The art business is quite a hypocrisy.
However I have not always been aware of it, not until recently at least.
The epiphany was triggered by a Swedish girl in her early teens. She sailed across the Atlantic to give a speech in front of a group of well grown adults at the U.N. to address the urgency of climate change.
Yes, Greta Thunberg pointed her fingers at world leaders, telling them that the future of her generation is at stake because they are not doing enough to solve the issue. The viral image of her, staring at Donald J. Trump while he thoughtlessly ambling around surrounded by his bodyguards, was so intense and striking, that for a moment, I swear, I could even hear Donald Trump yelling for help from inside.
The art world went crazy over that look. Many called her an inspiration and encouraged the art industry to take cues from her and react. The prestigious Frieze even featured an article titled “Why the Art World Must Back Greta Thunberg’s Global Strike”.
“Within the arts, huge numbers of organizations have already declared a climate emergency and encouraging participation in Friday strike.”
Yes, that was it. That was what the art world had advocated and had been doing. Encouraging people to take action is not taking action. It is the typical “all saying but no doing” tactic, just like what the politicians have been doing over the years.
Climate emergency was declared as early as 1992 during the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which later was extended in 1997 in Kyoto, which was referred to as the Kyoto Protocol. In the protocol, there are different classes of annexes of binding and non-binding targets. The Kyoto Protocol was extended once again, though not in force, in 2012 in Doha. Very much to the disappointment, only 37 countries had to commit to their reducing goal. To my surprise though, Canada was one of the first countries to officially withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.
So I decided to dig a little deeper to see what the art world is really doing since the publishing of the Frieze article. The result is disheartening.
Besides a couple of emails that I received that praised Greta Thunberg’s actions, literally nothing has happened. I mean, nothing.
Since the 17th of September, I received tons and tons of emails from different art institutions, which I subscribed to, promoting upcoming exhibitions, art festival participations, symposiums, biennials or triennials, pertaining or not to the issues within climate change. The only thing that did not exist was a proclaim of actual participation and measures to be taken.
Everyday I am buried in the newsletters of up and coming exhibitions, cool and hip art events from different parts of the globe. Yes, I even received emails from tourist agencies that team up with art institutions trying to sell me, or art lovers alike, travel packages that plan around the so-called art calendar of the year.
In these past 15 years or so, I have been to more than just a dozen art events myself, and have organized quite a few as well. The amount of carbon emissions and thus other environmental impacts generated is daunting. If one ever cares to think about it and calculate: logistics of artworks; accommodations and travels of invited guests and artists or other personnel; other consequential emissions. These account for a huge part of negative natural influence from the art industry inflicted on our living surroundings and Mother Earth. It all seems natural to some, as any industry has its impact on the environment. However, what I am talking about is the lavishness that associates with the art industry, or maybe the fashion industry as well, where its attendees would fly thousands of kilometers just to show up at an event for days or even hours in business classes, private jets or yachts you name it. Or maybe one would stay a night in a luxurious hotel room that would have to be thoroughly made up and cleaned up after just a single night occupancy. Let us not forget the lush outfits that these people show up in, are just another huge contributor to the environmental crisis that we are in today.
Being an elite status holder of a certain airline alliance and a hotel chain myself, I do absolutely agree that one does have to be charged more if s/he opts to stay in a larger room or a more luxurious room to compensate the carbon emission on top of the original room rate. Nevertheless, not many companies are willing to do this. Because this would mean a direct increase in prices and many customers would complain. KLM so far is one of the few airlines that I know that allows you to pay an extra to offset your carbon emission for the flight. But this is not a solution. It is an afterthought.
Venice would be the perfect epitome of how art frenetics have constructed themselves a fancy bubble that directly or indirectly made local communities suffer the already dying neighborhood that probably took more than just a century to form, if one traces the history of the city back to medieval times.
Naturally, one has every right to visit a city, such as Venice. But to visit a city solely for the purpose of participating a day or two of an art event, such as the Bienniale, is extremely damaging to the environment. And the countless exhibitions that take place simultaneously as the major event, needless to say, are causing yet another humongous environmental burden on host cities.
One might argue that these events have largely boosted local economy and its tourism industry. But there is always a difference between tourism as an industry and as a mean.
Most of these art-events goers, one of whom I used to be, normally just visit the exhibitions that interest them, other than the real city where ordinary people reside. They would go around in hired vehicles (Blimey I love public transportations), eat at fancy Michelin restaurants and stay at chain hotels. The benefits of these activities never seem to go to the real local community. Instead, the sole beneficiary seems have always been the multi-billion dollar corporates that would abandon a locale as soon as its lure fades. And then the local community would tank. And then all the exuberant attention once bestowed upon these little towns are ripped off. And then these towns are completely eradicated from the art maps, god forbid, if there should have ever been one.
Looking in retrospect, I am filled with the guilty feeling of being part of the enablers or the catalyzers of this phenomenon.
With what is readily available to most of us today, the art industry is relentlessly spending millions of dollars indulging in a “Yes I care” bubble without actually doing anything. How is this not being complicit when little Greta Thunberg is preparing her second sail across the Atlantic to Spain?
Yes, it would always be nice to sit and stare a Yves Klein, while time elapses. But wouldn’t it be nicer to know that by appreciating artworks or producing artworks through other channels, we are creating an environment, both literally and figuratively, which would cultivate more up and coming Yves Kleins, Jackson Pollocks, Yayoi Kusamas?
I plead, that I am guilty.