Too Hot to Handle

July 23rd, 2013

Climate change is “too big” a concept for artists, according to an article in this week’s issue of The Economist.

“Climate change poses some tough problems for artists: as a concept, it has long seemed too big, too grim, too abstract, too political and too far away. Efforts to portray it quickly become too preachy, too scientific, too shaming.”

J.M.W. Turner, "Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhon Coming On ("The Slave Ship")," 1840

The article offers no examples of artists retreating from the issue, however.  Instead, we can blame the market: “Few can make a living from making people feel bad about themselves and doomed about the world.”

I really doubt that artists committed to environmental activism would back down from the topic of climate change just because it isn’t lucrative, but to its credit, the article lists some artists involved with Cape Farewell and summarizes Expo 1: New York at P.S.1.

It could also be that artists are wary of preaching to the choir.  But isn’t it more productive to look at the entrenched interests standing between us and an art-world blitz on climate change?  For example, David H. Koch, a Met trustee, is underwriting the four-block-long outdoor plaza currently under construction at the Met Museum.  Koch, a heavy investor in climate change denial, “succeeded in persuading many members of Congress to sign a little-known pledge in which they have promised to vote against legislation relating to climate change unless it is accompanied by an equivalent amount of tax cuts,” according to Jane Mayer, writing for The New Yorker.

Matthew Brandt, "Mary's Lake, MT 9," 2012 (detail)

Mayer adds, “In 2011, according to the E.P.A.’s greenhouse-gas-reporting database, [Koch's] company, which has oil refineries in three states, emitted over twenty-four million tons of carbon dioxide, as much as is typically emitted by five million cars.”

Bill McKibben says of the Koch brothers: “They’re also on the list of performance artists who are filling the planet with carbon. They’re probably number one and two on the whole list.”

Another example is Marie-Josée Kravis, the president of the Board of Trustees at MoMA.  Kravis also is the Vice Chair of the Board at the super conservative Hudson Institute, the research of which is funded by Monsanto, Exxon Mobil, and ConAgra (one of the most environmentally irresponsible corporations out there).

It’s unlikely that these powerful individuals deliberately suppress artists making work about climate change, but it is undeniable that they benefit from the status quo!

Les Edwards, album sleeve for The Prodigy, "Music for the Jilted Generation," 1994
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