Art, Hope & The Climate Emergency

I have to admit that I gave up on watching David Attenborough’s programmes, which I had loved, a few years ago. I couldn’t bear to look. The wet, honest eyes of so many sad animals had bored deep into my soul and left me desperate on the sofa, immobile with relatively helpless empathy and despair.

Our Planet’s cinematic genius has always been to tap into the human predilection for narrative, using anthropomorphism and well-choreographed peril to inspire compassionate awe at the pure chaos and cruelty of nature. But a turtle tied up in Tesco bags is not nature, is not natural, and to truly look at the consequences of our negligence has become, at times, too difficult. To look is to experience immense grief.

‘What is the role of the artist?’ is a very big, and often boring, question, with countless answers across time and cultures. Once, the artist’s primary role was to glorify god. More recently we might regard it as a career of self-expression. But throughout, the artist has been an observer, one who reflects, or responds to, the world around them. Artists and writers have to look, and they provide us with a lens through which to look too.

‘What is the role of the artist in the time of climate change?’ is another question, and one that had not occurred to me so boldly until I found myself wandering around the Talbot Rice gallery’s latest exhibition, The Normal. An inter-disciplinary exhibition, The Normal showed work across a range of mediums, but all were artistic responses to this injured world, expressions of hope, grief, survival and solidarity.

A gallery is a viewing space in which one can not look away, and I exited into the sunny Edinburgh afternoon feeling sombre. I was especially moved by an exhibit called Solution For Normality, by Jarsdell Solutions Ltd, a video piece which saw several screens looping footage of humans set in claustrophobic cityscapes and animals in captivity, all with their wires tangled together in the manner of a rat king. A reminder that ‘the innocents’ are knotted in the same tangled web as we.

Photograph by Sally Jubb

The omission of the word ‘new’ from The Normal‘s idiomatic title is telling, because of course, this isn’t really a ‘new’ normal. The pandemic may have been a kind of wake-up call, but we have been hitting snooze on wake-up calls for decades. And cataclysmic visions have been a staple, certainly in Western art, for centuries. The End has always been a looming presence, coming presently. But there was a sort of hysterical optimism to the golden, ghoulish glory of Medieval art and its obsession with End Time prophecies. They knew that there was something else, on the other side of His terrifying judgement, that was better.

These days, most of us have come to terms with the fact that this is all there is and will ever be, and that democratisation of the End Times can lead to nihilistic apathy. My generation has grown up with a coming climate catastrophe as constant, as backdrop, as the normal. I can remember a Legs Akimbo-style theatre troupe coming to my primary school and cheerfully preaching about the importance of reducing, reusing and recycling (I have never been able to get the song ‘We’re pumping, pumping, pumping, we’re pumping out the oil’ out of my head) when I was about six years old. Plastic Beach by Gorillaz came out over ten years ago. This terror is routine.

Companies have been selling us on the laissez fair idea that we will save the planet, one day, if we just sort our offerings into separate recycling bins and keep on buying, my whole life. We all have our rituals for keeping the worry at bay, but this is of course, a very individualistic approach and the clock is ticking. Art, too, could be considered a rather individualistic pursuit, but what could art’s role be in this moment, in the planet’s hour of need?

There has been a noticeable upswing in the amount of eco-critical art coming out of Scotland in the recent past, no doubt due in part to the upcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow. Many works are direct responses to the summit, such as This Is It, a brand new musical collaboration featuring some of Scotland’s top hip-hop artists.

The project was commissioned by Let It Grow and organised by Johnny Cypher and Becci Wallace, who says “I think that, just as political action on climate change needs to be radical, so do artists right now. We, especially working-class writers and public figures, need to find ways to engage with our communities, to highlight issues that are important for society through music. There is an opportunity here to address climate change with an eye on the communities that will (and do) suffer the most.’

Another piece – also with a title denoting a sense of finality – is Enough Is Enough, by Karine Polwart, Oi Musica and The Roundhouse Choir – a call to creative arms composed with the express purpose of inviting choirs, street bands and community groups to learn it in the hopes of making a big noise and intensifying public pressure ahead of COP26.

Kathleen Jamie too has kickstarted her post as Makar with a collaborative nature poem, that anyone who lives in Scotland can contribute to. She says that ‘It is a collective poem because climate change affects us all, everywhere, all species.” All of these projects share an urgency, an understanding that there is no more time for vague platitudes or polite half-promises. The time is now and we need one another more than ever.

(I will briefly mention here also Climate Beacons, a Scotland-wide collaborative project between environmental, heritage and arts organisations that are doing great work in the lead up to COP26, and The Dear Green Bothy, a programme of free public events and activities demonstrating the vital role played by the arts and humanities in understanding and addressing climate change).

It has been said before, by people far wiser than me, but art is, ultimately a kind of hope. To write, to create, to make in a time of unimaginable destruction and decay is to actively participate in hope. Hope is an investment, as well as being a collective, rebellious act against despair and its passivity. To publish a book or to erect a piece of artwork stakes a claim on a future, it is the declaration of belief in a time and place beyond ourselves, a place where there will be people to receive our epigraphs. The oldest examples of human-made art in the world are around 40,000 years old. The Indonesian caves that they can be found in are quickly being eroded, due to climate change.

I’ll leave you with this thought from Zoë Bullock, New Playwright’s Award recipient, for whom climate change is a central subject matter – “Art can turn huge events into human experiences that we can all relate to. We connect to human stories in a way that we don’t connect to statistics. Art is about asking people to feel something other than despair: rage, hope, a desire for action, or even just a catharsis and a knowledge that other people are just as scared as you. And you are not alone.”

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  1. Dougie Harrison says:

    Many thanks for this Iona. I’m currently feeling a wee bit unhappy. The political party to which I belong is dithering over my proposal that we should highlight the proposed Cambo offshore hydrocarbons field in a political way during COP26, in an attempt to push our governments into action. Though only Westminster has the power to actually DO SOMETHING about Cambo , Holyrood can certainly add political pressure!

    1. Mons Meg says:

      I’m sure the protestors, who unlike the politicians have nothing to lose, will embarrass our governments over the matter.

      Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could bring the Kingston Bridge and the Clydeside Expressway to a halt around the venue as well?

      1. Protestors have nothing to lose?


        1. Mons Meg says:

          …unlike politicians, who have to hedge their electoral bets.

          At the last Scexit referendum, a large part of the economic case for independence was built upon the premise that substantial revenue could be raised by an independent Scottish government through the development of our remaining untapped oil reserves. Unlike the Scottish government, climate change protesters don’t have anything to lose by renouncing that case.

          1. Wow. What logic.

            “Climate change protestors” (and the rest of us) have “quite a lot to lose” by the loss of an inhabitable planet though? (!)

          2. Mons Meg says:

            Indeed! But, unlike the political party to which Dougie belongs, climate change protestors have nothing to lose in exerting pressure on our governments ‘to actually DO SOMETHING about Cambo’.

      2. Dougie Harrison says:

        Precisely how many times have you protested in any way about anything, Mons Meg?

        I grew up in Embra, so know what your name means. Lots of noise and smoke, most impressive to the gullible. But few results.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Crikey! I’ve never really kept the score, Dougie. I’m ay protesting about something.

          1. Dougie Harrison says:

            Careful then pal! Mind that your namesake exploded…

          2. Mons Meg says:

            ‘Mons Meg was a large old-fashioned piece of ordnance, a great favourite with the Scottish common people…. that, which in every other place or situation was a mere mass of rusty iron, becomes once more a curious monument of antiquity.”

            – Sir Walter Scott: Rob Roy (‘Magnum’ edition), on his restoration of Mons Meg to Edinburgh Castle in 1829 as part of the Tory reinvention of ‘Scotland’.

  2. Mons Meg says:

    ‘What is the role of the artist?’

    Reading between the lines of the catalogue, the exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery has been ‘curated’/’superintended’ by the Talbot Rice folk on the assumption that the role of the artist is to present the artist’s own attitudes and opinions in relation to the circumstances in which s/he pursues his or her own practice.

    I visited the exhibition back in July when I went to hear what Larry Achiampong had to say for himself. My aesthetic assumes rather that the role of the artist is just to make stuff for whatever reason. I found a lot of well-made stuff here; so the exhibition was worth seeing.

    (But hasn’t the City chippie gone downhill? Has it changed hands or something?)

  3. Niemand says:

    Thanks for highlighting this work Iona. As someone who has actually created ‘art’ in relation to environmental concern / action (film / music) I have thought about this quite a bit.

    I came across a whole edition of a journal from about 10 year ago dedicated to how music might address this (a field called ecomusicology) and it was useful to me because it laid out two broadly different approaches – the apocalyptic route (probably the majority) and a more positive call to action route either in terms of protest of some sort or more pertinently to me, highlighting actual things trying to make a difference. The problem with the apocalyptic route is that it tends to encourage inertia rather than action (as the author here suggests – we turn away, unable to see any point in being made even more depressed with no hope given), even if action is what it hopes scaring people will encourage. Making such art is also in many ways easier since, well, it is easy to complain and artists love to wallow in misery.

    In my view you are more likely to engage people with actual stories of those making a positive change and thus encourage them to do the same, or at the least clamour for change. Naivety won’t help of course but if there is such a thing as the duty of an artist, then in a time of crisis it is to offer hope for change not simply despair. And on a personal level it felt much better to be doing that rather than adding to the already substantial body of work that basically says we are all fxxxed.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    I don’t want to be too hard on the author, whose articles have been more nuanced than the tedious ‘artists are truth-tellers!’ pitch commonly (and not unselflessly) promoted by other artists here, and who has explored artists’ deceptive self-branding. However, it seems appropriate to point out that many artists are involved in promoting our culture of over-consumption, unsustainable extractivism and all the various whitewashes/greenwashes, glorifying the new gods (or demons) of our age, and servicing the Scottish government’s policy of driving economic growth through advertising and marketing. And talking of cave art, Plato’s cave comes immediately to mind. Who are the sceneshifters and puppeteers whose shadowy productions keep the other cavedwellers chained, disoriented, misinformed in the dark, but artists?

    Far from artists (who after all have no magical psychic powers or inherent specialist knowledge extending beyond their craft and life experience) leading the awakening, it has been scientists and other professionals, activists and the occasional philosopher, who have been rattling our chains to get our attention away from distracting and planetary-unrealistic art. Even the role of Scottish bards in clan society was apparently largely to act as court flatterer to their lord, and modern cultural outputs still play largely to these Great Men (Occasionally Women) of History ideologies. Who pays the piper calls the tune.

    And of course, one of the great works of ecological literature, Silent Spring, was written by a professional scientist, Rachel Carson, not a professional artist who could never have stood up to the hostile attempts at debunking as Carson did. Something to think about when asking questions about the ‘role of the artist’.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      This is true, SD; many artists make stuff to help politicians and others to hawk their wares.

      Artists have many roles in society. So, it’s a bit dumb to ask what *the* role of the artist is as if s/he should be making only one kind of stuff or making stuff for only one kind of purpose.

      (BTW wasn’t Plato’s allegory of the cave meant to illustrate his distinction between our knowledge of appearances (the phenomenal world of ‘nature’ or ‘creation’) and our knowledge of the supernatural reality (the noumenal world of ‘ideas’) of which those appearances are but shadows cast by the light of a divine intelligence that Christians later identified as ‘God’?)

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Mons Meg, sure, the appearances of nature can be innocently deceptive, such the way half a stick appears to bend when submerged in water, and we see reflections from surfaces and neither atomic structures nor invisible forces. But as far as my recollection of the dialogue goes, there is an element of societal deception (even if the claimed intention is good ends, like a ‘noble lie’), and actual human artists play a role in reproducing the myths of the polity (for example, city state or nation).
        Or put it another way, all nobles lie to keep their station, and they do it through artistic patronage.

        Interestingly, since I used the phrase, I find in my to-read pile Frances Stonor Saunders’ book Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, about the post-WW2 Kulturkampf forever-war. Intriguingly, ‘Poetry’ has three entries in the index.

        I did write my skeleton draft of an article “Artists have no claim to be ‘truth-tellers’” which I might blog in future if I keep hearing this claim. Modern philosopher Greta Thunberg is, after all, not asking that we listen to artists.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          The ‘noble lie’ serves as a ‘charter myth’ for Plato’s politeia; a myth of national or civic identity.

          The noble lie on which Plato’s politeia is founded consists in two related myths: one grounds that identity in the kinship of the entire indigenous population (they are all ‘autochthonous’, literally ‘born from the soil’); the other makes the politeia’s strictly differentiated caste structure of law-makers, civil servants, and producers a matter of natural dispensation (‘the god who moulds them from the earth [of their homeland] puts different metals in their souls’).

          If people can be made to believe the noble lie of autochthony and natural dispensation, they will be strongly motivated to care for the politeia and for one another. I don’t recall Plato saying that artists had a role to play in sustaining the politeia through spreading the noble lie though (but it’s forty-odd years since I last read Plato’s Politeia, and the auld memory isn’t what it used to be – maybe you could cite the relevant passages where he does); in fact, I seem to recall that he saw the role of the artist as inimical to the politeia, which is why he recommended that artists should be expelled from it altogether as a threat to its security.

          However, I do agree with Plato that artists have no legitimate claim to be truth-tellers relative to his understanding of ‘truth’.

          1. Niemand says:

            I suppose these days it would ‘their truth tellers’.

            I do like that line: ‘the artist lies, for the improvement of truth’.

          2. Mons Meg says:

            That’s pure Plato, Niemand, for whom ‘truth’ is what is Good in the way of belief.

            If truth is thus instrumental, then it’s entirely justifiable to manipulate it for the sake of the higher end it exists to serve, whether that be aristocracy (in Plato’s case), independence, socialism, or whatever we take as constituting ‘the Good’.

            Our deconstructive mission (should we choose to accept it) is to undermine the totalitarianism of ‘the Good’ – the idea that ‘the Good’ is exclusively singular rather than inclusively plural.

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @Mons Meg, I am not making an appeal to authority, nor giving any credence to Plato’s Theory of Forms, just making the point that ideas and concerns about our mediated world has an ancient provenance. And nowadays, I think it is fair to say, our world is mediated to a greater extent than ever (through mass media, even for people without televisions). Even if there were no lies and distortions, we could be drowning in true banalities whilst the significant truths escape us. But we know there are lies and distortions. There are artistic professions dedicated to producing them. And, I would say, there are problems with exposing or debunking lies in art that you do not have to the same extent in science or philosophy. Not that I would split the human world into artists and non-artists. Anyone who can lie can produce art.

          4. Mons Meg says:

            The world is mediated by our understanding no more now than it’s always been. Kant’s self-styled ‘Copernican revolution’, to which he was awoken from his ‘dogmatic slumber’ by his reading of David Hume, was the realisation that an unmediated world is an unknowable world.

            Accordingly, the concern since Plato’s time has been not THAT it’s mediated but HOW the world’s mediated; that the thinking by which it’s mediated is ‘right’ thinking; i.e. thinking that produces ‘truth’ or what’s good in the way of belief.

            The virtue of the noble lie is that it tricks people into what the liar considers to be ‘right’ thinking.

            Plato wanted to expel artists from his ideal politeia because he considered their practice to be inimical to ‘right’ thinking; i.e. subversive.

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