I’ve come across a bit of climate activism art lately, and curious what you think. On the one hand, there’s David Attenborough’s Our Planet netflix series. Environmental change is used as a framing device to explore a range of captivating animal behaviors, mostly near-death experiences for very cute baby animals. Maybe a little heavy handed, juxtaposing baby death with climate complacency, but at the same time, there will be a lot of baby death, and the images and stories have been really powerful.
Then there’s Lil Dicky’s earth, where a star-studded cast, and beautiful/expensive animations urge us to protect our gloriously technicolor planet, after all that’s what Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande would do.
What’s your take? Do you consider either of these important and interesting artistic expressions? Any other climate art worth looking into?
— Submitted by Andrew Neff on 4.21.2019
Before tackling the question of “art and climate change,” here’re my thoughts on our basic relationship to nature: ultimately, I trust that nature will eliminate us before we eliminate nature. I generally have more faith in nature than I do in humankind, who, really, are only one of many participants in nature’s grand scheme. After all, we carry more bacteria in our body than human cells; and so if nature decided to kill us off, she already has her bombs set and prepped for detonation.
Having said that, we do have a unique capacity for greed and hoarding “things” unnecessary to our survival; but, having said that, we then have to ask the question, “Is art necessary to our survival?”
The materialist would likely say no: art is useless, a Platonic imitation of real things and thus secondary to the importance of real things (the realness of which is also debatable from a Platonic perspective). And what’s worse: you may argue that the production of art is in itself destructive to the environment, thus making “environmentalist art” an oxymoron. (I hate to Get Political here but:) This is why I think the Leftist (i.e., collectivist) types of environmentalist thinkers are fundamentally anti-Art — and depending on how they go about enforcing their collectivism (which, yes, reducing human toxic byproducts on a significant enough scale does require an enforced collective effort), the technology required for that enforcement (e.g., a strong surveillance system, police force, etc.) may also be detrimental to the environment. On the flipside, the more pro-individual “free market” types often fail to address (or outright ignore) the negative global impact of industrial human activity. They naively (or, again, ignorantly) assume that via the free market humanity will freely opt for what’s ethical over what’s convenient. And perhaps the craze of Left-leaning, environmentally (un)conscious art is a natural response to a free market run nihilistically awry. Even so, I don’t like that environmentalism — and, reciprocally, art — has become a Left vs. Right staked issue. I say “reciprocally, art” here because through the Aristotelian view (as opposed to the Platonic), art is uniquely necessary to humankind as it fosters moral and emotional insight — without resorting to propagandic insertions of political/moral values. The best art shatters our superficial, social sensibilities by revealing our place in — and subordination to — nature. What then follows is a naturally inspired sense of “oneness” with nature. Consider this quote by Oscar Wilde:
No better way is there to learn to love Nature than to understand Art. It dignifies every flower of the field. And, the boy who sees the thing of beauty which a bird on the wing becomes when transferred to wood or canvas will probably not throw the customary stone.
Second to submerging yourself in nature, the best art supplies an understanding of nature by revealing it simply as it is. With that in mind, while I find the likes of David Attenborough’s Our Planet commendable on this front, I’m not sure these nature documentaries are effective tools of environmentalist encouragement or, even, artistic expression — though these documentaries do have artistic, aesthetic elements.
I have certain friends who might even disagree with the “commendability” of Our Planet, as my wildlife-loving friends shun nature photography/documentaries altogether as not only intrusive on wildlife but promotional towards wildlife-destructive tourism. This is a common paradox among well-intentioned conservationists — e.g., Frank Michler Chapman, one of 19th c. America’s leading ornithologists, secured (i.e., killed) fifteen specimens of the now-extinct Carolina parakeet, the only parrot native to eastern U.S, to better understand this rare, beautiful bird. Chapman lived with the guilt of wondering whether or not his naturalist interventions contributed to the extinction of the Carolina parakeet.
And so I’m not 100% sure how I feel about all of this. Perhaps with more refined tools and naturalist procedures (e.g., ways to observe endangered biota without effectively killing them), we may improve the success rates of our conservationist interventions. After all, the bald eagle fairly recently made a huge recovery from endangerment, which is worth celebrating. Also, in the more socialized, urban spheres, I see David Attenborough’s Our Planet as a potentially useful, powerful reminder of the messy, natural world outside of the urbanite’s neatly ordered Ikea arrangement. (More importantly, an understanding of the external wilderness rekindles in the urbanite an understanding of their own inner wilderness, their repressed animalia.)
But either way, if advocacy is the primary point in a work of art, I don’t view it as a work of art — it’s propaganda. And propaganda does less to inform the uninformed than to make a group feel good for what they already believe. Which brings me to Lil Dicky’s “Earth” music video:
I don’t know what to say about this other than that it’s pure shit. Perhaps even worse than shit: at least with shit you can fertilize a garden.
I’m not too familiar with Lil Dicky, other than his “$ave Dat Money” song, which is decent, and “Freaky Friday,” which is also pure, mineral-deficient shit. He seems like one of those “funny song” guys who relies more on low-hanging #HaHaRandom fruit (e.g., “The titty-milk cow was so haha random funny!”) and #Relatable observations than anything I’d qualify as genuinely funny or musical. I can at least dance to “$ave Dat Money” — I don’t know what to do with “Earth,” even though the music video outright tells me what to do with an end-scene Call to Action to visit WeLoveTheEarth.org for education and fundraising opportunities.
If the WeLoveTheEarth movement is effective at loosening our greed and re-engaging people with the wilderness, I’m all for it. On the contrary, if this sort of charity instead operates as a form of absolution (“Give us your money and we’ll forgive your sinful carbon footprint”), contributing instead to further complacency and further repression of our inner wilderness — and more shitty, celebrity-worshiping, “environmentalist” music like this — then I mean this with all sincerity: Lil Dicky should take a hike — a hike outside of Los Angeles, somewhere wild and inconvenient and uncomfortable and not computer generated.
But, yea, so: I’d say to anyone concerned about the environment, don’t seek “climate change art” — instead, engage the wilderness, realize your inner wilderness, and express that wilderness through art, and express it without superficial moral judgments or external ideologies. The result will be art that’s true to who you are, true to the natural world, and that will save the birds from customarily thrown stones.