Reflections on Making Art as the Tundra Burns
How can I make art when the whole of human civilization is hell bent on killing itself off? Killing ourselves off with our gluttonous consumption of all our poor planet’s resources. Living, all of us, in a denial of what this means – this constant making and having of things and more things while vast swaths of the world burns or is sinking into the sea. But there’s few who really see the urgency of this even as whole countries dry up and can no longer feed themselves. And there’s also the political insatiability, displaced masses, and more pandemics that will continue to come as we heedlessly disregard our environment. We live as if we can just recreate our life on Mars sometime soon, or as if some amazing technological fix is about to drop from the sky. We act as if we have all the time we want to take but we are just a few years away from no time at all.
So why am I, knowing as I do of our civilization’s quickly approaching demise, still making paintings, and objects, more and more objects? These art objects which I had once seen as in dialog with an art history that seemed to stretch out over time and in many directions and off into the future. But there will be no history left when the oceans finish their rise. This long period of stable climate, starting around 12,000 years ago, that has allowed us to develop our human civilization is fast becoming unstable. With no stable climate there’s no agriculture, no agriculture no stable food supply, no stable food supply no historical moment, no historical arch, no art history, no art cannon to belong to. What becomes of art when not just its context but its whole environment disappears? As our great costal cities drown our museums will flood and all much faster than we are prepared for. Fine art objects don’t really fit into a hunter-gather’s life style, should we be smart enough, that is, to leave our descents a climate that can support at least that.
However if I took a stance that my art is not reliant on cultural context and dialog but rather only interested in a pursuit of beauty and the aesthetic would that give my art making a pass? A pass that allows it to be made no matter the chaos of massive fires, biblical floods, and storms that stretch across continents? Or would I be using beauty as an excuse to justify all my artistic object making? Beauty after all is a very loose unfixed concept that morph as cultures morph. It isn’t the fixed truth it often masquerades as. Rather its definition is dependent on any given social moment to define it. And how much will beauty matter in the midst of the social breakdown that this growing climate crisis will bring?
So can I and why do I continue to make art? Do I believe I can find personal fulfillment by making objects to please the rich – those mega rich collectors who’s buying habits are how art is given value? Do I make art in search of a validation from such collectors. Or is it that I think I have such important things to say that my culture needs me to continue my work? But when art has a socially critical flavor (as mine does) can it continue to speak truthfully without hypocrisy if it remains immersed in our carbon based life style and the addictive nature of its consumerist culture?
Still I continue to paint paintings knowing that this means that I, like all the rest of us, am racing ever faster towards the precipice. A race that includes collectors flying from one art fair to the next art auction on their private jets hoping it won’t all once again get shut down by some annoying plague. They buy and buy to fill their many homes, their tax haven storage units, their oversized luxury yachts, to increase their prestige and social standing which they hope their relentless art buying will bring them. Wooden crates of multiple layers get built to ship expensive paintings half way or more around the world so a single billionaire can have a quick look to see if they might buy it. Then on the next plane out its shipped back. Because now that we have learned to have anything we want when we want it we’re unwilling to let go even if it’s going to wipe us off the face of this fair planet forever. A gluttony of consumption as true of an art collectors as an H&M fast fashion shopper. We convince ourselves that we can get it all to work because we virtue signal with carbon offsets and recycling despite knowing that almost no plastic is ever recycled and most carbon offsets are nothing but green washing.
Still I continue to make work and wrap the finished pieces in plastic and I have expensive paints shipped to my door arriving just a few days after I click the buy button. The pigments are from mines in far off corners of the world and given all the effort to get the colors, make the paint, package the paints and ship them to me they cost all most nothing because I pay for none of the destruction caused by the mining, the carbon of the shipping, the plastic in the packaging etc. I can with a very small middle class income continue to make paintings that few buy because I live in this carbon based economy that thinks it can put paying the price for its consumerism off forever and ever. And in my actions I become just another accelerant to our great carbon bonfire.
I know there’s nothing I can say in a painting that might stop our suicidal plunge, nor anything I can say in this essay that will help us to step back a little from this ledge. Are we even capable of learning how to live in a none consumerist carbon based world? The golf trade association in Phoenix AZ doesn’t understand that in a city fast running out of water golf courses too need to cut their water usage. They think a cut of 3% is just beyond anything they should have to sacrifice. We don’t seem to have a clue we’re all in this together and if we don’t know that we can’t even begin to make a start at reversing this death spiral.
But I’m like the Phoenix golf trade association. I might know that being an artist and making my paintings and heating and cooling my studio has no place in this emergency. But here I am in my poorly insulated studio making paintings. It’s how I know how to define myself. How I know how to give meaning to my life. Is it wishful thinking to say continuing to make art contains at least hope if nothing else? It is true I’ve rescued many a bad day by reading a good poem and felt stress roll off me and my life suddenly feel richer in the galleries of a great museum. It’s also true that my continuing to paint pictures is just my own way of participating in the massive denialism that permeates our whole culture and all its leaders.
I have no answer to this dilemma. I expect I will continue to paint.