Over the weekend, as the political talk shows debated the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, I thought of a painting that was on view in Washington last year as part of the National Gallery’s Hubert Robert exhibition. The French artist’s 1796 “Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in the Louvre in Ruins” shows the imaginary decay of what was then a perfectly sound building. By including in the view an image of the Apollo Belvedere (one of the greatest relics of antiquity) and a bust of Raphael (the beloved master of the Renaissance) the painting becomes a conversation piece about the transmission and resilience of culture through the ages.
In the 18th century, depicting the Louvre in ruins wasn’t a dark fantasy of some coming holocaust. Rather, it aligned your world with the values of Greece and the splendors of Rome. But it also spoke to art’s solacing power in the face of our own mortality. At the heart of every aesthetic experience is the hope that someone, in the future, will experience the same thing, and that some part of our living consciousness, made manifest by a painting, symphony or great poem, will be replicated and repeated by other beings whom we will never know.
That won’t happen if the planet dies. As a prominent climatologist for NASA has said, if we are unable to reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere to about 350 parts per million, we are unlikely to live on a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Last year, for the first time in millions of years, the planet passed the 400 ppm threshold.
Rising sea levels threaten to inundate entire nations. The Pentagon is preparing for the worst, warning that “global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions [and] environmental degradation.” Coral reefs are imminently threatened, and mass extinctions are possible on land, sea and in the air. There is a sense that we have reached a critical turning point, not just when it comes to U.S. environmental leadership but in how we prepare ourselves emotionally for a new era in civilization and the unraveling Anthropocene.
And this could affect the arts, especially when it comes to the Koch brothers — Charles G. and David H. Koch — who are two of the most generous supporters of traditional arts organizations, and also the driving force behind the political movement that has pulled the United States out of the global fight against climate change. A recent report in the New York Times details how the Koch brothers, who have given hundreds of millions of dollars to institutions such as Lincoln Center and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, used their fortune to sow doubt about climate science and undermine the nation’s faith in basic science.
“Unshackled by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other related rulings,” the Times reports, “Koch Industries and Americans for Prosperity started an all-fronts campaign with television advertising, social media and cross-country events aimed at electing lawmakers who would ensure that the fossil fuel industry would not have to worry about new pollution regulations.” This led directly to the situation we are in today, with the president of the United States repeating the Koch brothers’ talking points, and his supporters denying not just the science of climate change but the moral imperative of thinking globally about the planet’s survival.
It is impolite, in critical circles, to link the politics of major donors to the cultural institutions they support. Many of our cherished arts organizations were created by Gilded Age plutocrats, yet are no longer tethered to the Darwinian social views of their originators. But cultural organizations exist in a complicated moral world, in which every dollar they collect is a dollar that isn’t being used to ameliorate poverty or cure disease. Most of us tend to deal with this dilemma by arguing that the good done by cultural organizations can’t be quantified and thus it is unwise to place it crudely in the balance with other social needs.
That’s because we think of the good offered by a museum or opera house as a potent but intangible improvement to the general character of the society. They make us better in some way, perhaps more intelligent, or empathetic, or sensitive in ways that increase our capacity to be and do good.
The logic is tenuous, but defensible, at least so long as the world isn’t in a state of extraordinary crisis. But it becomes much more difficult to argue for the arts relative to other social needs when the planet is threatened by wars, plagues, and other calamities, with the survival of civilization itself in the balance.
It’s increasingly clear that the Koch brothers’ climate campaign has had a larger moral and intellectual cost to our society. They have undermined a critical set of our most important human capacities, and some of the same ones that the arts are often thought to enhance. These include things such as critical thinking and deference to reason and evidence, but also empathy and fellow feeling, and a sense that we are connected to other people in ways implicit in that painting by Hubert Robert.
So the Koch brothers’ philanthropy isn’t just an extreme case of the old dilemma: Should arts organizations take money from sources that are tainted? By actively promoting policies that will make the world more unstable, dangerous and unhealthy, the Kochs’ campaign to discredit climate science will make it much more difficult for the arts to compete for limited philanthropic largesse. And they have furthered a worldview — based on unreason and selfishness — that undermines the basic good things we assume the arts promote.
At the end of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” is a famous speech, about dying, in which a replicant remembers details of his existence in a way that suggests his full humanity: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” The words capture the fundamentally human need to pass on our experience of the world, to encapsulate and share memory, a power that is fundamental to all artistic disciplines. If these things are shared, they do not get lost in time, like tears in rain.
The threat to our planet will change every valence of every art form, because it is possible that we won’t survive. There will be no ruins to connect us to the past, no C-beams glittering in the dark, no bust of Raphael to recall an age of rebirth. The arts can’t survive the apocalypse anymore than the polar bears can. Which is why it is now time for our arts organizations to distance themselves from forces that undermine the most basic human capacities we need to survive.