Written by Jay Griffiths for State of the Arts, Artists and Our Future Environment.
Plato declared he would ban poets and flute players from his ideal Republic. He would send them out of the city, place of culture, into exile in the countryside, place of disdained nature. (Two thousand five hundred years later, I’m learning the flute, in the garden shed, in protest. He also wanted to ban Sicilian cooking but that’s another story.)
Plato disliked the way poetry imitated mature, “the murmur of rivers and roll of the ocean.” But the expression of the natural world – the unfaded world of saffron and lapis lazuli – is one of the supreme achievements of humanity. Humanity, part troubadour and part nightingale, translates the world in artistic re-creation: art evokes nature. Goethe held the view that Art is a way to wisdom about nature, and that natural phenomena elicit cultural representation.
When it comes to the environment, art’s job, let’s be clear about this, is not propaganda. Propaganda aims for the cliché and, in attempting to speak to everyone, speaks in fact to no one. You can see agit-prop coming a mile away, barging along the street towards you, giving you plenty of time to flee lest a terrible act of boredom is committed upon your unsuspecting person. Dogma is delivered in the daylight areas of the mind, but art can commit acts of tantalising piracy, stealing up quietly with a scent of jasmine and rum, speaking intrigue. Art works in the shuttered twilights where darkness bestows protection, a secret place where the psyche feels safe enough to alter. It is always easier to change one’s mind in the dark. Art takes an idiosyncratic line, the more sure an artist’s individual voice, the stronger the response to their work.
When Arthur Miller wanted to write about the anti-communist witch-hunts of McCarthyism, he sought the advice of Emily Dickinson. Okay, okay, she’d been dead for sixty six years but as she had written: ‘Tell the truth but tell it slant.’ So he ignored the cliché. He scorned the stereotype. He certainly didn’t stick to the subject. He wrote about the Salem witch trials in his play ‘The Crucible’. Art is a crucible. It transmutes base metals.
To represent in the present the environment of the future takes a particular strength of imagination, to hear the voices in the storms to come, to represent them – dark, electric and guilty – in the present. It is one of the trickiest forms of alchemy, but one of the most necessary, to use art as the crucible to transmute a leaden future into the gold vision of the present.
Van Gogh’s gold sunflowers are turning brown before our eyes, literally, as the pigment-mix reacts to sunlight. But the fading sunflowers also bear a metaphoric reproach against a dingy age that seeks to expunge from culture the vitality of nature, an age which would blind itself to nature in havoc, species in extinction or climate in chaos. Would blind itself and then shout about the clarity of its vision.
Art without nature is half-witted. And I’m using the term with reason. The brain has a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere; the left is good at what is logical, rational, it sees the detail, is good at divisions, obsessive measurement, and control. But the right hemisphere recognizes life and sees the inherent value of it. The right hemisphere understands that nature matters inordinately. Immeasurably and for ever. The right hemisphere is good at the divine, music, jokes and metaphor. The banished flute player and the poet dwell here. Naturally enough.
It’s the stance of the right hemisphere which appreciates the significance of climate change, and its absolute, irrefutable reality. Climate change is far, far larger than politics, as wide as ocean currents, and its effects are the realities of survival and life. Artists – writers, sculptors, musicians and poets – have responded to this because so many artists have a political compass magnetised towards common humanity.
Society has long trusted artists to act as its collective conscience. Shelley famously said poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world while history tells us that medieval Welsh bards were judges as well as poets: acknowledged legislators of the world. Climate change requires the most acute conscience, the wisest judges and more than anything the best messengers who can tell the stories of things unimagined, making immediate the experience of people unknown, of people indeed unborn. Art can do this, collapsing distance, creating the empathy of nearness, art so close that it leaves its eyelash on your cheek as it passes. Good translators are required, to translate between worlds, from the world of the future to the world of the present.
The role of the artist is to see the dawn before anyone else. The dawn, or the storm, the sea-surge or the crop failure, the refugees and the disease. We, as human beings, are coming to dwell with the knowledge of climate change, coming to know it in our bones. Compared to any other issue, climate change has a seismic and ineluctable enormity, and 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 to create the culture which nurtures nature, not only human nature but all forms of nature.
But one narrow strand of aesthetics suggests that art should not stoop to this actual world of nature and environmental event, should never dirty itself with mere matter. According to that sour way of thinking, ‘culture’ is the opposite of ‘nature’. But for all of human history culture has been rooted in nature; as language tells. The word culture comes from ‘cultus’ meaning the cultivation of plants, their tending, care and respectful treatment. In its classical sense, culture began with the honouring of nature.
Within human culture, it is hard to think of art which does not directly or indirectly base itself on nature. Abstract art, perhaps even more than literal representative art, mimics nature, and conversely encourages us to see more and more art in natural forms and shapes. We humans are part of nature. Our embodiment in the world is our primal truth. We sense with our senses, our mind-body rubbing against the fur of the world. Most art is about ‘human nature’, and there is wisdom in the term, for our humanity has coevolved with the environment. It isn’t a matter of culture versus nature, but of whether art has deep or shallow roots.
The unexamined prejudice against nature 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 monotonous monologue: its flat-pack diction lacking all connotation. A few shoddy catalogues and a tax return.
Art can be playful, splitting the moment, jumping the line, burgling predictability. Climate change involves textures of complexity (political, environmental, social, legal) which art can comprehend, for the best of art draws maps of difficult landscapes. Art about climate change can contain ferocious hope, acknowledging the truth and severity of the issue but also affirming within it something of grace, seeing the starlight within the night. This is one of the profound tasks of art, to find seeds of transcendence deep in the dark and minding earth.
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