Artistic Absence, Amitav Ghosh and Dangerous Climate Change
Cutting edge artists and musicians are often considered cultural leaders, able to see and express things the rest of us struggle to see. Given we are facing unprecedented disruption and challenges of climate change, I am keenly interested in what artists and musicians are saying about this challenge before us.
So I thought I'd do a simple investigation. My home city of Melbourne is considered the cultural capital of Australia and host to many internationally acclaimed cultural events. Two of the most significant are the Melbourne Festival and the Melbourne Fringe Festival. I felt confident that if I looked at their most recent (2017) programs, I would find artistic inspiration for facing the Anthropocene.
What did I find? The Melbourne Festival had 78 events by the world’s most 'courageous, visionary and ambitious artists'. Examining the program descriptions for mentions of climate change or global warning I found exactly … zero! Hardly a resounding statement of artistic recognition of the world’s biggest crisis.
Ok, I thought, the Fringe Festival is clearly the place for forward thinking on the climate, surely? After all, this was the place to see ‘culture-makers that will change the world’. So I searched and, after an interminably long time (there are 122 pages in the program!) I found … three mentions of climate change. THREE! Only one took climate as its key focus, the other two were, well, let’s just say they were ‘fringy’.
Two major cultural festivals, hundreds of leading and experimental artists, and the most serious problem our world faces was almost completely invisible.
Now, be clear am not claiming these artists don't understand climate change. I don't know. I also don't believe every artist has to address climate change in their practice (artistic freedom is important).
But what is clear in these events is that climate change is virtually invisible.
At the time I was reading a book about literature and climate change and the same question arose.
Where are the serious novelists writing about climate change?
The internationally acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh has never written a novel on climate change. But, with very few exceptions, neither have most of the significant novelists writing today (you know, the Booker prize types). This is the focus of Ghosh’s book, The Great Derangement; Climate Change and Thinking the Unthinkable.
Why is climate change almost completely ignored?
Because it is unthinkable. Literally, something we don’t know how to think about.
The reasons are not personal. Rather, they come from the ‘peculiar form’ of the serious novel that makes it very difficult to imagine the reality of climate change. Ghosh argues that ‘serious’ literature, and indeed much of our culture, makes it very difficult to look climate change in the eye; it is too terrifying, too powerful, too confronting.
There is of course much fiction writing on future impacts of climate. There are many science fiction or ‘clifi’ (climate fiction) disaster novels being published. But as Ghosh notes, that is the rub; they are mostly set in the future. Climate change is a future, not a present issue.
It cannot be now.
Writing about climate change as science fiction is safe because we do not need to be confronted by it today. It is entertainment, abstract and something for someone else to worry about in the future, hopefully when we have long since kicked the bucket.
While there is odd notable exception, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s fabulous ‘Flight Behaviour’, few novelists write novels where climate is central. This is also relevant for musicians and many leading visuals artists where the climate crisis remains mostly invisible.
The literary avant-garde (of which Ghosh is a member) is not writing about climate change because to do so would mean facing, once again, the uncontrollable world of nature. To be human is to be ‘modern’, where human culture and ideas, human will and imagination now rule. This is ‘nature conquered’ and relegated to historical footnotes in modernity. With culture mastering nature, now the individual is central to what is important. Modern novels focus on ‘individual moral adventure’ where what is really important is ‘an interior journey guided by the conscience’. Nature is only background and the novel’s gaze is now focused on individual human experience.
But what if it is no longer just about us?
The Anthropocene is the earth fighting back, re-exerting its power and showing it cannot be controlled. This is deeply confronting to both capitalism (something Ghosh discusses as length) and to the avant-garde’s preoccupation with the individual. Climate change forces us back to nature (as if we had actually ever left) and human culture is having to face its own limitations in the face of what climate scientist Wallace Broecker called the ‘angry beast’ of a heating climate system.
In the Anthropocene, the rules of the game have changed. Nature is back in the game; we have dug the earth, disturbed the fossil ghosts and have stirred the beast. Now, more than ever, we need the novelists and visual and performance artists to help us all learn to understand and live with this new, emergent and dangerous world.
Mind you, Bill McKibben called for this over 12 years ago. There have been some wonderful responses; Climarte is a particularly powerful Australian example, the Climate Music Project based in California, Green Music Australia is doing great things and Artists and Climate Change with climate focused visual and performing arts. But this is a drop in the artistic ocean; it seems many artists and writers have yet to escape the ‘Great derangement’ of avoidance.