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Could contemporary art be less wasteful? With its energy-guzzling, industrial-sized studios, jetsetting 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).



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