Essay Climate Aesthetics by Paolo Cirio. 2023
Press material
- Press kit of the artworks

Related shows

- Climate Mismatch, Venice, 2023
- Natural Sovereignty, Capri, 2021

- Publication Climate Tribunal, printed copy in Print on Demand or downloadable in PDF.

Related artworks

- Climate Tribunal
- Climate Class Action
- Climate Evidence
- Climate Culpable
- Extinction Claims

Related texts
- Climate Tribunal artist's book, 2024
- Climate Aesthetics, artist's essay, 2023
- Climate Mismatch, artist's text, 2023
- Climate Class Action, artist's text, 2023
- Flooding NYC Claims, artist's text, 2023
- Climate Tribunal, artist's text, 2021
- Natural Sovereignty, artist's text, 2021
- Extinction Claims, artist's text, 2021
- Regulatory Art, manifesto artist's text, 2019
- Climate Change Fighters, artist's text, 2010


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Paolo Cirio explores Climate Aesthetics by delving into the realm of art that scrutinizes the social, political, and economic origins and repercussions of global warming. In critiquing misrepresentations and moralistic dimensions found in cultural works centered on climate change, Cirio advocates for a more effective Climate Aesthetics. He offers a theoretical examination of such aesthetics and provides examples of art practices and ethical considerations.

The need to discuss the representation of climate change propels from the need to address the current emotions of fear and confusion, indifference or guilt, polarization or neglect, grief and anger, naivety and anxiety around the issues of climate change. These emotions are often inadequately expressed in the realm of culture. Often they become diluted within the broader discourse on the Anthropocene, remain purely scientific, merely depict nature, or just adopt defeatist attitudes. Yet, the scientific, historical, and political-economic aspects of climate change are frequently overlooked or misinterpreted within art and culture. The consequential misrepresentations are related to the field of ethics, as often in the art world these misrepresentations can be even instrumental, like in the case of green-washing and art-washing, which produce even greater confusion or negative emotions with unethical articulations.

The ethics of institutions, artists, and curators are part of Climate Aesthetics and thus can be a critical part of assessing and making works of art. However these ethics eventually form morals that might be not reasonable, and might limit forms of expression and the aims of artistic and cultural work. Alongside the ethics of representation, engagement, intention, and outcomes for artists and curators, also assessing the ethics of art production and funding is a growing concern for institutions and cultural workers that need to address climate change mitigation and adaptation. However these ethics are also often banalized, instrumentalized, or moralized, while effective actions are not considered, activists are marginalized, and key data is concealed.

The magnitude of climate change is denoted by large economic and political systems that span vast geographical and temporal dimensions. This distinctive aspect sets climate aesthetics apart from more general categories like ecology, sustainability, and environmentalism, which focus on specific pollution sources, the alteration of landscapes, ecosystem or species preservation, or the exploitation of natural resources. Instead, Climate Aesthetics considers specific climate change causes and effects to address the emotions and cognitive processes that can enhance perception and comprehension of this intricate theme.

Essay on the Ethics of Climate Aesthetics

The examination of Climate Aesthetics is to serve the creation and critique of art on climate change, which can be formed by outlining the ethics of such an aesthetics.

Climate Aesthetics reflects on the knowledge, rhetoric, and ethics surrounding climate change, focusing on social systems rather than physical systems. Employing a critical approach is essential to assess art on climate change, and to acknowledge that aesthetics is a social construct that has evolved alongside the development of human conscience throughout different historical eras, all with their own prevailing values and judgements. Climate change transforms the ethics of politics, economics, and culture from both a collective and personal perspective in everyday life. For this reason ethics are central to climate aesthetics, in its consideration of the ethics of representation, the ethics of modes of production, the ethics of funding, and the ethics of engagement, intentions, and outcomes. Thus, the ethics of climate aesthetics can be seen as an evolution of the concepts of justice and truth, conscience and knowledge in the arts. This expansion of ethics in aesthetics and global society signals a new form of humanism, one based on global consciousness of the interconnectedness of planetary forces and vulnerabilities.

The ethics of Climate Aesthetics can be considered in any artistic strategy such as figuration or abstraction, pop or conceptual art, fiction or realism, and in any medium such photography, performance, and fine arts. It is not a matter of style or genre, rather climate aesthetics looks at the ethics of the quality, consistency, and relevance of the social, scientific, and philosophical discourse surrounding the subject of climate change. Even if climate aesthetics falls mostly into the category of realism, artists also approach the representation of subjects related to climate change through speculative scenarios, expanding them through fiction; yet, all possible narratives of climate aesthetics are based on scientific facts, and disguising or altering them for works of art becomes a fundamental ethical question itself. Social, economic, and political realism is the focus of this aesthetics, with scientific realism as its base. Scientific truths in Climate Aesthetics connect social realities with “the aesthetic practice of realism”¹. Similarly, the notion of “Evidentiary Realism”² is relevant to Climate Aesthetics and its relationship to the documentary approach. However, the inclusion of scientific, economic, or social evidence can serve as research material, and may not necessarily appear in the final work of art. In Climate Aesthetics, realism mostly deals with the relationship between social systems and physical forces, which entail an interrelated network of factors and reactions on a global scale that affect the climate, humanity, and ecosystems. Causes and effects of global warming are at the core of Climate Aesthetics, which distinguish it from other forms of art on the science of natural subsystems, environments, and materials. Climate Aesthetics does not relate directly to the notion of environmentalism and sustainability. It is needed to distinguish Climate Aesthetics from artistic practices generally related to nature, in order to provide a set of analytical tools for the making and analysis of works of art specifically addressing climate change, which ultimately contributes to the wider field of art and ecology.

By taking the science of global warming as the foundation of climate aesthetics, an intrinsic and consequential character of this aesthetics is the accounting of the scale of such global phenomena. The magnitude of climate change implies an exceptional geographical and temporal scale, as well as a vast economic, political, and social phenomena. Simultaneously, such expansive scales also snap back to the narrow scope of hyperlocal ecological and social crises that occur rapidly. Yet the proportions of the causes themselves remain extensive, and so aesthetic representations, significations, and discourses need to take in account the scale of comparable phenomena and relate it to the scale of social, economic, political, and personal consequences. Climate Aesthetics looks at the causes and effects of global warming, and thus origins and impacts of greenhouse emissions, which have been produced globally over the course of decades, not only from individual sources and locations within short timeframes. The scale of the causes and effects of climate change is a fundamental dimension in defining climate aesthetics and it challenges human cognition and perception. Even if scientific and technological tools might be able to picture and predict climate change, human emotional capacity and ethical complexity, as well as the current political-economical and philosophical frameworks, cannot process such change. Human emotions, thoughts, and ethics surrounding climate change are not only formed using analytical science, but rather also through art that facilitates the perception and reception of this significant epochal transition. Art can play a key role in enabling the ability to see, feel, and comprehend the scale of climate change. Particular uses of semiotics and linguistics in Climate Aesthetics can make the perception and cognition of climate change accessible through emotive, compelling, and appealing works of art. Rather than employ rhetorical devices to represent climate change with an absent referent that is vague or false, in Climate Aesthetics, effective semiotic devices and languages can enhance perception and assimilation. The accurate use of signs and significations in climate aesthetics refers then to the ethics of representation and the intention of a works of art.

The scale of ethical considerations implied by climate change makes ethics a central part in Climate Aesthetics. The ethics of representation, production, and outcomes of works of art are often thought of in relation to the ethics of individual responsibility, and not to governments and corporations. From the complexity of these ethics, new morals have emerged, which tend to confuse or even intentionally shift perception, thus making the use of the ethics of climate change an ethical issue itself. Defining the difference between ethics and morality in our discourse on climate change can help prevent the misuse of ethics for shaming, de-responsibilizing, or instilling paralyzing guilt. Morals around climate change mostly form by shifting the blame to individuals, or by focusing only on a single cause of greenhouse emissions. Such morals are often internalized by citizens, which the power structures then instrumentalize to evade responsibility, or to sell an alternative lifestyle. Instead of fixative morals, the science of ethics can offer more sophisticated and accurate instruments for analyzing and comparing ethics in climate change, within its magnitude of causes and effects from a political, legal, economic, and social perspective.

The ethics of Climate Aesthetics must embrace the complexity of multilayered systems around climate change, and how its social and intimate realities are created and perceived.

Notes

1. “The aesthetic practice of realism is in the intermediated space of representations where the arts, humanities, and sciences collaborate on the ongoing challenge to detail climate’s history, as well as its present and future truths.” From “Climate Realism” by Marija Cetinić, Lynn Badia, Jeff Diamanti, 2020.

2. “Realism in art returns through intersecting documentary, forensic, and investigative practices that contemporary realist artists utilize to bring to light the unseeable beneath the formation of our society.” From “Evidentiary Realism” by Paolo Cirio, 2017.


Instances of Ethics of Climate Aesthetics

The Climate Aesthetics and its narratives look at how to express emotions, engage with audiences, explore languages, create knowledge, symbolize histories, and raise awareness about the complexity of climate change. These outcomes should be driven by genuine intentions and expressed with freedom, respect, and integrity. However, art is not neutral and often an instrument of power and even of exploitation. Often curators, institutions, and artists make use of socio-political subjects for their own benefits or sponsors. Other times subjects are avoided or misrepresented to fit mainstream narratives, through manipulation, disinformation, and censorship. Cultural producers navigating these dynamics should carefully consider the ethics of their engagement with the subject of climate change.

Ethics of Representation

Intellectual and artistic references on climate change have often focused on abstract ideas or simplistic representations. From photos of polar bears to pictures of glaciers, piles of melting ice or hot sand, it’s often art about climate change that risks oversimplifying or just aestheticizing the subject.

The ethics and politics of representations concerning climate change need to be integrated into the rhetoric of narrating it. For instance, cynicism and defeatism as well as solutionism and techno-utopianism are instances of misrepresentation. Art with just solar panels, or geoengineering, carbon capture, or applying net zero, as well as art with apocalyptic or eschatologist narratives might lose sight of real scenarios, which even if grim or innovative, should refer to concrete facts and data.

On the other hand, representing climate change with only data and information or with just weather events and climate anomalies might be reductive and limit signification¹ without integrating struggles for climate justice, social inequality, and human rights. The social collapse from climate change has brought a multifaceted crisis of displacement, poverty, and irreparable loss. Addressing social justice also needs to consider the transversality and the very particular scale of climate change, which impacts not everyone in the same way, but also impacts individuals on a wide spectrum of class, race, gender, and age, throughout the world and different centuries. The audience of works about climate change might feel guilty, ashamed, scared, powerless, and hopeless, thus these climate emotions should be addressed adequately² and offer the possibility of empowerment through climate justice in dialogue with political movements³. Anger should trigger action and activism, and guilt and grief should not produce inaction and anxiety⁴.

The most striking misrepresentation is the absence of cultural discourse on the actual causes of global warming. In most of the representations of climate change the focus is often only on the effects. And even when the causes are addressed the discourse remains vague on the ‘Anthropocenic’ cause and not how greenhouse gasses are deeply interconnected to economic and political powers⁵. Obscuring knowledge of these powers and histories inadequately addresses the subject and is unethical. Also, the frequent use of the term ‘Anthropocene’ misrepresents climate change, just as TJ Demos argues “The Anthropocene rhetoric frequently acts as a mechanism of universalization, albeit complexly mediated and distributed among various agents and [...] functions as a universalizing discourse: it tends to disavow differentiated responsibility (and the differently located effects) for the geological changes it designates, instead homogeneously allocating agency to the generic members of its human activities.” ⁶

Aestheticization of disasters and suffering from climate change is also an ethical concern, however, it’s the aims that should be considered. It’s a question of balancing outcomes and intentions ethically, while taking into account the sensitivity of the subject⁷. For instance, sensational climate breakdowns, mourning and grief, or monumentalizing and exposing losses are sensitive subjects that should be handled carefully and offered deep respect and consideration when represented in works of art.

Often climate change is still confused with other general questions of ecology and sustainability, like the use of recycled material, or air and water pollution. However, climate change has very particular causes and effects on a global scale which distinguishes it from other types of pollution, extinction, and deforestation. Particularly climate change is about the source of energy for industries and transportation globally, and not only in local environments.

Beside the misrepresentation, there is often non-representation of it, in which climate change is not present at all as a subject in cultural productions and presentations. Climate change in the cultural world is still rarely addressed as it’s a sort of inconvenient subject. Literature has problematized its absence⁸, while in contemporary art this critique is still missing. The dependence of art institutions and the market make climate change an unsuitable subject, or only if misrepresented. The non-inclusion of meaningful exhibitions and artworks on climate change in art programs is not only unethical but it’s a sort of censorship. Even though the art world easily absorbs critiques of commodity and consumer capitalism, it seems that embarrassment and guilt have been built around the morals of feeling personally responsible and because the art market and art institutions often depend on fossil fuels sponsors and donors. However, the lack of representation of the subject and issues might still be less unethical than a misleading misrepresentation of climate change.

Ethics of Production, Funding, Outcomes, Intentions, and Engagement

Outcomes, Intentions, Engagement
When art proposes false solutions or aligns with political and corporate institutions, the intentions behind such works may be dishonest. It becomes problematic when these works are primarily intended as commodities for the art market, devoid of any meaningful social engagement, or when their outcomes are purely for entertainment or spectacle. Furthermore, if the intentions and outcomes of such works evoke negative emotions, even if intended as a form of provocation and warning, ethical concerns may arise. Additionally, works that exclusively target a limited audience, such as educational programs aimed solely at youth, could be viewed as an unethical engagement with the topic of climate change.

Funding
Exhibitions and institutions, as well as collectors and galleries might rely on capital from the fossil fuel economy. For instance, this is clearly the case of museums and art trade happening in the United Arab Emirates, of art fairs in Texas, of most of the Russian art institutions, and at times of art auctions as well. It’s not only the art market, as general cultural investments by the fossil fuel industry aim to legitimize their presence in society, exert political influence, or engage in art-washing to present polluting entities as benevolent cultural philanthropists. The ethics of working with such entities and dynamics are complex, but might be unacceptable if the subject is climate change. Forms of institutional critique are necessary⁹ and cultural producers that engage in such economies should be questioned.

Production and Travels
Art producers and institutions are increasingly concerned about the ‘footprint’ of travel and production itself. Many policies are being put in place, often under the banner of an ‘ethical code’ for art institutions. While these concerns are admirable, they don’t always align with the programs of these institutions and are not evenly distributed. Directors, board members, trustees, and donors often maintain engagements with fossil fuel companies and large industries reliant on large fossil fuel consumption. In contrast, artists and workers, who are already often exploited, have to adapt to ethical principles that the institution established as part of their green-washing corporate identity. Yet, the programs of exhibitions and events remain unethically instrumentalized, with inconvenient truths hidden from the audience. The morals around extensive travel in the art world present an interesting lack of rational logic, which never considers travel on behalf of the public, which includes large masses of tourists that fly from all over to visit museums. These morals extend to production practices as well, with attempts to offset the environmental impact of high energy-consuming artworks through carbon credits or the use of materials that may appear sustainable, but not when placed in the larger context of the work and its display. Art institutions proudly announce these efforts, however the aims of the programs, artists, and artworks are not considered part of their ethical codes and concerns.

Climate Art Practices

Works of art can enable additional levels of perceiving, representing, and imagining climate change. However, its potential is not about the medium, such as photography, performance, digital or physical fine art, nor its about the formality of forms of representation, the focus is rather on the aims, which can be reached through several artistic strategies.

The subjects and issues addressed in the work of art can be several, such as ecological loss, mass migration, responding to extreme weather events, famine due to food supply disruption, speculative scenarios of climate justice, investigating fossil fuel companies, or financial schemes of funding, or visualizing emissions sources.

Some tactics of Climate Aesthetics

• Raising Awareness
Art to inform and galvanize the audience and the general public.

• Social Commentary
Art to examine political themes and document social, economic, and ecological conditions.

• Social Innovation
Art to provide social solutions and adaptation to disasters.

• Monumentalization
Art to remember what is lost with memorials, archives, and ceremonies.

• Mourning
Art for emotional support and healing through care and empathy.

• Activism
Art for campaigns and protests to bring change and justice.


Some strategies of Climate Aesthetics

• Documentary
Art including documentation of causes and effects in order to inform and keep records of events and experiences which can be used in activist, journalistic, and juridical contexts.

• Storytelling
Art including fiction of speculative scenarios, or that integrates the causes and effects of climate change, or is based on personal and biographical experiences.

• Visual Art
Art including figuration and abstraction of visual representation which can either be documentary or fiction. Any subject or issue regarding climate change can be portrayed through drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, video, imagery, data, or text.

• Social Practices
Art including support to vulnerable communities and individuals through social engagement, activism, or emergency response.

• Conceptualism
Art including economic and governance analysis, institution critique, or legal imagination, which overlays concepts, research, practices, and processes.


Notes

1. “Climate change is seen by many as having a serious perception problem; that is, a problem with regard to the manner in which it is perceived and represented. [...] The general remarks about the aesthetics of climate and climate change are political: it makes a difference whether we leave it to people to sense the changing climate or leave it to research alone. On the other hand, art – and art’s approach to aesthetics – can make this and other ways of perceiving the climate crisis possible” by Birgit Schneider. From “Sublime Aesthetics in the Era of Climate Crisis?”, 2021.

2. “Exemplify sensitivity to the ways that visual and material qualities engender affects and create intimacy with urgent subject matter.” From “Ways of Saying, Rhetorical Strategies of Environmentalist Imaging” by Suzaan Boettger, 2021.

3. “Powerful as both advocacy and art, they offer compelling models of persuasion” From “Ways of Saying, Rhetorical Strategies of Environmentalist Imaging” essay by Suzaan Boettger, 2021.

4. “We all know the apocalyptic lists of facts and figures, and the more terrifying it gets the more banal it becomes. In this terrifying banal fashion, all the news, data, etc, just pass by like any others. The only emotion they seem to evoke is the fear of the future. [...] Fear and Anxiety have become the dominant affects of our age and history shows us that fear has tended to be ground for authoritarianism. For many the response to fear is to freeze or flee, rather than to fight” by Jay Jordan of Laboratory of the Insurrectionary Imagination. From “Training for the Future: Handbook”, Sternberg Press, 2022.

5. “Climate Realism is offered as a reparatory concept that foregrounds the political and ecological contradictions inherent in capital’s facility with energy. [...] Today we know all too well that the fossil fuel industry cannot be represented independently from the political ecology and biophysical realities of climate change, at least not if we are serious about a future disarticulated from the present.” From “Climate Realism, The Aesthetics of Weather and Atmosphere in the Anthropocene”, edited by Lynn Badia, Marija Cetinic, and Jeff Diamanti, Routledge, 2021.

6. “The Anthropocene is not simply the result of activities undertaken by the species Homo sapiens; instead, these effects derive from a particular nexus of epistemic, technological, social, and political economic coalescences figured in the contemporary reality of petro-capitalism.” From “Art & Death: Lives Between the Fifth Assessment & the Sixth Extinction” by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin in “Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, ed.”, Open Humanities Press, 2015.

7. “Photographs of casualties and causes – hurricane-devastated homes, vast strip mines, mountain-top removal, and colorfully toxic waters – can be striking, even beautiful [...] We do have to ask if images of lethal situations are being normalized by photography. At the same time it seems counterproductive to make uninteresting images about such pressing problems. Those who choose beauty for this subject matter are most effective when they also manage to communicate the flipside, usually in series, when their choice of beauty is a conscious means to counter brutality” by Lucy R. Lippard in the essay “Describing the Indescribable Art and the Climate Crisis”, 2021.

8. The missing subject of climate change in the arts can be related to Amitav Ghosh’s line of thinking in “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable”. This comparison was also mentioned in “Everybody Talks About the Weather” by Dieter Roelstraete, Fondazione Prada, 2023. In his book, Ghosh speaks of the failure of contemporary culture to properly engage with the threat of climate change as a legitimate source for high-profile content, from the perspective of his own involvement in the literary field.

9. Among several artists engaging against fossil fuels sponsorship of art institutions, “Not an Alternative” has been the most active. They held an unauthorized demonstration at the Louvre in 2015, attacking the flagship museum’s sponsorship by major oil and gas corporations ENI and Total. According to Beka Economopoulos, of Not An Alternative, “we’re urging the Louvre to stop sponsoring climate chaos.” toward an activist creativity directed at challenging the very structures of climate governance and finance, including the political economy of cultural institutions. Their project, The Natural History Museum organized an “Open Letter to Museums,” signed by nearly 150 scientists, including several Nobel Prize winners, calling on American museums to “cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry and funders of climate science obfuscation.” Generating copious press coverage, the letter was likely a major factor in oil heir industrialist David H. Koch leaving the board of New York’s Natural History Museum in January 2016. Around the same time, Liberate Tate and other London-based groups won a nearly six-year campaign to compel the Tate to break off its sponsorship agreements with BP.



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