Art, Science, Universities and Climate Change

 Gerald Bast

ART, SCIENCE AND

THE UNIVERSITIES IN AN AGE OF CLIMATE CHANGE

From: D.Buckland/Ch.Wainwright, UNFOLD- A Cultural Response to Climate Change

 

 

“How is it possible that when we see a living horse, a dog, or a lion, this does not awaken feelings of wonderment within us and we are not delighted by their beauty; but when we view a picture of a horse, a bull, a flower, a bird, or a man, or even a fly, a worm, a stable fly, or another unpleasant creature, we are moved by the sight of such images and hold them in great esteem? What is the reason?  Can it be traced back to the fact that in pictures we do not admire physical beauty, but rather the intellectual beauty of their creators.” (From a letter of the Byzantine humanist, Manuel Chrysoloras (1353 – 1415), quoted in “Kunstforum International” issue 93, Cologne 1988).

What Chrysoloras describes somewhat melodramatically is actually a major factor in both the reception and also the social influence of art. Images are frequently more powerful than reality itself. Hence the fact that throughout history art has been regarded by the powerful as being potentially dangerous, or at the very least, unreliable and suspicious.  When realities or facts emerge from their “normal” and familiar surroundings and are placed in another context, they suddenly gain fresh regard and significance. In fact it is the ideas behind the artistic act of transformation and translocation of realities, which find the recognition and significance that Chrysoloras describes in the spirit of his age as the “intellectual beauty” of the originator.

Adorno wrote that, “Art is magic, liberated from the lie of being the truth.” People have been confronted with lies that stake a claim to truth throughout time and in any number of social forms. Political and religious leaders promulgate disguised messages as truths and thereby trust in the forgetfulness or defeatism of the population. Industrial strategists arouse expectations, hopes and/or fears through announcements and expertises adorned with the aura of truth. They thus control share prices, consumer behaviour and even entire political systems, and last, but by no means least, impacts the very status of our natural environment. Art exists in a dimension that is beyond truth and falsehood.  However, with this approach does art not adopt a position outside of social reality? Moreover, if art regards itself as being free of a claim to truth, does it not also remove itself from the fabric of social development and influence? Or could it be the case as readily suggested by the history of art and artistic persecution, which continues even today, that due precisely to this intentional severance from a dogmatic claim to truth, or let us say empirical verity, art first achieves validity and effectiveness in a society in which so many calumnies are uttered in the name of truth, goodness and beauty?    

“Climate change is a reality. Caused by us all, it is a cultural, social and economic problem and must move beyond scientific debate. Each artist who has been part of the Cape Farewell expeditions has found a voice that, when unpacked, deals in some way with climate change. Each has added uniquely to a new bank of ideas and imagery that brings the subject of climate change into focus on a human scale.”" This is how David Buckland describes the fundamental idea behind Cape Farewell, an interdisciplinary initiative, which constitutes a “cultural response to climate change.”

Precisely because “pictures” and art are more powerful than that which we recognise as “reality”, it would seem to be especially worthwhile to help communicate the facts and figures relating to global climate change, which are substantiated by scientific knowledge, by means of art and thus promote problem awareness and a readiness to take socio-political action beyond expert circles. However, even more is at stake because art and art institutions always were and remain some of the most powerful breeding grounds for critical analysis, social utopias and the will to contribute to a life full of meaning, empathy, social consideration, thoughtfulness, innovation and creativity, rather than shallow technocratic indifference.

The example of climate change and its manifold causes makes clear in both a crushing and equally hopeful manner that sustainable solutions can only be achieved by means of holistic approaches, which traverse ideological, system-endemic and disciplinary limitations. The belief that economic growth and technical progress can be uncoupled from cultural, ecological and also social questions generates the dysbalances for which climate change is merely a proxy.  

Art and science can and must reveal the injurious and dangerous structures created when people and nature are solely regarded as human capital or a source of raw materials, while the economy is allotted the status of a stand-alone, politically untouchable dimension. Every person acting with a sense of eco-social responsibility must raise questions concerning personal accountability, our individual actions, handling of resources and energy, and nutritional, housing and mobility habits. Changes and paradigmatic shifts are the result of autonomous, networked initiatives, which finally expand to a degree that makes political reaction unavoidable. A living society is characterised by the strengthening of these initiatives with energy, innovative spirit, well-founded facts and figures and creative ideas relating to implementation. And it is precisely these attributes, which our world needs to overcome current challenges that art and science can provide.   

However, art is not purely an instrument of social communication. In fact, a growing number of scientists and artists have established that when confronted by the need to pursue new paths, conquer additional scientific or aesthetic “worlds” and create new realities, the greater the similarities become between the methods and strategies employed in both artistic and scientific research and development. Therefore, the increasing complexity of the issues relating to our social, economic and natural environment strongly suggests the probity of synergetic teamwork between science and the arts, even if academic traditions and the university power and career mechanisms still place a powerful damper on the realisation of such integrative strategies.    

We are all familiar with the distorted image of the universities as ivory towers in which research takes place in isolation and freedom. And in truth, these bastions not only still exist but today are actually multiplying. However, it is no longer the universities that constitute the ivory towers, but rather the individual researchers themselves. As a scientist or artist, one must be clearly classifiable within the system, in order to survive in the competition for attention and funding. Accordingly, an interdisciplinary approach continues to be seen mainly as a luxury or a quirk, which has little in common with “serious” scientific work. Therefore, although it is evident that the mastery of the real issues of the 21st century will only be possible through the interplay of various scientific disciplines and the synergetic networking of apparently independent specialist areas, the lone wolf principle continues to predominate within the scientific community. An idea inspired by the romantic concept of the genius.   

One should not denigrate personal achievements, as these will and should continue to exist. However, the issue at stake is whether a cultural transformation can be initiated in the scientific, not to mention the artistic, community that no longer focuses upon the isolated publications of individual researchers, but leads to project-oriented, interdisciplinary working and transdisciplinarity as the paramount guideline for inventive activity. Such a cultural shift would also define success through a focus on other integrative parameters rather than performance in the art market. All of these aspects have consequences for study architecture, research support programmes and linguistic culture. Communication mechanisms have to be created between the representatives of various disciplines and semantic and methodological walls must be torn down.  The matter in hand is the shaping of universities as an antithesis to disciplinary fragmentation and scientific and artistic isolation, or in other words, universities as central institutions for socio-cultural development. The participation of several leading art schools such as the Columbia College of Art and Design, the Chelsea College of Art & Design and the University of Applied Arts Vienna in this Cape Farewell exhibition project constitutes an important signpost in this direction.  

 Art and science are similar to an extent that is both frightening and heartening. Therefore, neither of them should fall prey to the frequently overwhelming temptation to simply please.  This is because the arts and science are both litmus papers and correctives with regard to “social acidity levels”, i.e. the apathy of societies towards their members and environments. In order to fulfil their social roles, science and the arts should never be pretty, cuddly, entertaining, amusing, decorative or aesthetic for aestheticism’s sake. The true beauty of art lies in its ability to move us intellectually, motivate us to follow new paths, shape awareness and character, demonstrate interconnections and teach us to employ all the things that surround us in a conscious manner.  The achievement of social effectiveness can neither be the aim nor the purpose of art. Nonetheless, art HAS a social influence, either in the sense of change, or in the spirit of affirmation and conservation.  

Walter Benjamin once demanded that: “Art be the governor of Utopia.” And although demands do not constitute reality, they do possess the power to shape it.