This post is part of an ongoing series of occasional musings about the larger context in which we currently find ourselves: an energy transition, of which there have been several throughout human history. I have chosen Barry Lord’s important book, Art & Energy: How Culture Changes as our guide, because it sheds much-needed light on the reciprocal relationship between art, artists, and energy transitions through the ages. I also draw inspiration from the emerging field of Energy Humanities, led by Imre Szeman and his colleagues at the University of Alberta and the University of Waterloo in Canada.
An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.Nina Simone
In last month’s post about artists and energy transitions, I included the above quote by the late Nina Simone – the great American singer, songwriter, musician, and civil rights activist.
This month, artist-activist John Legend cited the same quote during his Duke University commencement address (as he did previously in his 2015 Oscar speech for Best Original Song). Simone’s powerful words are as important and relevant today as they were nearly 60 years ago, at the height of the American civil rights movement. Artists have demonstrated throughout history that, in fact, they do have an important role to play in “reflecting the times.” Just think back to medieval court jesters and minstrels, whose poetry and music were cleverly disguised as barbs to force their privileged overlords to look themselves in the mirror. More recently, the late Ursula Le Guin observed, “Resistance and change often begin in art.”
As a visual artist, I have chosen the energy transition as my muse to “reflect the times.” I could have chosen from among many other interconnected social and environmental issues that define this particularly anxious period of the human experiment. But for reasons that still remain unclear to me, I found my artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects, surrounded by dust, noise, and heavy machinery. Go figure.
The point I am trying to make is this: each artist must choose a weapon – pen! piano! paintbrush! – and use it to their fullest creative potential to challenge the status quo and question authority. This is exactly what Picasso did with his famous anti-war painting, Guernica.
There is a fascinating story about Picasso’s Guernica in, of all places, a 1968 copy of the Congressional Record of the United States Congress. It reads as follows:
There is a beautiful story about Picasso. It was during the Nazi occupation in France. The great painter was summoned to Gestapo headquarters. He found a Nazi officer studying one of Picasso’s most famous paintings. The canvas depicted the brutal destruction of the town of Guernica by the Nazis during the Spanish Civil War. The Gestapo man looked with menace at Picasso and pointed to the painting.
“Did you do this?” he asked. Picasso looked at the Nazi and said, “No, you did.”
That was a fine moment. A moment when the artist and the citizen were one.
Picasso reflected his time; 21st-century artists must do the same. For me, the most urgent story of our time is the climate crisis. But if we have learned anything over the past 15 months, it’s that the climate crisis is intricately linked with so many other critically important issues including global pandemics and systemic racism. There is no right or wrong choice – artists should “reflect the times” with whatever subject that ignites the biggest fire in their souls. The only prerequisite is to choose a weapon and step up to the plate.
My advice to those who have not yet found their artistic voice within the climate crisis is to consider the energy transition as a possible source of creative inspiration. My previous post about artists and energy transitions, inspired by Barry Lord’s book Art & Energy: How Culture Changes, provides some historical context.
As Lord explains, “new energy sources are very much like new art… the new values and meanings that come with each energy transition… form a cutting edge, changing our perception of ourselves, of others and of what matters most in the world around us at that time… It is the artists who help us see it.”
The current transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy – a transition to which we are all witnesses and in which we are all participants – is not just about solar panels and wind turbines. It is about stewardship. And stewardship means that this transition is really about people, about culture, about collaboration. It is also about imagining – and ultimately creating – a healthier and just future for all living beings sharing this planet. I can’t think of a better treasure trove to inspire a global movement of artistic and creative spirits.
This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.
(Top image by Joan Sullivan.)
Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer and newly minted member of @WomenPhotograph, focused on the energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her grief about climate breakdown. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.