Can Art Change the World?

Global warming is the biggest issue facing our planet today. Temperatures are rising at unprecedented rates, bringing increasingly severe droughts, tropical storms and wildfires. The arctic may even have its first ice-free summer by 2040. These stark facts are repeated ad nauseam on television, in newspapers and science reports, yet our leaders seem to lack the compulsion to act effectively or urgently. Maybe now it is time for culture to step in and radically alter our perception of mankind’s place in our fragile ecosystem.

Earth at the Royal Academy of Arts was professed as a necessity for a “cultural response to the way that human activity is affecting… our planet”. The exhibition opened with ‘Black Rain’ (2009) by Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, two huge screens reaching from floor to ceiling transmitting a video, composed of raw visual data by NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory. What looked like white rain or stars relentlessly thundered down the grainy, undulating blackness. It was utterly compelling. Thoughts of storms, power and destruction enveloped my consciousness and its visual repetition suggested cycles of famine, hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes.
Equally emotive was Anthony Gormley’s ‘Amazonian Field’ (1992). His iconic terracotta figures stare at the viewer, pleading for escape, change or movement, once individuals and now a mass. Their hollow eyes speak of desolation, the destruction of the natural world and the exploitation of millions. I imagined all the people whose homes and livelihoods are systematically wrecked on a daily basis for our coffee, shoes, hair extensions, and mobile phones; to name but a few.

Yet how far can pieces like this and art in general actually change our way of life? The exhibition was extensive, demonstrating multifarious ways of looking at global warming. The overtly science-based pieces were often less visually engaging, straying towards either being geeky or gimmicky. One piece, ‘Polar Diamond’ (2009) consisted of a diamond made from the bone of a polar bear. It focused on science and concept over real feeling and consequently failed to impress. Works like this fuel detractors who argue that modern art is shallow, obsessed only with sensation and powered by greed. Art needs to engage the viewers, altering their perception and provoking them to act. Failing to do so reduces art to visual frippery.

Critics might also argue that culture can only ever be reactionary and is always handicapped by a necessary time lag. Is this exhibition twenty or even fifty years too late? Probably not, because we now have the science, the facts and the creative questioning to fully support action against climate change. The positive force of action and creation can combat the self-destructive nature of our society if we embrace these ideas and adapt our way of living accordingly. As Picasso famously quoted, “Art is a lie which makes us realise the truth” and this exhibition brought issues to my attention in an arresting and exhilarating way (more than government scientists or Al Gore could ever do).

Earth did not set out to be a polemic against consumerism, or to brainwash us into crusty activists. Instead it highlighted issues surrounding our planet in a balanced but visually arresting way, showing the ability of art to shape our minds and subsequently our actions. The last line of Ian McEwan’s poem The Hot Breath of Our Civilisation (featured in the exhibition guide) puts its reader on the spot: “Is this the beginning, or the beginning of the end?” We are now in a position to choose to act on climate change and art enables us to see this issue from kaleidoscopic perspectives. This exhibition hopefully signals the beginning of more environmentally and politically conscious art, which is desperately needed if we are to really tackle climate change.

Victoria Carter


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