Climate Change: Where Are The Artists?

06/24/2015 08:32 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016
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It should be easy (and very important) to mock the G-7 politicians who put off the conversion from fossil fuels to 2100, which would seem to be after the apocalypse. NGO's like Oxfam would counter the national leader's promise with the usual hopeful-but-scolding public statement. But it is the artists who needed to respond, especially comedians. Russell Brand must have said something, God bless him, but I missed it. What I noticed was a deafening silence. Extractive corporations everywhere let out a big sigh.

The crucial mockery went missing because the cultural world is the most established and tragic climate denier. Why? Why would the arts be conservative on the climate? Think of all the performances that challenged entrenched power. Remember all those revolutions? ...the Dadaists and rock and roll, Charley Chaplin in The Great Dictator, the Ghost Dance at the end of the Indian Wars, Sam Cook's gift of "A Change Is Gonna Come" to Dr. King, the folk-singers and poets of the Peace Movement.

At this moment in time, we have such an overwhelming climate-silence in the United States that you have to look around and wonder - where are the censors? We hear nothing about the earth for months on end. No TV, no music, nothing viral. The public response only comes when a natural disaster hits us so hard that we are forced to look away from the animated disasters in our video games...

Ten months have passed since the Peoples Climate March and the enduring activist event in the U.S.A. is Black Lives Matter. The PCM was officially permitted and had little power. The movement against racism and militarism in American police is boiling into a revolution. Black Lives Matter is in the streets, flash-mobbing into symphony halls, super malls and Grand Central Station. The climate movement is officially indoors, law-abiding, not-getting-your-hands-dirty.

The recent climate drama by an American artist is Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. The space thriller accepts the climate apocalypse of the Earth and it is lavishly deathy. But multiplexes are like museums at this point. The consumer experience is so dominating that the climate emergency dramatized inside the building doesn't seem to stick with us as we leave. Rather, we get purged by all the special effects and stagger from the theater having had all the climate change we can handle. The outside world of the streets - where social movements have always taken place - is reduced to commuting, headphone-wearing, and the visuals of corporate products.

We know how silent we have been when the cry of a real Planet Crier breaks through. Suddenly there is Gezi Park with its all-night piano in the 606 trees. Yeb Sano cries in front of the power suits at the Warsaw climate conference. The Chilean gauchos-and-environmentalists ride horses for days to save the Patagonian Rivers. Women with trapeze skills hang in bat outfits from refinery towers in New South Wales. The Maldives parliament holds a meeting underwater in scuba gear. The Nigerian mothers back down Chevron with their nakedness. Pussy Riot dances on the altar.

Meanwhile, back in the land of consumerism, we artists aren't getting that far. We have crowds of books and docs about the earth and they educate us. In 2015, activism must follow education, or why learn? The best artists have work in museums, iPhones, and colleges, but again, it's 2015 - activism must be the point. We've got a lot of facts, aesthetics, perspective - what we lack is the actual change. Chelsea Manning has more to do with a climate movement than another teach-in at the Sierra Club.

There was a day when the comedians, songwriters, and writers were the heralds of change in the West. Now the bullhorn of earth activism has been seized by unlikely citizens who do scary things. I'm thinking of the band of stalwarts who occupied UK's Tate Modern, writing the words of Margaret Atwood and Naomi Klein on the floor of the Turbine Room. Liberate Tate! Yes! Overwhelm the big museum with climate scrawlings!

As the basic laws of the planet shift, we will outgrow the laws of our art forms, our careers and our uninvolved consumerism. Strange-feeling decisions will be made. "Breaking the frame" is necessary at this time. Put it plain: we must risk arrest. The totalizing culture is so complete that to say something unsanctioned, defending the earth, must be illegal.

The 200-miles-an-hour wind isn't legal, and it has the drama we need to get the message. The mudslides and avalanches and floods do not have permits. The droughts and fires uproot us, make us move, like good political art. We have a great teacher.