Can Art Succeed Where Facts And Reason Fail?
If facts and logic were capable of awakening the world to the need for urgent action on climate change, carbon emissions would be a fraction of what they are today. Instead, we pumped 32 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere last year, and we have a very long way to go to secure a ‘safe’ climate.
Why are we, collectively, so resistant to believing we have a problem that should have all of us demanding effective action from our governments? One theory is that we evolved to respond to immediate threats such as tigers in the long grass. Evolution simply hasn’t equipped us with the ability to comprehend risks that lie well into our future. Instead we ignore or reject any inconvenient truths that threaten our present level of comfort and future aspirations.
It also seems that, rather than forming our beliefs based on the available evidence, we settle on our beliefs and then look for the evidence to support them. Let’s face it; we simply aren’t the rational beings we (and economists) would like to believe we are.
So if we are resistant to basing our beliefs on climate change on some extremely compelling science, can art induce a behaviour-changing shift if attitude?
“Yes,” says Guy Abrahams, co-founder and CEO of CLIMARTE. CLIMARTE is the organisation behind ART + CLIMATE = CHANGE 2015, an event that comprises 25 exhibitions in galleries across Melbourne along with keynote lectures, bike tours and more.
“Art engages with emotions and core values,” says Guy. “At the moment we delegate responsibility to great people, scientists and politicians, but climate change is already affecting everyone and one of the keys to getting action on anything as broad and abstract as climate change is to make it personal.”
Where’s the evidence that art can influence politics? Guy immediately nominates the photograph of Rock Island Bend on the Franklin River by Peter Dombrovskis. This image formed the visual core of the campaign to stop the river being dammed and has been credited with influencing the outcome of the 1983 federal election.
Saved by art: Rock Island Bend photographed by Flickr user annavsculture (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
It wasn’t the first time that photography has changed hearts and minds. ART + CLIMATE = CHANGE 2015 includes several photographs of American wilderness by Ansel Adams that were instrumental in the creation of the Kings Canyon national park in California in 1940.
The Dombrovskis photograph has all the characteristics of a great work of art, Guy says. It’s deep motifs and iconic elements are things that we naturally respond to. But great art is hard to do and we don’t know when powerful pieces will turn up. The event is therefore also about showing that ‘big C Culture’ – curators, artists and patrons – are taking notice of climate change, that it is becoming embedded more widely in culture. The exhibition also gives people a licence to start talking about the issue.
Guy isn’t concerned that the exhibition risks only preaching to the converted. “Many people involved in the arts are people of economic substance and power in the community,” he says. “When people enter a gallery they drop their armour, they enter a different mental space, a neutral and trusted space. Influential people are often caught up in their corner, without the time to think laterally or differently. Just being in a gallery provides an opportunity for freedom of thought.”
What about the possibility that branding the event ART + CLIMATE = CHANGE 2015 could put many people off? “We are conscious of that possibility,” Guy says, “but we didn’t want to shy away from what we are talking about. We aren’t bashing people over the head but are creating an opportunity for art to do what art does best: to make the invisible visible.”
Main image: Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) by Jonathan Delafield Cook, 2013. Charcoal on canvas. Photograph by A McCaskill