How to be a useful artist in the face of the climate emergency?

Back in May this year I put up a post called Terrestrial Matters, a version of a presentation I gave in May at Culture Climates: Fostering Art for Sustainability – Time for a new Cultural Policy? at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway. I now want to follow on from that post in response to a heartfelt question I’ve been sent, linked to that event. My questioner asks: “how to be a useful artist in the face of the climate emergency”? My response is tentative and partial, but it is informed by reading Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation essay, Extinction Rebellion’s This Is Not A Drill, and Bendell’s contribution to it, Doom and Bloom: Adapting to Collapse.

I think there’s three, maybe four, aspects to the question I’ve been asked. The first concerns whoever asks such a question, the second concerns what we now understand by “art”, and the third is about what is meant by “the climate emergency”. (I’ll look at the final one in a postscript). Although these are obviously closely interrelated, I’ll take each of them in turn. 

There’s obviously no “one-size-fits-all” answer to this question and my response can only be personal, based on my own realisation, at some point about twenty years ago, of “advanced” art’s increasingly problematic relationship with what Amitav Ghosh has recently called The Great Derangement. Reading the work of people like A. David Napier, Mary Watkins, Geraldine Finn and James Hillman over time enabled me to see that “Art” in the Global North has been co-opted as a symbolic cornerstone of the toxic culture of possessive individualism.

One. Who is asking the question?

The realisation that “Art” had been co-opted by the culture of possessive individualism led me to question, and then unpick, the basic assumptions that that culture makes about creativity and self. I then had to listen to the response of the multiple selves that I am in the bruising psychological fallout that followed. The result was that I have had to accept that I’m not an autonomous individual; that I don’t “own” “my” creativity or even “my” selves, nor do “I” own anything they produce as some kind of autonomous, “stand-alone” entity. My “I” exists and can act only as a loose consortium of shifting selves within a larger connectivity of encultured beings of (fortunately) many different kinds (both living and dead). That is, through all the innumerable reciprocal connections, attachments and relationships in which it is entangled. (This is the best description I can mange of the psychosocial connectivity of a human being which, in turn, is wholly dependent on the larger ecology of the multiverse that Bruno Latour calls The Terrestrial).  

Two. Which “Art” and “Artist”?

This understanding of self as a loose consortium of entities, persona, or whatever, placed within a psychosocial network that’s extended in time and across place, and as dependent on the multiverse which constitutes it as its environment, has required me to detach “my” sense of self-esteem and value from any claim to be first and foremost “an Artist”. To do otherwise was ridiculously reductive and replicated the “colonial” repression of multiplicity on which power in the Global North has depended historically.

Once I began to realise this, I started to identify myself professionally (and still far too reductively) as “a teacher/artist/researcher”, which much later led me to adopt the idea of each person as an “ensemble” of practices. All of which suggests that, at least for me, the first step to addressing the question: “how to be a useful artist in the face of climate emergency” is to acknowledging that “I” am not, and have never been, primarily or essentially “an Artist”. And that neither “I” nor anyone else has ever possessed a single, monolithic, professionally-given, identity of that kind. Rather, the person that “I” am is in actuality somewhere on a continuum of possibilities. Between a process of becoming – as a living and changing constellation of roles, connections, attachments and relationships at one extreme or, at the other, so pathologically identified with one identity at the expense of the consortium they really are as to be, in Amitav Ghosh’s sense, deranged. A constellation, I hope, in which “doing art” may (or may not) have a genuinely creative role in attending to the relationship between self as a consortium of entities and the multiverse.This brings me to the point where, until I can consciously accept and honestly act on that understanding, as an “Artist” I remain, regardless of the nature of my practice, part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Linking parts One and Two.

Like most people brought up in the Global North, I was immersed from childhood in its values, unconsciously absorbing basic presuppositions handed down to me by the monotheistic Christian worldview that the Enlightenment both secularised and continued. A worldview in which the default position is always binary: this or that, good or bad, male or female, sacred or secular, Left or Right, right or wrong, etc., etc. This predisposed me to assume that I could either be an artist or I could not. It’s hard to break with that enculturation. One of the books I’ve come to treasure is Maddy Paxman’s The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss, her account of facing the consequences of the death of her husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, from a brain haemorrhage at the age of fifty. She has worked as a counsellor in women’s health, a music teacher, musician and painter and currently teaches the Alexander Technique and writes: 

“Although I don’t think of myself as an artist, in that I am not ‘driven’, painting is a form of expression that seems necessary to me and I miss it when it’s not part of my life”.

I find this sentence, which comes towards the end of her account of her relationship with the husband she clearly loved deeply (a man who was ‘driven’ to the exclusion of much that did not immediately concern his poetry), both moving and instructive. 

I recognised all-too-clearly that feeling that making art is something necessary to my well-being, like getting enough vitamin C. What most touched me, however, is that this book is about a clear-sighted and unselfish love that transcends the binary presuppositions I struggle with on a daily basis. Here, it seems to me, is somebody who understands what it is to live with and through, for better or worse, every kind of reciprocal connection, attachment and relationship.And to do it with humour, love and understanding. So I would change the question. Not ‘how can I be a useful artist in the face of the climate emergency’, but ‘what are the relationships between the consortium I call my “self” and the realities of the reciprocal connections, attachments and relationships that embed it in the multiverse’? That change allows me to ask whether involvement in art is something I am ‘driven’ to do at the expense of others (Maddy Paxman’s tacit definition of an “Artist”), or whether my making art is a “supplement” (again, like vitamin C), one that’s necessary for my well-being. When I got to that point, letting go of the idea of “being an Artist”, but without “giving up” art, freed me to prioritise other activities, including bringing an ensemble practice so as to engage with theclimate emergency.

I’m aware that all this may appear to be little more than a ‘circling round’ the question I started with. But I have needed to unpick assumptions about “being an artist” before getting to the idea of “the useful artist”.

To summarise. I think we need to face the fact that the symbolic function of the artist in the culture of possessive individualism is to epitomise the notion of individual exceptionalism; to reinforce the presupposition that creativity is ‘owned’ by exceptional and self-contained individuals in ways that reinforce currently orthodox notions of personhood, nature and society. To do this I’ve drawn onthe distinction Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead make by proposing a spectrum of identity positions between a “life-as” at one extreme and a life as “being-as-becoming” at the other. “Life-as” requires investing in a monolithic psychosocial sense of self that, to protect its investment, must oppose or deny all values, connections, and relationships that do not further it. It lacks, as a result, the basic capacity for empathetic imagination that enables us to negotiate the constant movement between self and other, to properly engage in and with the multiplicity of psychic, social and environmental realities in which we find ourselves. At the other end of their spectrum is a sense of selfhood as coexistent with the psychosocial and environmental multiverse – fluid, relationally contingent, mutable, open-ended. The psychosocial and political stakes here are simple.

To face our eco-social crisis, we must find ways to attend to, sustain, and cherish as many ways of belonging in the multiverse as possible if we are to adapt to an unprecedented need to change. We can’t do that by investing in any “life-as”, particularly not in ‘life-as an Artist’. But I’ve also unpicked the first two parts of the question in this way because I recognise that, for any number of pragmatic reasons, those who ask it in good faith will, in all likelihood, need to continue to earn a living in ways that require them to maintain the illusion of “being an Artist”, at least in relation to professional peers and public institutions. By going into this at some length, I hope to help them clarify their own situation.  

Three. The Climate Emergence.

Before we can work out how we might be useful (“as artists” or otherwise) in the Climate Emergence, we need to know what we mean by that phrase. In my view, the answer is that given by Professor Jim Bendell in his paper A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, in which he sets out the argument for: ‘inevitable near term social collapse due to climate change’. This requires, as he writes in Doom and Bloom: Adapting to Collapse, that we now act ‘to reduce harm and save what we can’; in short, that we ‘prepare, both emotionally and practically, for a disaster’ that is likely to cut our civilization off at the knees. How we do so will depend on our individual skills, circumstances, and dispositions. Some will use their ensemble practices to facilitate community-building, some will focus on food security, some on building psychological adaptability, and so on. The skills we have as, among other roles, artists, can help us to do this. For others, myself included, our situation may be such that it requires us to all but abandon our involvement in making art for other, perhaps ultimately equally creative, activities.

That’s pretty much all that I feel able to say on the topic, other than to add what is, perhaps, too personal a postscript.    


Speaking personally, I am having to learn to deepen the love, both passionate and dispassionate, that is celebrated in The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss. A love that is, I believe, precisely the same that Jem Bendell advocates in Doom and Bloom: Adapting to Collapse. A form of love, ultimately based on honouring the wholeness of the Terrestrial and all within it, that I’ve been trying to write about all summer in relation to the work of the painter Ken Kiff. A love that, in the unconditional form of agape, is an intensely uncomfortable and difficult word to use, let alone work with, in the culture of possessive individualism that dominates our thinking about art. That’s why, in my talk at NUI Galway, I used the phrase ‘mutual accompaniment’, borrowed from the social psychologist Mary Watkins. Mutual accompaniment understood as a continuous, shared process of respectful, practical, learning that helps reorient our thinking precisely by focusing lovingly on connections, attachments and relationships, which is probably as close to agapeas we can get in practice.