Monday 12 January 2009

the artist's job

Tomorrow evening at the RSA, there's a welcome debate on one of this blog's regular themes: art and environmental activism. Introduced by the RSA's chief executive Matthew Taylor, the panel includes Elenira Mendes, Chico Mendes' daughter, the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, composer Jonathan Dove, Greenpeace's Charlie Kronick and Amazonia's director Paul Heritage.

What role might the arts have? In many respects activism is the opposite of art. When the Guardian reviewed Amazonia it said the production's preachiness made the reviewer want to rush out and 'lop down a tree'.

There are plenty of good reasons for keeping narrative art and activism apart. Noel Coward was unequivocal on the subject: 'propaganda is death in the theatre'. The New Yorker's film critic Anthony Lane has described eco-drama as 'a contradiction in terms'. The poet Gwyneth Lewis asks, 'How can writers become advocates for the natural world without propagandising and undermining their credibility.' And The Wire's Ed Burns says that stories get interesting when characters go against the writer's ideology.

It's Chekhov, perhaps, who offers the best way forward: he said it wasn't the artist's job to solve society's problems, but to state them correctly.

This blog will be covering tomorrow's debate and looking for some more answers.

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