Before Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen sent his version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream to the auction block at Sotheby’s New York in May, where it sold for $120 million, he spoke to the press about what he thought the work meant. At the time, Mr. Olsen’s pronouncements sounded, at least to me, a little bit off. The Scream, we’re all taught, is about existential angst, the individual crying out, alone in the universe, but Mr. Olsen, who’d lived with the work his entire life, had a more expansive view.
“The Scream for me shows the horrifying moment when man realizes his impact on nature,” Mr. Olsen told the Financial Times, “and the irreversible changes that he has initiated, making the planet increasingly uninhabitable.” After last week’s storm, which killed more than 40 people in New York, destroyed homes, and damaged art, artist studios and galleries in Brooklyn and Chelsea, that reading of the painting seems painfully on point. Munch couldn’t have known about the coming climate change, but it’s all there in the work—in its original title (Scream of Nature) and in the sky and land that appear to undulate behind the bald figure.
Until visiting The Scream two weeks ago at the Museum of Modern Art, to which it has been loaned for six months by its new, anonymous owner, I had forgotten that it has three figures: besides the alarmed man who gets all of the attention, there is another man in a top hat, his head bowed as if in deep despair, and a third man, further in the distance, who stares out at the landscape, strangely unaware—or in denial—of the fact that the world is coming undone around him. Factoring in those other two, it’s easier to follow Mr. Olsen’s thinking: when it comes to the effects that humans are having on nature, most of us are the second or third person.
In the United States, at least, most politicians and even many businesspeople (who would seem to have a vested, profit-driven interest in staving off climate change) have been incapable of addressing, or even acknowledging, the problem.
During recent times of political and humanitarian crises, artists have proved to be effective activists when others have failed to respond. In the late 1980s, ACT UP’s performance art-inflected activities, like its “die-ins” and trenchant sloganeering (“Call the White House. Tell Bush we’re not all dead yet”) brought outside attention to the high cost of AIDS drugs and the federal government’s refusal to act. Art affected policy and saved lives. (The case of the British artist Chris Drury suggests that some fear it could again: the University of Wyoming removed a public sculpture that he made that critiqued the coal industry after lobbyists complained.)
But today’s major international artists have been largely silent on climate change, and there are no iconic works that point to the issue. That may be because picturing the crisis is an impossible task. How do you cut to the heart of an issue that involves massive bureaucratic inefficiency and invisible forces, and one that takes place over such a wide span of time and space?
In the days following the storm, art critics worked to understand the horror through historical artworks. After riding out the storm in Washington, D.C., The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones wrote of the sublime, even “lurid” landscapes of the Hudson River School. What came first to my mind were the turbulent boating scenes of Winslow Homer that show nature in all of its awesome power. But these are, basically, dramatic depictions of meteorological conditions, and old ones, at that—hardly satisfactory representations of what is taking place today.
Some artists are at work on more complete, or at least more adventurous, ways of showing the crisis. At this year’s Documenta, the prestigious exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany, American artist Amy Balkin displayed replies she received to letters she sent to UNESCO representatives, asking them to nominate the Earth’s atmosphere as a World Heritage Site. Each explained why that was impossible, for a variety of reasons. Working the levers of bureaucracy to their logical conclusion, she showed the global failure to address the issue, and provided 50,000 postcards for people to continue her lobbying efforts.
Then there are less literal statements. In Tino Sehgal’s refusal to make tangible objects, there is a sense that art needs to work in other ways, that it should eschew stuff for ideas, and consider its carbon footprint. He channels the late Conceptual artist Douglas Huebler’s dictum, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.”
Exactly 24 hours after power was restored to most of downtown Manhattan on Friday evening, the ever-inventive New York artist Peter Fend—once dubbed “the Lawrence of Arabia of the art world,” by his onetime collaborator, Richard Prince—opened a new show at the tiny East Village project space Peanut Underground called “What to Do Next,” showing drawings he’s made about how a variety of environmental topics, including how to harvest seaweed in New York to make methane gas that could be used to produce electricity. It’s a project he’s dead serious about realizing, but he’ll need help for that to happen.
Mr. Fend completed some of his new pieces by candlelight while the power was out, and while his ideas may seem fanciful, it’s not necessarily an artist’s job to craft perfect, polished solutions. They can point out unexplored paths, float new ideas and lead the way when necessary.
Mr. Fend, who will make work at Peanut through Nov. 18, has also suggested that artists should play a role in the battle over the environment, taking the satellite monitoring of the world as “a primary function of art in a society at ecological risk,” as a means to visualize in some way the growing catastrophe.
There are many things that we know art cannot do. It cannot literally feed people (save for a cooking piece by Rirkrit Tiravanija here and there), and it cannot cure disease. But what if we thought of its power through another apocalyptic image—a meteor speeding toward the planet? From millions of miles away, even a tiny push can divert its doomsday course far off track. Art can often provide that push, though the meteor in this case, as Sandy has demonstrated, is closer than we would like.
Some of the images coming out of Chelsea this week—of art-filled basements flooded with water, of careers and archives vanishing overnight—should provide plenty of reasons for the art world to act. Back in 2008, the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, whose current show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Chelsea was damaged by Hurricane Sandy, wrote that, “due to climate change and our anticipation of its potentially disastrous consequences, we find ourselves participating in a new kind of collectivity based on ecological awareness … The individual no longer comes first, but only exists as part of a plurality.” In other words, we can’t continue to think we inhabit a Scream world, where we’re lone actors, despairing or oblivious. We’ll have to get used to the fact that we’re all connected in this, and fast. Art may be able to help.
In the meantime, a Lawrence Weiner text piece from 2011 that was once merely poetic is looking increasingly ominous: WATER FINDS ITS OWN LEVEL HOWSOEVER.