Sustainability and Art – Part II
Man has been relating to nature since prehistoric times, transforming the environments around him, while trying to perceive the forces of the planet, the colours, images, patterns. Since that period, artists have been deeply influenced, creating artistic movements with different practices and thoughts. The paradigm of the contemporary has structural characteristics, such as the importance of conceptual discourse, the permanent transgression of the boundary between art and non-art, and the widening of the artistic field. These are important qualities for an approach to ecology and sustainability, as there is more permeability and flexibility in the artistic field. We are moving towards a moment of public awareness, creating dialogue, changing behaviours and encouraging respect for the environment, which we greatly need in the current environmental crisis. Is the answer in regionalisation and not globalisation? Or even relying on the local? Is the prevalence of the online happening at the expense of the physical? Or could there be a mix of both? It is necessary to understand the path between then and now, in the search for sustainability in art.
At a time when concerns are related to climate and environmental issues and the preservation of our planet, it is also extremely up-to-date to think about the numerous artistic movements, as their concerns are still evident in the works of contemporary artists. We can associate these opinions with many artists over the centuries who have been concerned with painting natural landscapes and the growth of cities and industry in a negative way. But it was from the 21st century onwards that this became increasingly conceptualised, using as inspiration the previous currents – respecting the environment, appealing to recycling with different materials, passing on messages based on the principles of sustainability. We are talking about Land Art, which preceded Environmental Art, followed by Green Art and Eco Art, all focused on the environment. The pioneer was Robert Smithson and his best-known work was Spiral Jetty (1970), but also a vast group of artists experimented with ways to respond to environmental issues, like De Maria, Robert Morris or Richard Long. Land Art can be considered the first experimentation that shows our notion of perception of the environment as a concept. Today, it is important to reflect the ability to shape behaviour and practices beyond the normal realms, adopting more pragmatic and plural approaches, important in the debate on climate change and the need to act towards sustainable practices. Today, beyond artists who have been avant-garde in their essence, it is important to think about the role of the several agents of art.
The achievements of globalisation make it possible to create critical discourses that reinforce citizenship, imposing accountability, rights and duties. Therefore, evolutions and milestones have emerged in the art world. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) – which began in 1975 and established the international legal framework to conserve and foster the sustainability of fauna and flora – is in force in over 180 countries to regulate and monitor the trade of species. The major goal is to curb the use of endangered species, such as ivory and turtle, to benefit the lives of local people and the planet. Unaware of what would become today’s climate crisis, a big step towards sustainable practices took place. As a general example, we still face problems such as the killing of elephants for ivory, poaching, land transformation, deforestation and rapid human expansion, which have to be tackled globally, as there are countries that continue to allow the ivory trade from Zimbabwe and Zambia. It is important to remember that it was in Zimbabwe that Cecil the lion was killed – at the price of gold.
Arts people must come together to decide what practices can add more sustainability to the art world, following the lead of Frances Morris, director of the Tate Modern. Last year, she announced an ambitious plan for the museum’s sustainability: “There comes a time when we must offer compassion, leadership and recognition, creating a context for the visual arts sector to evolve”. We can implement examples at scale, such as using a carpool method to transport the artworks, or using shipping boxes for multiple works in a reusable way. They must be acquainted with the 3 Rs – which families have long known – reuse, recycle and reduce. Another idea born from the We Make Tomorrow conference, promoted by the Serpentine Galleries, was to invest on exhibitions with themes associated with the environment, to give (even) more attention to the subject. Above all, it was perceived that the art world cannot continue to function in the same way. It is necessary to update business models and challenge the status quo.
It is important to understand how the world of art markets functioned before the pandemic, both the landscape of art fairs, which spread around the world exponentially, from a global point of view; and galleries, from a local point of view. In addition to the operation of museums and biennials. Before, galleries were national. Now, no gallery stops itself from displaying artists from other countries. We can also analyse the proliferation of international fairs, with more and more nationalities, but we cannot say they are globalised, because there is always a significant regional weight. Art fairs continue to be the centre of attention. In the last two decades, there has been more interest in these events. In 2000, there were around 55 established international fairs in the market, growing dramatically to almost 300 in 2018, in addition to regional and local fairs. These figures cause an overcrowded system, expanding far beyond what the market can support, with fairs happening almost every week of the year. Still, the number of fairs may have reached its limit and that, from now on, only the most important ones are established, decreasing the number of annual events. This may be advantageous from a sustainable point of view as there will be fewer events taking place internationally – leading to less mass travel. There was once a shift in the business model prevalent in art markets, shifting from local to international, driven by international fairs. This can be partly explained by improved communication, internet and lower airfare prices. Is there room to take the examples of the ‘new normal’ we are experiencing and apply them to new business models?
In recent years, the number of visitors at trade fairs has changed – which can bring advantages from a sustainable point of view. The fair TEFAF Maastricht lost 4% of its visitors. But this can be justified by having opened two other fairs in New York, one in the spring and one in the autumn – which makes it possible for collectors to travel to these fairs, which are closer to them, instead of going to the former. From a sustainability point of view, this is positive – it supports regionality and a decrease in polluting air travel. Relying on local and regionalization is also something already adopted by several gallery owners and fair organisers, such as the case of Art Fair Tokyo. Instead of aiming at internationality, it invests in local experiences. The online realm has also become more expressive in art markets, even before the pandemic. This model should be taken advantage of, with sales happening on dealers’ and auction houses’ websites, platforms or even just online sales. What’s more, this model should grow and characterise the future of art markets, beyond the lockdown.
A greener movement will continue to grow and diversify. Companies are starting to produce organic, recyclable and biodegradable goods, more eco-friendly products and products made with recycled materials (as well as some art pieces); government institutions, non-profits and companies are starting to dedicate and act with the future in consideration. Therefore, more people begin to engage in sustainable behaviour. Art has always been a form of representation, action and dissemination. If it continues to be so to “open the eyes” of society, we can achieve great progress and take important steps towards the sustainable and environmentalist behaviour – individually and in society – that the planet so desperately needs.