From Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 (1814) to Picasso’s Guernica (1937), to countless, politically correct projects by contemporary artists, the modern era has used art as a megaphone for speaking the truth to power. Yet it remains hard to think of a single instance when a work of so-called ‘political art’ has had any direct impact on the way governments conduct themselves.
Iconic paintings such as The Third of May, 1808 or Guernica, have haunted the political imagination, but these images only gathered force in the years – and decades – following their first appearance. As works which decried the murder of unarmed civilians they have become classics – anti-war statements for all time, but also museum pieces.
If one tries to think of more recent images that have had political consequences the best examples are all photographs, from Eddie Adams’s 1968 picture of a South Vietnamese general executing of a Viet Cong soldier with a gunshot to the head; to Nick Ut’s 1972 photo of a little girl in Vietnam running down a road, her back scorched by napalm. The most searing image of 2015 was that of a small Syrian boy lying dead on a Turkish beach. These photos did much to mobilise opposition to the Vietnam War, and to garner sympathy for refugees, but it would be almost obscene to classify them as ‘works of art’.
In the popular mind a photograph is permitted to reveal a bleak and brutal reality, but art is a product of the imagination that can never be trusted to tell the truth. The propaganda art favoured by totalitarian regimes is viewed with derision in the west, but we have our own unspoken barriers against anything that cuts too close to the bone.
Look, for instance, at Todd Philips’s Joker, which dispenses with the superhero costumes and portrays the comic book villain as a sad, mentally-disturbed misfit who takes his revenge on society. Critics argued the film would encourage delinquent acts of violence such as the mass shootings that have become a feature of everyday life in the United States.
Those same critics were silent about superhero movies in which hundreds and thousands of people are casually obliterated – presumably because these scenarios are too fantastic to be taken seriously. Nobody minds if an entire planet is destroyed in a Star Wars movie, but the murders in Joker felt uncomfortably plausible. It’s an irony that this anxiety about too much reality has arisen in an era in which truthful reporting is routinely dismissed as “fake news”.
If there is a game-breaker in the endless debates over the role and effectiveness of political art, it may be coming from the worldwide upsurge of concern over global warming. Although there are wars raging all over the planet, these are localised affairs. A painting by Goya or Picasso may accurately reflect some new atrocity on the Syrian border, but this is a long way from the average American or Australian loungeroom.
The climate is a subject no-one can ignore. All over the world people are experiencing usually hot, dry summers or exceptionally cold winters. Bushfires and hurricanes are wreaking havoc on a regular basis, and natural phenomena such as the Great Barrier Reef are being despoiled. Although the climate change deniers continue to wage war against the obvious, the public consensus is shifting inexorably towards a recognition that governments need to take decisive action.
Besides, what’s wrong with cutting back fossil fuel usage in favour of renewables? The only entities that might suffer are those businesses whose profits are tied to their capacity for polluting the environment. They are like people puffing cigars in a no-smoking room. We shouldn’t think of jobs being lost but of jobs being made in a new sector.
So when a Swiss curator planted a forest in a football stadium in the Austrian town of Klagenfurt, it felt like an entirely new kind of ‘political art’. Klaus Littmann’s For Forestwas many years in the making, and one can only marvel how he ever managed to secure the funds and the permission to achieve this project. He says it took 30 years.
As luck would have it, while the work was on display I found myself in the nearby city of Graz, only a short bus ride from Klagenfurt. I took a day trip and saw For Forest, which consisted of an entire living forest of 300 trees transplanted into the Wörthersee Stadion. The inspiration for this massive installation came from a 1971 drawing by Austrian artist, Max Peintner, called The unending attraction of nature, which showed a crowd in a stadium looking at trees. It may be purely coincidental that Joni Mitchell had released the song Big Yellow Taxi only the year before, with its lines:
They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ‘em
By 1971 a first wave of ecological activism was underway. It was the year Greenpeace was founded, and the year UNESCO launched a research program called Man and Biosphere. Peintner’s dystopian scenario reflected a growing conciousness of the damage we were inflicting on the environment.
In 2019 the threat of ecological disaster is no longer a matter of science fiction but it’s still difficult to get people focused on such issues. By putting a forest in a football stadium Littmann dramatised our attachment to the ‘bread and circuses’ model of public life. Why worry about an abstract concept such as climate change when the local football team has a big match this weekend? The problem is how to dissociate one significant issue which has implications for everyone, from the white noise of distraction and consumption that takes up most of our time.
One of the surprising outcomes of For Forest was the way it became a source of political controversy in the weeks leading up to the Austrian elections. Two right-wing parties accused the project of wasting tax-payers’ money, when there was no public money involved. There was also predictable indignation that the local soccer team, Wolfsberger AFC, was unable to use the stadium for a match. The angry politicians even called on their supporters to turn up at the opening ceremonies armed with “non-functional chain saws.”
Social media was full of furious comments, while Littmann was pushed and insulted in the street. It was an extraordinarily violent reaction to a public artwork.
The final irony came on election day, when Austria’s right-wing populists suffered a setback at the polls and the greens tripled their vote. It was a resounding confirmation that climate change is becoming a prime source of concern for voters, taking precedence over the expedient anxieties stirred up by the populists. It’s a a simple enough equation: whatever affects the environment affects all of us, regardless of race, creed or colour.
For Forest may not have been directly responsible for the change in Austrian voting patterns but it certainly added to fuel to the debates, especially when it became an object of right-wing villification. As such it must be put alongside other mass demonstrations of public awareness taking place all over the world, notably the children’s campaign, which has gathered tremendous force.
This stadium saga may ring some bells with the people of Sydney, who have watched the state government attempt to commit more than $2 billion towards knocking down and rebuilding two sports venues. Our leaders were so desperate to spend money on the Sydney Football Stadium that demolition was rushed through before the recent election, just in case the other side won.
At the time of writing, Lendlease has pulled out of the development meaning that a new builder is being sought. One wonders how the government would react if Klaus Littmann turned up and wanted to install a hunk of bushland on the expanse of dirt that was once the Sydney Football Stadium? Maybe it might be used for a little market gardening.
The important point For Forest raises is whether climate change will ultimately provide a focus for artists’ efforts to make meaningful political interventions. Of all the issues in the world today the concern over global warming has the greatest potential to keep winning converts. Every new scientific report, every natural disaster, strengthens the hold that climate anxiety has on the public mind. It’s an area where a large-scale project can have a resonance that transcends national borders, utilising the communicative powers of art to reinforce a message already lodged in the public consciousness. There’s a receptive audience and a mass media ready to respond to a big ecological idea if there’s an artist willing to take up the challenge.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 18 April, 2020