Artists: canaries in a coal mine or tea leaves?

In the book “The Collapse of Western Civilization” there were two passages about the arts and artists. Although those passages were rather small in size, they stood out for me. They just didn’t seem to fit and didn’t advance their case, maybe even on the contrary. These passages are about “artists being the first to grasp the significance of the changes” and “noting the tendency to ignore warning signs”. Like some canaries in a coal mine that notice the danger first. Let’s jump to the first occurrence on page 13 (that came after the, ahem, visionary scientists that got glorified by the few survivers of the collapse):

Indeed, it is remarkable how little these extraordinary wealthy nations spent to support artistic production; one explanation may be that artists were among the first to truly grasp the significance of the changes that were occurring. The most enduring literary work of this time is the celebrated science “fiction” trilogy by an American writer Kim Stanley Robinson – Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting. Sculptor Dario Robleto also “spoke” to the issue, particularly species loss; his material productions have been lost, but responses to this work are recorded in contemporary accounts.

The explanation about the lack of spending on artistic production is a first to me. I think they look much too far. For spending money on art, societies or individuals need some disposable income and other needs like food, shelter has to be fulfilled. Maybe wealthy societies don’t spend enough according to the authors, but whether the artists grasp the significance of changes in society or not has nothing to do with it.

The first example they give is in the line of what one would expect. The trilogy of Robinson is about extreme events due to climate change. The second one is less so. As far as I know Robleto makes various artwork, also on extinction of species (but from another era). I quite like his work, but for other reasons than his “grasping” the situation.

Whatever the case, there are two major issues with those examples:

First, how do those artists “sense the significance of the changes”? I don’t think they are reading scientific papers. If they sense some significance of the change, then it is because they probably heard the one-sided stories in the main stream media. Whether they are right in their hunch of those changes is depending on whether the scientists actually have enough data to come to a conclusive answer (other than “we carry the same opinion”) and the media as a transparent interface between science and the public. It is my personal opinion that there are serious issues with both. The media is reporting one-sided and are ignoring the uncertainties, therefor trumpeting a certainty that is way too big for a science that is studying a complex, coupled and chaotic system.

Second, artists are not the pinnacle of objectivity and their work reflect more their subjective view rather than the “facts”. There are numerous artists and as many subjects they are working with. Sure, there will be those that are inspired by (what they hear about) climate change, but there are those who are inspired by architecture, space, food, fashion, industrial, history, kitsch, religion, love, typography, comics, world culture, emotions, people, nature, mythology, war, color and so on and so on. Which one of them is usable as an indicator of the significance of those changes? Which of their works? And ultimately, who is going to decide that?

As with the work of Robleto, it depends on the interpretation of the viewer and that brings us seamlessly to the second passage mentioning of art on page 47:

Artists noted the tendency to ignore warning signs, such as the mid twentieth-century Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen, who sang “We asked for signs. The signs were sent.”

Hey, these words have been used for about everything ranging from psychotherapy, investments, religion, spirituality, inspirational, meditation to war protest. I even saw another part of that very song being used to describe the cracks in AGW theory… One sees in it what one want to see in it.

“We asked for signs. The signs were send” has another issues, but that is something for (one of) next post.

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