, full of the diversity and richness of individual experience, celebrating its autonomy and sovereignty. Art reinforces our power individually and collectively to both make and interpret a world.
British writer Jay Griffiths is author of six books, including Wild: An Elemental Journey, published in 2006, where Griffiths describes an odyssey to wildernesses of earth, ice, water, air and fire, exploring the connection between human society and wild lands in jungles of the Amazon, Canadian Arctic, depths of the ocean, in Australian deserts and West Papuan mountains.
Distilling an image to one drop of pure turquoise, and with this one drop colouring the waters of society, artists effect a sea-change. It is their role to do this, to illustrate, to cast light on subjects, the light by which society sees more truly and more richly. Artists are messengers across boundaries for art transcends the confines of nationality – it is an emissary of kind universality. Climate change forces the need for a greater intercultural communication than ever before, and artists can tell the stories of things unimagined, making immediate the experience of people unknown, of people indeed unborn. Art can do this, collapsing distance, creating the empathy of nearness, art so close that it leaves its eyelash on your cheek as it passes.
Art understands the psychology of persuasion. It is hard to allow oneself to be drawn by overt propaganda, which is delivered in the daylight areas of the mind. Art works in the shuttered twilights where darkness bestows a tenderness and protection, a secret place where the psyche feels safe enough to alter. It is always easier to change one’s mind in the dark.
Prolific American philosopher Graham Harman is a central figure in the field of speculative realism in contemporary philosophy. He is sympathetic to panpsychism and rejects scientism on account of its anthropocentrism. In 2013, 2014 and 2015 Harman featured in ArtReview’s annual Power 100 list.
Too much political theory is obsessed with the question of human nature: is it good or evil, timeless or mutable? More than anything else, it is climate change that will finally put an end to this assumption that the political sphere is produced mainly by humans. Sea levels, air temperature, diseases released from the permafrost, and dwindling animal species will have to become major political actors.
British writer and journalist Caspar Henderson is author of Book of Barely Imagined Beings, published in 2012, and A New Map of Wonders, 2018, in which Henderson suggests the substitution of fear with wonder.
At their greatest, endeavours in art, writing, music and other creative forms are encounters with truth, and with beauty. One of the central truths of our time is crisis, and great creative works bring us closer to this. “Lately,” writes the critic Caleb Crain, “I’ve found myself wondering whether any artwork of the first caliber can be created anymore that doesn’t somehow reflect a sense that there are changes underway in the world so grave that they are unlikely to be survivable in any form we have yet imagined.”
How the artist, writer or musician responds to crisis is – or should be – up to them. Where they are allowed to work in freedom, and where their work is part of an ongoing conversation, it can become a fountain of wonder: a resource for reflection and imagination that enables us to imagine deeper and differently. This, in turn, can sometimes transform what we think and do. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “it is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
Previously an award-winning war reporter working in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, American author Dahr Jamail is now focusing on anthropogenic climate disruption and the environment. His book The End of Ice was published this year.
Artists, writers, musicians and others who find themselves working out on the frontiers of consciousness, listening for what the Id wishes to express through us, have a moral obligation to work towards a greater articulation of what these times call from each of us. As a writer, I strive to share my findings and observations about how far along the planet really is regarding runaway climate change, and what this means for all living things on this planet. And most importantly, to articulate to my readers that this is a moment of nearly unbearable calamity, with life systems collapsing all around us, which demands we bear witness to, then dedicate ourselves to what our soul is calling upon us to do for Earth at this exact moment in time.
American writer Barry Lopez’s books include Arctic Dreams (1986), for which he received the National Book Award, Of Wolves and Men (1978), a finalist for the National Book Award, and several collections of short fiction, among them Light Action in the Caribbean (2000) and Resistance (2004). His long-awaited non-fiction book Horizon was published this spring.
Most people, especially those not steeped in history, often feel that they are living in some version of society’s worst times. Historically, one can find crippling anxiety and the deepest forms of despair in any age. What sets our age apart is a permanent state of war and the scale and extent of our environmental problems – global climate change, ocean acidification, plastic pollution, failing supplies of fresh water, etc. The arrival of these problems has produced paralyzing fear and anxiety, and an acute sense of urgency.
Whatever art might offer to human society – grace, elevation, joy, profundity and, too, timely warnings – it is never the case that the artist’s primary obligation is to protest those political and environmental actions that degrade humanity. Many have agreed, in radically different ages, that the primary obligation of the artist is to resist the status quo, to provide an aesthetic objection to the coarseness of everyday life, and to exalt what we value. Societies that are troubled by political, economic, and environmental injustice, however, can’t charge artists and writers with articulating the outrage that fuels their rebellion. Each person is responsible for discovering what it is they wish to resist, and how they shall object. What artists and writers are ethically responsible for, I think, is providing the language and the art that make what is wrong vivid, explicit and forceful. Art, generally, should provoke an objection to mediocrity, in all its forms, should empathize with human suffering, and inspire resistance.
Every artist I know, every writer I respect, struggles to understand where overt political activism fits in their world. Some choose to devote themselves entirely to their work; others want to be engaged in vocal protest, participating in public demonstrations, even, at times, putting their bodies between the victim and the aggressor. But each person chooses according to their gifts, and it is wrong for anyone to say that any individual artist “could be doing more”. I have never been much of a public protestor when it comes to the kind of things I hate, like racial prejudice, class arrogance, and militant fundamentalism; but I hope in every word I write there is an objection to social injustice, cultural exceptionalism and willful ignorance and a plea as well to every reader to please pay attention to the details of the enormous political, social, and environmental disaster that is upon us.
Tokyo-born German artist Jonathan Meese works with a diverse practice that includes performance, installation, painting, and sculpture. In his work he explores such themes as revolution, the failures of ideology, and the role and power of art. Jonathan Meese’s exhibition Mutter / Evolution is on view at Kunsthalle St. Annen in Lübeck, Germany until 4th August. Meese will celebrate his 50th birthday with “Dr 50/50FITTYMEESE (Pump away Reality)” on 23rd January 2020 at Tim Van Laere Gallery in Antwerp, Belgium.
Craig Santos Perez
Poet, scholar, artist and environmentalist Dr. Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guåhan and currently works at the University of Hawaii, Mānoa. He has written many ‘ecopoems’, including A Love Poem in the Time of Climate Change in 2017.
Poets from the Pacific have always written about the islands and ocean in order to teach our people that the environment is sacred and all beings are interconnected and related. Ecological ethics about how to live sustainably are embedded in our stories. Contemporary writers, therefore, have a responsibility to continue this legacy and address the existential issues of environmental injustice and climate change. Poetry has the power to inspire individuals, empower communities, influence politicians, and spark activism. Poetry has the power to humanise our struggles and dignify our precarious lives.
Professor Peter Wadhams is one of the world’s leading sea ice scientists, with 48 years of research on sea ice and ocean processes in the Arctic and the Antarctic, which has involved more than 50 expeditions to both polar regions. His book A Farewell to Ice was published in 2017.
Writers definitely do have such a responsibility. The information about climate change processes – how and why they happen – as well as all the other mass of problems facing our planet, such as overpopulation and resource depletion, is all available. But often it is not expressed in a form which makes the processes clear, or shows us what we can and must do to improve the situation. The world needs writers who can clearly express and explain the concepts of climate change and environmental degradation and what can be done about them. Artists and musicians can express emotional concepts but what is needed in our present plight is a clear exposition of facts.
Image credits (from top):
1. Antony Gormley, Another Place, 1997. Cast iron, 100 elements. Installation view: Cuxhaven, Germany. Photograph by Helmut Kunde, Kiel. Copyright: Antony Gormley
2. David Bramwell, The Cult of Water trailer, 2018
3. Justin Brice Guariglia, WE ARE THE ASTEROID II, 2018. Text, sandblasted solar-powered LED message board; text by Timothy Morton. Installation at Chicago Navy Pier, EXPO CHICAGO 2018
4. Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, Ice Watch. Supported by Bloomberg. Installation view. Bankside, outside Tate Modern, 2018. Copyright: 2018 Olafur Eliasson. Photograph by Charlie Forgham Bailey
5. Antony Gormley, Another Place, 1997. Cast iron, 100 elements. Installation view: Cuxhaven, Germany. Photograph by Helmut Kunde, Kiel. Copyright: Antony Gormley
6. Jay Griffiths, Wild: An Elemental Journey book cover, 2006
7. Dahr Jamail, The End of Ice book cover, 2019
8. Barry Lopez, Resistance book cover, 2004
9. Copyright: Bureau Jonathan Meese
10. Peter Wadhams, A Farewell to Ice book cover, 2017