Thursday, 23 October 2008

keep it distinct

Last week in Cambridge there was a very good CRASSH conference, organised by Benjamin Morris and Bradon Smith, on 'Representing Climate Change, Ecology Media and the Arts'.

Caspar Henderson read an extract from his Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Joe Smith spoke about his Cape Farewell trip, Michael Hrebeniak discussed the work of the postwar American poet Charles Olson, Abbie Garrington highlighted the unusual attentiveness in Kathleen Jamie's Findings and Jennifer Wallace described the impact of heavy industry on the tribal communities in Jharkhand as Robert Wallis showed his pictures, Ed Morris gave examples of the work of the Canary Project and Oliver Tickell outlined his new book Kyoto 2.

There were many other contributions. It was a rich couple of days. But if there was one underexplored area, it was the tricky relationship between the arts and scholarship on the one hand and activism and green thinking on the other. The best art is unlikely to be reducible to a single interpretation. The best advertising probably is.

It reminded me of part of a reply that Daniel Mendelsohn had made to a correspondent who had disagreed with his review of Brokebank Mountain. One sentence began, 'Because I am a critic (not an activist) ...' It might equally have started, 'Because I am an artist (not an activist) ...'

As more critics and artists engage with the issues of climate change, this is a distinction that is well worth exploring and, in many cases, preserving.

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