Ethical challenges for artists

,  18 July 2013

How do ethical and environmental issues, such as climate change, affect the lives of artists? Ellie Harrison explains why she decided to develop ethical policies for her artistic practice, and how this forced her to re-examine her career goals.

Ellie Harrison considers her green lifestyle choices to be an integral part of her artistic practice.
Ellie Harrison considers her green lifestyle choices to be an integral part of her artistic practice.

"As artists, it is essential that we are self-reflexive and honest when it comes to why we do what we do.

"In a world of overproduction and the overuse of resources, how can artists continue?"

"Why do we persist? Is it for the love of it? For success? Money? Peer recognition? To try to understand life? To attempt to control it?

"Over the last few years I've spent a lot of time analysing my own artistic motivations.

"I've tried to get to a place where there are fewer contradictions between what I believe in and how I act."

The art world and ethical issues

"In 2008 I moved to Glasgow to begin a Masters degree at Glasgow School of Art.

"I began to focus on the impact that our capitalist system – and its demand for continual expansion on a finite planet – was having on the environment.

"The estimated global temperature increase over the next century was the really sobering thing, and it threw up some fundamental questions, such as:

  • How can we keep making art?
  • In a world where the overproduction of objects and overuse of resources are essentially our biggest problems, how can artists continue contributing to this?
  • How can we avoid adding to the problem,and attempt to counteract it?

"The rise of the conceptual art movement in the 1960s was arguably an attempt to respond to the increasing consumerism of our globalised world.

"Then in the 1970s and 1990s the Art Strikes were proposed by Gustav Metzger and Stewart Home. But perhaps the idea of an artist giving up art is just absurd."

"To be alive is to be a hypocrite, after all. We are carbon-making machines, breathing out CO2 all day long.

"But as a career-minded MFA student, it was looking at the predictions for climate change that made me realise things just didn't stack up.

"There was a complete disjunction between the vision of the future I'd been programmed to work towards – the prizes, the exhibitions, the accolades –  and the extreme weather conditions I was actually more likely to be having to contend with. 

"The big question I had was: how could I begin to reconcile a careerist mentality – which had been bred into me at art school during Blair's creative decade, and growing up in Thatcher's Britain – with my desire to not negatively impact on the environment any more than I had to?"

Defining an artist-activist career

"The precociousness of the average art student can be quite a valuable attribute.

"That sense that what you're doing is important, and that everyone should listen to you – imagine how effective that would be if we were saying something that was actually useful.

"There is very little connection in art between labour and wage."

"There is very little connection in art between labour and wage. We happily work away at art for the love of it, often with very limited prospect of reward.

"These are useful skills and qualities that we artists should value. We must make sure that these skills are not instrumentalised or hijacked by other people, and we should use them to fight for what we really believe in.

"So, far from quitting art, I developed a way of working which borrowed from the ways large organisations like Greenpeace work – across multi-pronged channels of official, semi-official and illicit activity to negotiate specific ends.

"I came to refer to myself as an "artist, activist and administrator". By positioning myself between these three personalities, I became more aware of the differing demands and desires of each."

Adopting ethical policies as an artist

"The first thing I did was launch an environmental policy on my website. This describes how I attempt to live my life, and how I create my art with the smallest carbon footprint possible.

"If you go public with something like that, there's a chance you'll influence others to change their behaviour too."

"But I was still feeling stuck on what my ultimate goal was. If I felt that conventional markers of success in the art world such as winning the Turner Prize, were shallow or unrealistic, what was my new goal going to be instead?

"Motivated by these environmental concerns, I began to develop a passion for public transport. So I set up the Bring Back British Rail campaign in 2009 to popularise the idea of renationalising our public transport.

"I wanted to reintroduce this idea back into political discourse. I felt that a clear way to cut carbon emissions was to bring back a cheap public transport system, one not owned and run by millionaires.

"I filtered these ideas into all my art practice."

Lifestyle choices for artists

"But what on earth does all this have to do with art, you might say? Quite a lot.

"These lifestyle choices are all part of what I would refer to as holistic art practices.

"Lifestyle choices are part of what I refer to as holistic art practices."

"We need to construct lifestyles where we can close our value-action gap – the gap between what we care about and what we do.

"Claire Bishop, in her book Artificial Hells, sets up a number of dichotomies which present themselves in the realm of socially-engaged art practice.

"Her implication is that a lot of art is drawn too close to either the 'ethical' pole or the 'aesthetic' pole.

"The holy grail would be for your artistic practice to tick both boxes, achieving quality as well as contributing something to society.

"The example she gives of this is Jeremy Deller's Battle of Orgreave reenactment."

Questions for artistic projects

"I think that ultimately the role of the artist in the twenty-first century is one of 'problem solver'.

It is our duty to look at all the issues at stake in any given situation:

  • Who is commissioning you?
  • Where is the money coming from?
  • What do you care about?
  • What do you want to say?

"You then have to question whether any of the answers to those challenge what you believe in.

"It's the overproduction of objects which is our greatest problem, but the overproduction of good ideas is likely to be the only thing that can save us.

It is our responsibility as artists to think, think, think, until we come up with that perfect solution."

Do you agree with Ellie? What issues inform your creative practice?

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