Climate change needs persuasive art, not propaganda

jay griffiths
What is art's role in raising awareness of climate change? In this extract from her passionate, poetic essay 'The Far-seers of Art', Jay Griffiths explains why culture without nature is as good as worthless

Art's job is not propaganda. Propaganda aims for the cliché and, in attempting to speak to everyone, speaks in fact to no one. Art takes an idiosyncratic line; the more surely envoiced the artist becomes, the stronger the response to their work.

You can see agit-prop coming a mile away, barging along the street towards you, giving you time to turn the other way or shake it warmly by the hand. Art can steal up more quietly, coming alongside, maybe with a scent of jasmine or rum, speaking intrigue.

The issue of climate change needs persuasion rather than propaganda and art understands the psychology of persuasion. It is hard to allow oneself to be drawn by overt dogma, 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.

The Edge vs the Limit

Artists know their place is the edge, fertile, enigmatic, tricksterish. And the edge is not the same as a limit. A limit is the place of absolute finiteness or of wise cessation; the limits of natural law or, in terms of climate change, the necessary and just limiting of emissions. An edge, by contrast, is a place of maximum tension, a place of paradox, creative by its own geometry; a place of apparent contradictions which art explores and transcends.

The distinction between the Edge and the Limit can be related to the distinction between Freedom and Licence. Claiming they are acting in the name of 'freedom', modern states, allowing uncurbed carbon emissions, actually promote licence, the licence for individuals to use more than their carbon quota, the licence of industries to provoke climate change, the licence of wealthy nations to take more than their fair share, the licence of corporations to bully governments and lie to the media.


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More licence is not needed. But more freedom is. The freedom which art knows, the freedom which results in a transcendence of vision and a change of heart.

Artistic disobedience

It is, of course, notoriously hard to tell artists what to do. I know, as a writer, the fiendishly disobedient streak which my art demands: I can't even tell myself what to do. For artists with a sense of responsibility, a sense of politics, it can be very hard to demand of themselves that they create a work 'about' an 'issue'. While the political part of oneself is outlining the imperative, the creative aspect of oneself is untameable, off the leash, gainsaying.

Yet work on climate change is perhaps produced so readily because we, as human beings, are coming to dwell with the knowledge of it, coming to know it in our bones.

Compared to any other issue, climate change has a seismic and ineluctable enormity, and we inhabit this knowledge because we must. One thing it will cause is a change of climate within.

This isn't a verbal sleight of hand, it isn't a gently punning metaphor, it is a description written right at the edge of the future fact. We need a change in the climate of art. The situation which we face as humans demands to be matched at every level; philosophical, political, pragmatic and personal.

A culture of nature?

The role of art institutions is now truly cultural; to create the culture which nurtures nature, not only human nature but all forms of nature. This is neither a hobby nor a luxury. It is not a Status-Impact Event. It is an exigency which affects everything, from the blunt demand for emissions-reductions within institutions to the tenor of our
language and the cast of our thought.

But there is a narrow strand of aesthetics which suggests that art should not stoop to this actual world of nature and environmental event, as if leaning towards this earthy world would undermine art's tantalising artifice or soil the spangly fascinator.

This sour cast of thought suggests that art should be 'above' moral issues, as if art should never dirty itself with matter, as if the artist should stand at one remove, should never treat as equals the cabinet members of the Maldives in suits and oxygen tanks, six metres underwater, holding their cabinet meeting amongst the fish in the turquoise seas, to demonstrate their nation's vulnerability to climate change.

According to that way of thinking, 'culture' is the opposite of 'nature', the rise of artifice has firmly defeated the pastoral, and art is in a position of enmity towards the real, natural world. But for most of human history, culture has been rooted in nature, as language tells. In its classical sense, culture was effectively the honouring of the cultivation of nature, from 'cultus' meaning cultivation, tending, care and respectful treatment.

Primal truth

We humans are part of nature. We are animal before we are human and our embodiment in the world is our primal truth. The sour strand in aesthetics dislikes this fact and hides it, making it a great Unsaid in the halls of art, insisting instead on art's superiority to nature, scorning the ineluctability of climate change by the self-deceit of exclusivity.

Humanity deserves better. Climate change demands more, requires looking beyond the narrow confines of space and time.

The culture of high culture has to shift, has to stoop to the floodwater and dare to touch the earth itself. The unexamined prejudice against nature within aesthetics will come to seem as vacuous and cruel as racism or sexism for, despite the pretence that culture is antagonistic to nature, it never really has been. If you watch carefully, you'll catch them glancing at each other, a look of shy recognition of a relationship never truly sundered.

Take the Forest of Arden out of Shakespeare, shake the linnet from the leaf, snatch the moon from Neruda, silence the Rite of Spring, take, in other words, all nature out of culture, and what do you have left? A few shoddy catalogues and a tax return.

Earthy roots

So, yes, we need a change in this kind of climate, which involves culture going not 'back' to its roots but 'down' to its roots, profound in the deep earth, in the root of the word cultus: nurturing care and respect, and offering truths to humanity.

In its evidence and reliable data, science offers its truths, but from art we need truths of a different order: Protean, yes, unpredictable, yes, disobedient, yes, but truths nonetheless; metaphoric, spiral truths, because we are not wholly rational creatures. It is not knowledge that we lack but parables to embody it and ethics to sustain the implementation of that knowledge.

It is through stooping that art conquers, Lear on the heath, finding his common humanity on the common ground. This is the profound task of art, to find seeds of transcendence deep in the dark and minding earth.

This extract is taken from Long Horizons, a report commissioned by the British Council from Julie's Bicycle. For more details please go to:

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