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October 2021

Vol. 163 / No. 1423

Art history in the Anthropocene

On 31st october delegates from almost two hundred countries will assemble in Glasgow for COP26 – the twenty-sixth ‘Conference of the parties’, referring to the parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change. These annual summits negotiate and review the measures taken by governments to implement the actions agreed by the signatories to the convention. The conference, which is taking place a year after its scheduled date, thanks to covid-19 – the idea of an online substitute was rejected by developing countries – seems likely to mark the moment when the issue of the climate emergency returns to the place on the global agenda from which it was dislodged by the pandemic. The public demonstrations that are taking place in Britain in the run-up to COP26 – Extinction Rebellion blockading streets in London and other climate activists staging sitdowns on motorways – emphasise this readjustment of priorities.

The protocols that are being debated at COP26 date back to the establishment of the convention at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. That was the moment when the consequences of carbon emissions caused by unbridled energy consumption first became a matter of urgent international debate. It also marked the beginning of what has become a rich tradition of artistic engagement with the crisis – in literature, music, theatre and film as well as the visual arts. That tradition has itself become the subject of art-historical study: in 2019–20, for example, the Royal Academy of Arts, London, staged the exhibition Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a Planet in a State of Emergency, which sought to demonstrate how artists, architects and designers have made the scope of climate breakdown visible and offered visions of reaction and adaptation.(1) Last year, the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, hosted an online conference ‘Art History in Climate Change’, which ranged widely across contemporary visual responses to climate activism and environmental disaster, including the issue of how artists can achieve sustainability in their own practices.

Museums increasingly feel that they must practice what they preach. The Royal Academy exhibition offered an example of sustainability by minimising its carbon footprint. Its furnishings were salvaged from previous events, text panels were printed on recycled paper-derived substrates and even the room dividers were made of shredded and reconstituted exhibition banners. Many museums have set themselves sustainability targets: for example, Tate is aiming to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, twenty years in advance of the deadline set by the United Kingdom’s government for achieving the same goal. One consequence of such ambitions is that offers of sponsorship by firms that extract fossil fuels will be declined. In 2016 BP’s twenty-six years of sponsorship of Tate came to an end, but other major institutions have continued to receive money from the company. Last May there were protests at the British Museum by the theatrical activist group BP or not BP over the museum accepting sponsorship from BP for the exhibition Nero: The Man behind the Myth (reviewed on pp.937–39). The conundrum that the museum faces, like so many other institutions, was emphasised by the publication last month of its annual report for 2020–21, which revealed that its income from temporary exhibitions in the first year of the pandemic was £300,000, compared to £4.3 million in 2019–20.

In 2000 Paul J. Crutzen, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995 for his work on atmospheric ozone, introduced into informal scientific discourse the concept of the Anthropocene, a geological epoch that was initiated when human actions began to affect the global environment. That raises the question of the role of humanities when humanity itself is the problem.(2) In particular, how should art historians reflect on their discipline, which treats of the material products of human actions? Discussions about the relationship between art and the environment long predate the concept of the Anthropocene: for example, in Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death, published in 1951, Millard Meiss asked whether art styles in the 1340s had been influenced by environmental issues, such as drought and crop failure, as well as by pandemic illness. Interest in buildings as embedded energy, which is being fruitfully explored by architectural historians in the light of global warming,(3) was initially prompted by campaigns to preserve historic structures from redevelopment. Scientists have made productive use of the evidence provided by works of art about the impact of climate change on the environment, such as the melting of Alpine glaciers.(4)

For Andrew Patrizio, whose book The Ecological Eye: Assembling an Ecocritical Art History is the most ambitious recent analysis of how art history might rise to the challenge of the climate crisis, the discipline’s inbuilt emphasis on ‘attentiveness’ offers a strong foundation on which to develop an ecological sensibility: ‘Art historians may be fewer in number than many other professional disciplines both inside and beyond academia but if they have any shared skill it is surely in the ability to pay attention’.(5) Patrizio is unsparing about the aspects of the profession that obstruct ecological awareness, in particular its associations with hierarchy, power and judgment, although his overriding emphasis on the need for ‘non-hierarchy’ when working to confront the issue will resonate with the many art historians who have, for example, challenged the concept of the canon or the idea of ‘centre’ and ‘regions’ in subjects as disparate as medieval French architecture and seventeenth-century Baroque sculpture. All can agree with Patrizio’s view that attempts to grasp what he describes as the ecological principle of interconnectedness will be faciliated by one of art history’s great strengths, its commitment to ‘understanding complex webs of interaction that play out in compact form’.(6) This idea provides one basis for believing that the discipline has a part to play in addressing the global emergency that is bringing the representatives of almost every government to Glasgow this month.

1. The exhibition was reviewed by Edward Christie on Burlington Contemporary, 2nd January 2020,, accessed 17th September 2021.

2. On this question, see C. Merchant: The Anthropocene and the Humanities: From Climate Change to a New Age of Sustainability, New Haven and London 2020.

3. See B. Calder and G.A. Bremner: ‘Buildings and energy: architectural history in the climate emergency’, The Journal of Architecture 26, no.2 (2021), pp.79–115.

4. H.J. Zumbühl and S.U. Nussbaumer: ‘Little Ice Age glacier history of the Central and Western Alps from pictorial documents’, Cuadernos de Investigación Geográfica (2018),

5. A. Patrizio: The Ecological Eye: Assembling an Ecocritical Art History, Manchester 2018, p.232.

6. Ibid.