Catastrophic hurricanes, unprecedented flooding, and constant record-breaking highs and lows make it hard to ignore the very real changes occurring as a result of global warming. David Wallace-Wells’ popular New York Magazine July cover story details worst-case scenarios that break down exactly how our day-to-day living could be affected. Wallace-Wells claims most of the “anxiety about global warming” omits the “significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives” and goes on to list many examples that go far beyond sea level rise. From the not-so-permanent permafrost melting and releasing methane and prehistoric bacteria into the atmosphere to severe inflight turbulence, the possible outcomes run the gamut. As with all news on climate change, one is left with a disquietude that has absolutely nowhere to go upon finishing the article, echoing only into the vast unknown that is the future.
The overwhelming information is austere and wearisome to process, let alone plan for. If you’ve never been able to relate to the idiom money is no object, your bewilderment might increase by at least tenfold. If you are an artist who relates to this socioeconomic exponential increase in concern, you might have begun to wonder what your place in the art world will be twenty years from now given such dire circumstances. It’s difficult to imagine an art world operating with its current hyper-capitalist metabolism in an environment that promises to kill you. Reading about billionaire escape plans might give you some hope. For if the billionaires are out there investing in luxury underground infrastructure and fertile land in Wyoming, then surely your art making might keep your account balance above zero in 2040, as the possibility for exhibiting will remain intact (albeit buried or in the middle of nowhere). Though it might be challenging to maintain a healthy studio practice amidst climate plagues, unbreathable air, or permanent economic collapse.
“Couldn’t save La Pieta—smashed up before we got there.” Rich people getting by in the end times. Still of “The Ark of Art” from Children of Men, 2006, Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
The joke is that artists who aren’t rich or connected through nepotism are already struggling today, often working three times harder for half the triumph—if they’re lucky. Brad Phillips writes extensively on the problematics of the art fair industrial complex stating it “is a bad time for art and for (most) artists...Artists cannot keep up production to match the number of fairs; galleries cannot keep up financially to participate.” The essay includes a metaphorical comparison of Art Basel Miami and Larry Gagosian to the ocean and a gigantic whale as he points out that all the “smaller galleries and fairs that swim along, eating the scraps, happy to accept the benefits of being cheaper and more accessible than Gagosian, will die from exhaustion.” Within the context of climate change this figurative statement functions literally as the ocean is currently inching its way over Miami Beach and accelerating gentrification in the city, “potentially bringing the coastline of South Florida closer to Miami’s historically black neighborhoods.” If small galleries and artists from lower tax brackets are expected to “die from exhaustion” today as a result of inaccessible blue chip exclusivity, would they have a place to occupy at all in coming times? When the procurement of food and safety overruns one’s faculty for expression, art making becomes compromised.
First there will be civil unrest. As the water rises and the floods increase in severity and regularity, waterfront and coastal cities will become abandoned. Those who cannot afford to leave will be trapped and those that have been priced out will come flock in. The artists, writers, dancers who fall in this category—at least those who do not have a trust fund—will either move to middle America or will be in the thick of this urban decay. The art market by this point would have plummeted and/or potentially collectors may continue to use this free market of ours to move even more money through continents.
—Patricia Margarita Hernandez, Miami-born and New York-based independent curator
Surely, South Florida will be greatly affected by the sea level rise, flooding, and hurricanes, as will the artists and art fairs located there. However, to say the art world will cease to exist is to say that rich people will too: wealthy people will always be the last ones to go. As long as society exists, plutocracy exists, as does the tension between cultural stewardship and out-of-touch privilege. When asked about the effects of climate change on the art world Todd von Ammon, Gallery Director at New York’s Team, reaffirms this supposition:
I’ve been preoccupied recently by Fredric Jameson and his proposal that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The environment as some kind of waste-mold whose ultimate purpose was to cast the figure of capital and then sort of slough off like dead flesh from bone. The history of art + taste, to me, has always resembled a kind of whistling in the dark—Matisse painting The Piano Lesson a couple hundred miles from the Battle of Verdun—just completely out of step with the experience of the greatest number. I think the art world is just as aloof now as it was then. It wouldn’t be art otherwise.
Henri Matisse, The Piano Lesson, 1916, Oil on canvas. Collection: Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, © 2017 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Historical examples of calamity, such as the First and Second World Wars, can help provide a model for how systemic changes—be they war or global climate change—may affect artists from different class strata. Matisse’s mother, Anna Gérard, was a daughter of a 300-year-long line of well-to-do tanners, his father, a prosperous grain merchant. In spite of completing The Piano Lesson, one of his most famous works, during World War I near Verdun, he did move to Nice the following year to distance himself from wartime activity. Such a move might prove difficult for non-affluent artists or those who fought in the war. Cubist sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon volunteered to fight while his brother, Marcel Duchamp moved to New York City instead. “Trench warfare was lethal not just because of shells and machine gun fire but because of deeply unhealthy living conditions,” which led to Duchamp-Villon’s exposure to typhoid and his death in 1918. The same year, the Spanish flu pandemic further increased the mortality rate in Europe, taking 20 million lives at the end of the war, along with Egon Schiele’s, in Vienna, at the age of 28.
The unknown artist Nina Baird is included in a memorial at London’s Royal Academy, dedicated to art students who died during the war. The memorial “represents the uncountable talents lost...before they had a chance to develop. The first world war occurred at one of the most creative moments in the history of art. There must undoubtedly be unknown geniuses among its dead.”
Times of crisis also see changes in artistic subject matter. During World War II, the British government’s WAAC (War Artists Advisory Committee—not to be confused with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during the First World War) had 400 members; 52 of them “were women, the latter receiving fewer and shorter commissions, lower pay and far less publicity.” Dame Laura Knight was a member, and although she came from a bankrupt family, she managed to break through many glass ceilings for women in art. However, Knight’s known themes of the ballet, the circus, and Gypsies were interrupted by the war. In a thematic shift she began depicting training camps, recruitment posters, women in factories, and other war-related content. Upon her own request, she was commissioned by the WAAC to paint The Nuremberg Trial (image at top), and spent three months in Germany observing the court. Shortly thereafter she returned to her interest in marginalized communities and individuals.
Dame Laura Knight, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, 1943, Oil on canvas. Collection: Imperial War Museums © IWM
In both wars, art exhibitions continued, a handful of careers developed, and collectors collected in the U.S. and Europe as millions of people suffered and died. Despite the art world carrying on, by the end of World War II, many effects and changes were evident in and outside of it. Most notedly, the art capital moving from Europe to the U.S., and the subsequent launch of a new movement, Abstract Expressionism. Not having any battles fought on U.S. soil in the twentieth century has a lot to do with its current status as the world power. Its strategic late entry into the Second World War boosted that favorable outcome and enabled the U.S. to capitalize on its newfound dominance in the arts and otherwise, as Europe, Russia, and Asia rebuilt themselves.
Using the two wars as a template, one could safely conjecture that the art world will adjust and adapt to the global effects of climate change no matter how many people suffer. Day-to-day living will be greatly affected, so inevitably, exhibition and art fair culture will be too. Livable land will move with the weather. People who have means will migrate and establish new centers, creating new hubs of commerce and culture. With unbreathable air and extreme weather conditions people may move underground or remain indoors, leaving the house only when necessary. The demand for entertainment media could increase as a result and financially benefit creative industries.
In the teen sci-fi drama, The 100, planet Earth is too toxic to support most life. One group of well-off survivors hoards resources—and artwork, like The Starry Night, apparently—deep inside a mountain, hermetically sealed off from the rest of the planet and its struggling survivors.
Should the internet remain intact, people will rely more heavily on socializing online, making the art world even more virtualized than it is today. Current benefits of social media, like non-discriminatory accessibility and visibility, have helped marginalized voices be heard and artists with little means be seen. If, in this hypothetical scenario, the art world predominantly utilizes social media for its viewership, and taking topical intersectional politics and awareness into account, marginalized artists could have a more level playing field. That is, if such artists are able to continue to make work in concert with surviving.
It is entertaining to envision possible optimistic effects of climate change: the decentralization of the art world and capitalism; remote exhibitions inside luxury bunkers under scenic pastures in the middle of Wyoming and within Oculus Rift headsets; increased market value in networked and digital art; the complete removal of hierarchical institutional structures with a shift towards virtual providence that includes art from all places regardless of status, where the only connection you need to get in is an internet one. The reality of the situation, however, is most people will not be secure enough to make art. Infrastructure is not ready for dramatic environmental changes, and people in power already have plans in place to maintain it in spite of global and economic crises.
“Elevating the Museum 10 feet above storm surge requirements allowed parking below the Museum in an unprecedented design that integrates parking, planting beds, irrigation and storm surge storage. The innovative porous-floored garage, paths and rain gardens capture water, funneling it into the ground, reducing local flooding and runoff into Biscayne Bay, significantly reducing infrastructure expenditures.” Pérez Art Museum Miami, bayside view. Photo: Daniel Azoulay photography
Nevertheless, just as this essay speculates about the future of art on an inhospitable planet, so too are growing numbers of artists, curators, and institutions making and presenting work about climate change, with varying personal stakes. Maria Elena Ortiz, Associate Curator at the Perez Art Museum in Miami, describes how the architecture of the waterfront museum was built with climate change in mind, and how the museum is using artwork to raise these concerns at the very heart of the commercial art world:
At PAMM, we are very focused on addressing the social issues of our time, including climate change, which for obvious reason...is a topic of debate in our community. During Art Basel week, the museum will present several projects that take on the subject in relation to the architecture of our building, which was built raised-up to withhold rising sea levels...This among other projects will hopefully generate a poignant conversation on this subject. These initiatives’ essence is not necessarily about taking...a side on climate change, rather acknowledging it and creating a civil space for discussion.
PAMM’s fortified building evinces the future is here. The time for speculation has caught up with the time for action. It’s one thing to plan and construct a well-considered building, it’s another to prepare and protect the artists that create the work that fills it. How accountable should a museum be in providing local artists with succor in times of need? If only galleries and institutions could insure an artist’s life as strongly as the objects she produces. Artwork becomes artifact as soon as it enters into a collection just as the maker’s death becomes its added value. In a capitalist art market, this removes any financial incentive or commodifiable concern for the artist’s life.
Climate change could shift the capitalist paradigm as survival is dependent on how well communities work together to subsist. “Survival mode” is often used to describe the state in which a lot of artists find themselves in today. There are not enough jobs, housing is inordinately expensive. Artists are overeducated, underpaid, and in debt. When you take global warming into account, the situation feels bleak and impossible to plan for. Most people don’t have the means and are too consumed by present-day struggles. Perhaps, Nichole Caruso, current Director at Marlborough Contemporary and former Director at Wallspace––which suffered extensive physical damage to property and artwork during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and took four months to get up and running again––best sums up the difficult position many find themselves in:
It’s essential to consider the impact of climate change in advance of disaster, or else, as I experienced after [Hurricane] Sandy, the life blood of a gallery and its artists is cut off completely. Of course, there’s a certain amount of preparation that can be done, but relegating resources to this particular issue is almost impossible knowing how limited bandwidth and finances tend to be.
Audrey Phillips is a Toronto-based writer. She is a regular contributor to AQNB.
(Image at top: Dame Laura Knight, The Nuremberg Trials, 1946, Oil on canvas. Collection: Imperial War Museums © IWM)