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The Climate of Art: The Importance of Art in Driving Positive Change

The drive for sustainability is being increasingly seen within the art world, from museums and galleries pushing to be more sustainable in their approach, the Tate is on track to net zero emissions by 2030, to artists exploring themes of sustainability and climate change within their practice. This article will explore the importance of climate change art and its ability to drive positive change by encouraging hope.

A report published by Arts Council England in January 2020, the first of its kind, revealed that 50% of their Portfolio had “developed new creative or artistic opportunities as a result of environmental initiatives and 49% have produced, programmed or curated work on environmental themes.” This is a huge positive step within such an influential sector; however, these artworks and opportunities need to be one of hope and encouragement. This necessity for positivity is argued within the 2021 study, “Does activist art have the capacity to raise awareness in audiences? —A study on climate change art at the ArtCOP21 event in Paris.” This paper ultimately argues that climate change art is capable of changing perceptions if the messages are hopeful and encouraging.

The ability for art to connect people with challenging topics by being emotive, tangible, and accessible is crucial within the climate conversation. Art has an ability to stay ahead of the curve and “convey information in novel ways,” thus conveying complex scientific data or scary and confusing facts about climate change in a way that is digestible and even hopeful. Cornelia Parker, a prominent contemporary visual artist that engages with issues of ecology and climate change, suggests that “art is always about reappraising the way we look at the world. It can speak more eloquently than propaganda because it can inject emotion into facts.” This points to the emotive charge that art can have; which, in the case of climate change art must inject emotions of hope, a desire for change and empowerment into the bleak facts that circulate around climate change.

One artist that explores emotive responses to our environment is Olafur Eliasson. The Icelandic-Danish artist creates installations that play with materials, reflections and colours that challenge the way we perceive our environment and reflect upon our understanding of the physical world. This playful confrontation with the environment encourages a positive and hopeful reflection on the physical world and our role within it. This was explored in the exhibition Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life at the Guggenheim Bilbao in 2021 and through his installations in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London. I will explore the work of Eliasson in more depth in a later article.

Furthermore, a key strength of climate change art is its ability to make the scientific, confusing, or daunting accessible. In the book Art+Climate=Change, Guy Abrahams argues that “art can create the empathy, emotional engagement, and cultural understanding needed to bridge the gap between climate science and effective climate policy,” suggesting that art can be a positive catalyst for societal and cultural change. Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is an artist whose work bridges this gap between science and art through emotional engagement. Her work examines our relationships with nature and technology, exploring subjects of the human desire to better the world, biodiversity, and synthetic biology. Specifically, the work Pollinator Pathmaker, which is also about agency, explores what we can do to feel less powerless within the climate crisis by creating gardens that support pollinators. Pollinator Pathmaker is an artwork for pollinators and focuses on the importance of caring for nature and the environment. The work, through its encouragement of creating for other species, uses art to give us empathy. Therefore, a hopeful and positive culmination of art and science.

Ultimately, art can be a powerful tool within the sustainability and climate change conversation for its ability to give emotion to facts, connect people to difficult and daunting ideas and bring people hope for the planet. This article has merely scratched the surface on art and climate change and I hope to expand on these ideas within a series of articles that focus on artists working within the climate change conversation, including the work of Eliasson Olafur and Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.

Sources and other interesting articles:

Art + Climate = Change, Guy Abrahams, Kelly Gellatly, and Bronwyn Johnson, 2016

Sommer, L. K., & Klöckner, C. A. (2021). Does activist art have the capacity to raise awareness in audiences?—A study on climate change art at the ArtCOP21 event in Paris. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 15(1), 60–75.


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