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Art’s lost subject

March 11, 2010

Western culture has long positioned itself as distinct from nature. Now with climate change, argues Antony Gormley, it’s time to rethink the purpose of art

antony gormley's domain field

Art of survival … Antony Gormley’s Domain Field (2003). Photograph: Colin Davison

By Antony Gormley

I have just driven through the Hatfield Tunnel. Above it are factory outlet shops that sell overproduced goods at reduced prices to bargain-hunters. The tunnel is long, and I imagine that the shops are plenty. These out-of-town malls are satellites of emergent in-town complexes, such as the new Westfield at Shepherd’s Bush and the newer one that will be at Stratford East on the Olympics site. Art is similarly involved in a system of exchange and distribution that involves in-town and out-of-town franchises that may, as with the Guggenheim Museum in New York, spread first downtown, then to Bilbao, then to Berlin and finally to Abu Dhabi; or the Tate establishing outposts in Liverpool and St Ives, then expanding itself on Bankside and now expanding again. Art has seemingly become enmeshed in the same processes of expansion and growth that have characterised late capitalism.

And yet this bland comparison does not really wash. Shops are there to satisfy inflated desires. Art galleries contain forms and experiences that inspire, question and extend human experience. Art is the way that life tests and expresses itself, without which we are already dead.

But what happens to your enthusiasm for belonging and contributing to this system of distribution when you are told that we have 96 months before the tipping point, when the feedback systems of man-made global warming take over – probably resulting in tens of millions of climate-change refugees displaced and made homeless by the end of this century? When faced by the global climate crisis in a culture that encourages us to do more, produce more, be seen more, my initial response is paralysing fear; I want to shrink, to go into a hibernating state with minimum muscular effort and put minimal demand on any kind of fuel.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 18, 2010 11:22 am

    Good post. I’m an artist too and my dog Holly features a lot in my work about creating a sustainable forest aka my Holly Wood Diaries; you might enjoy this short clip after coming back from the Copenhagen climate change summit (Holly is a rescued dog – a ferrai fast german pointer

    The first conference on culture and climate change was good though, I wrote a review here


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