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Could contemporary art be less wasteful?

27 January 2020

With its energy-guzzling, industrial-sized studios, jet-setting collectors, and the quantity of material it uses, is today’s art damaging the planet? Or is its environmental impact a mere drop in the (ever-swelling) ocean?

Kate McMillan

In 2015, most of the 48,000 artists living in Britain earned less than the minimum wage. Romanticise this, and you could argue that such circumstances would enable them to remain unencumbered by the contradictions and hypocrisies of modern life. A meagre income requires a simple existence with minimal consumption and might include wearing second-hand clothes, growing your own food, living a focused, intellectual life. In this context, artists might imagine themselves as holding up a mirror to the world with all its flaws, and to the corruption that consumes our planet.

In reality, however, many artists are also factory workers, creating luxury products for high-net-worth individuals – desperate to produce and sell more, and elevate themselves, their living conditions and their legacy. They may well have scavenged the bus fare to make it to a swanky dinner hosted by a wealthy collector in the hope of expanding their network and securing that elusive sale, commission or invitation to exhibit. In this sector of financial extremes, artists will often encounter situations in which they feel unable to discuss their political views or their lived experience. Increasingly they are silenced, and consequently become complicit in a system that is contributing to the destruction of our planet.

The rationale for contributing to a world drowning in ‘stuff’ is becoming more difficult to defend. For a period in 2018 I was unable to justify making anything at all for more than six months, which was the impetus for my current exhibition, ‘The Lost Girl’, showing at Arcade, Bush House. It seemed to me at the time that the materials used – and wasted – in production and freight didn’t seem an appropriate creative response to the climate crisis. Many of my artist peers have expressed similar feelings of despair.

There is also the expectation that one should be jet-setting around the world, doing residencies, attending exhibitions and biennales. In a recent article in Frieze, ‘Can the Art World Kick Its addiction to Flying?’, Kyle Chayka notes that a return flight from New York to London generates almost 1,000kg of carbon dioxide – significant given that for every tonne of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, three square metres of Arctic sea ice melts. Should artists be resisting this? Should they be demanding more accountability from their gallerists, collectors and curators? 

The problem lies not only in the air miles racked up by people and art, but in the connections between the fossil-fuel companies, global banks and multinationals whose directors use the backdrop of art as social and business capital. In October 2019, as I stood outside Frieze London protesting about the environmental impact of art fairs, a passing museum director remarked that art fairs weren’t about the art, as he escorted a rich benefactor around the fair, presumably hoping to gain his patronage. The answers to these environmental problems lie not only in reducing air travel and the carbon footprint of fairs and shows, but in rethinking the art ecosystem.

Perhaps, too, artists need to wean themselves off the lure of more commissions and bigger studios. Does the world need more art, or just more creative thinking? Broader discussions around universal basic incomes would enable most artists to worry less about production and selling, and more about the generation of ideas and creativity. The potential of the artist as a troubler of apathy and complicity is compromised when artists feel they must bite their tongue in front of benefactors, or sell their work to collectors without asking where the money is coming from.

Technology might save us. One London gallery is experimenting with VR so that its collectors can see what an artwork might look like inside their home without having to travel. But these are small dents in a world addicted to production and growth.

Kate Raworth’s theory of ‘doughnut economics’ argues that we are living outside the parameters of what our planet can manage.  What might the art world look like if it relied less on the production of stuff? Less on our ability to fly around seeing that stuff; less on ‘dirty’ money to create exponential growth; less on speculation around art prices? Responding to climate change will involve loss, and we have to come to terms with what those sacrifices will entail; but as artists we must also harness our creativity to find solutions and use our voices to resist, even if it is uncomfortable.

Kate McMillan is an artist and an academic at King’s College, London, and the author of Contemporary Art and Unforgetting in Colonial Landscapes: Islands of Empire (Palgrave Macmillan).

Niru Ratnam

‘Art is waste! Art is a waste of love, waste of energy, waste of attention…’ Thomas Hirschhorn’s reply to an interview question on euronews.com on the subject of art and waste goes on significantly longer, listing the ways art might be a waste of many things, natural resources in particular. And on one level the production of contemporary art can clearly be seen as wasteful. There are obvious parts of the processes of making it that have a negative environmental impact; from the electrical requirements of large, brightly lit studios through to the toxic byproducts of using certain oil and acrylic paints. Then there is the environmental impact of specific works or their conditions for exhibition, particularly large-scale installation pieces.

There are cases that make mainstream news, such as Christo’s never-completed work ‘Over The River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado’. The project, which was in gestation for 20 years (a waste of a different sort), had the distinction of being the subject of the first environmental impact statement for an artwork produced by the Bureau of Land Management in the USA, and received extensive coverage over what its impact on the environment might be. Sometimes works that are the subject of criticism are less obvious choices. Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch ended up being questioned in some quarters for the carbon footprint that resulted from transporting 30 icebergs from Greenland to London. In response to those criticisms, Eliasson’s collaborator Minik Rosing argued that they ignored the wider picture. If Greenland is losing 10,000 icebergs every second, was there really a problem in transporting 30 of them to make people think about the environment and their behaviour?

But what about art that does not involve large, energy-sapping installations, such as a medium-sized abstract painting, for example? What, if anything, should be done about the waste inherent in the creation of such a piece and the environmental impact of transporting and exhibiting it? Can the environmental impact of what brought a work into existence affect the artistic value that the work might have? There are standard answers here. One is a retreat into some sort of formalism, insisting that the work must be thought about purely for what’s happening on the canvas (although this is an unlikely position to take unless you still live in the 1960s and read nothing but Clement Greenberg). A second position (such as that of Rosing) could argue that while there is some waste generated by the production of contemporary art, this is worth it in relation to the change in thinking about the environment that it might provoke. For works that are less directly about the environment than, say, Eliasson’s, it might be argued that contemporary art can enable people to think differently about society, politics and life in general and indirectly have a positive impact on how they go about living their lives in relation to questions around waste and the environment. Art is good for the soul, so you have to excuse the studio lights. A third view is that the production of contemporary art produces waste, but this is trivial compared to industrial activities such as the construction industry, and even relatively less harmful than other creative industries such as fashion, with its landfills of clothes and high use of water.

Perhaps, though, the most useful way of looking at this is to factor in the way the mindset of viewers is changing in response to the large and varied conversations and debates about climate change (not just artistic ones), and how artists will respond to that. As more people start to think about the climate crisis, it is likely that there will be less appetite to see, or indeed buy, works that flagrantly disregard their environmental footprint. Matthew Barney’s excessive use of petroleum jelly might not go so unremarked upon from an environmental standpoint as it did when his work emerged in the 1990s. Large installations with blinking lightbulbs have probably seen the end of their moment. Julian Opie might never grace our city streets again (there’s got to be some good to come out of this). The question of whether art could be less wasteful is something of a red herring – most human activity produces an excess of waste, and contemporary art is far from the biggest sinner here. A more productive exercise might be to make sure there is an ongoing conversation about responsibilities, both those of ourselves as viewers and those of the artists we want to look at and think about.

Niru Ratnam is a writer and gallerist.

From the February 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.