Posts Tagged ‘morality’

In one of my former lives, I used to be an artist . . . My friends from CADRE New Media Lab asked me to contribute to {Greenify}, Switch magazine’s latest issue devoted to the intersections of green, new media art, and technology. I felt compelled to write about, “Moral Obligations of the Artist in a Global Warming World“. Here is the whole article:

Several months ago, I wrote ‘Who is Boss?‘, an emotional blog post about Richard Serra‘s work:

Today’s 3 Quarks Daily article about the sculptor Richard Serra, made me think about my not so long ago days as an artist. During my stint at San Jose State University, I spent many days at the foundry, casting bronze sculptures. One only needs to witness a metal pour once to realize how energy intensive the whole process is. One of the reasons I quit the art world, was my increasing unease with the idea of making the planet worse as a result of my artistic activities. I look at Serra‘s monumental steel structures, and instead of wonder, I feel outrage, and sadness. All I can see is one’s man inflated ego displayed on a monumental scale, a metaphor for how many amongst us, aim to show nature, who is boss.

Historically, object-making has been an integral part of the art practice. It still is, for many artists, and raises ethical questions from an environmental perspective. Which materials to use? Should art-producing activities be carbon-neutral? Why should the artist care if the majority of his fellow citizens don’t? How far is the artist to go in his or her environmentalism?

One extreme position challenges the legitimacy of the artist in a world where global needs are being re-evaluated. Last year, a prominent gallery owner pursued me to become the director of his gallery. Here is the argument I made to him, when I declined his very lucrative offer. Given the state of the world, I told him, I wanted to devote my time to activities that were going to make a difference. Business, technology, and policy are what’s going to save us. His point was, art is essential to democracy, and a society without art no longer has a soul. He is right, of course. And wrong also. Global warming has thrown us back down a few steps along Maslow’s hierarchy. Collectively, we are no longer at the apex of the pyramid, where the actualization of our needs for aesthetics and creativity becomes an end in itself. Instead we are to deal with more primitive needs, way at the bottom. The satisfaction of our needs for food, water, air, and safety, is being threatened once more, on a global scale. The very real anxiety I feel, as a result, has caused me to re-evaluate my actions, and to ask the question of, how can I contribute to the solution.

The artist as environmental activist has much to think about these days. It is not just a matter of minimizing one’s footprint, but also of how to best use one’s creative talents to serve the environmental cause. Does the artist have a role in a world in crisis, and if so, what is it? I am reminded of Neil Young‘s recent statement at the Berlin Film Festival, “I know that the time when music could change the world is past, I really doubt that a single song can make a difference. It is a reality.”

A year spent blogging about environmental issues, and engaging in cyber conversations with influencers from a wide range of disciplines, not just artists, has left me convinced of the special role to be played by three types of artists:

  • First, is the digital media artist, who can use his or her creativity and knowledge of digital technologies, to advance the climate fight. A big obstacle to the resolution of the climate crisis, has been the relative apathy of the crowds and the unwillingness of the majority to make behavioral changes or to endorse policies that require personal sacrifices. Internet social media tools such as YouTube, blogs, and wikis offer unprecedented opportunities for artists to get their messages out to millions of people. Sometimes the boundaries between business and art can be blurry, as evidenced by Do The Green Thing, a British Internet venture that combines performance, digital media, and advertising techniques to provoke its audience into making gradual life changes. Sounds a lot like art to me, although it never makes any such claim. 
  • Second is the performance artist, whose interventions can disrupt the status quo, and cause others to pause and reflect, leading then to become more aware. One such example is the practice of shopdropping, originated by Ryan Watkins-Hughes. ‘Shopdrop: To covertly place merchandise on display in a store. A form of ‘culture jamming’ s. reverse shoplift, droplift.’ There is also ‘Improv Everywhere‘, an art initiative from Charlie Todd, that aims to cause ‘scenes of chaos and joy in public places‘. All these performances benefit from viral spreading on YouTube. During the ten days since it was first downloaded, ‘The Day London Froze‘ video was viewed 559,000 times, favorited 3,715 times, and commented on 2,588 times. 
  • Third is the public artist, whose works can interrupt the public landscape and alter people daily’s sensory experiences. Research indicates over and over, that awareness of global warming is no longer the primary issue. What is needed instead, is a context to trigger behavioral changes. The Velib’ initiative in Paris and other European cities for instance, has changed the urban landscape, and gotten citizens interested in biking as an alternative mode of transportation. To that end, the public artist can collaborate with other environmental actors, urban planners, architects, designers, city engineers, transportation authorities, sustainability teams, utility companies, and others, to create compelling experiences for citizens. Rather than creating his or her own project, a la Christo for instance, a more effective approach may be for the artist to latch on to already planned projects, and to propose artistic enhancements. 

In all three cases, the artist serves as messenger extraordinaire, in service of the planet. 

For the artist wondering still, about his or her role in a global warming word, I would like to suggest the following code of ethics: To the best of my artistic abilities, I will question, provoke, engage, communicate, conserve in ways that cause my fellow citizens to take steps towards a more sustainable lifestyle.


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A wind of morality has been blowing all over, from the greenwashing watchddogs at Greenwashingindex, to companies broadcasting their good deeds in corporate citizenship reports, to the buzz about sustainability in the blogosphere. It is happening. JWT calls it the ‘emerging new spirit of good-citizen ethics’. Like the EcoMoms phenomenon, however, it is a movement, still confined to a fringe of the American culture.

The good citizen ethics certainly has not made its way through the streets of our cities. From The Open Planning Project in New York City, here is a very thought-provoking video on the ethics of urban automobility, featuring Randy Cohen, The Ethicist from the New York Times – thanks Kyle, for sending the video my way:

I agree with Randy Cohen that ethics cannot be left to individual moral choice. Instead ethics need to be embedded in wise policies, to be decided democratically by informed citizens. The problem of the individual car is just one example of the many environmental villains that are threatening our very existence. One precursor of ethics is consciousness. The more we watch and engage in discussions such as the one in the video, the more aware we become and the more ready we will be to define and accept a new code of ethics. That new code will make room for the consequences of our personal actions when we pollute our environment.

I am really curious to hear your thoughts on that one!

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