…but all the same I was asked to say a few word to open the annual exhibition of wildlife art at The Mall Gallery in London this week. It’s run by the Society of Wildlfe Artists and it’s full of fabulous stuff: do try and drop in if you can. It’ll brighten up a November day in town, that’s for sure.
I thought I’d try and improve the occasion, not by asking “yes, but it is art?”, as we used to in the sixth form. Instead I asked “yes, but is it conservation?” Here’s an edited version:
It really lifts my heart to be among all this wonderful art. The best of it is like seeing and hearing and experiencing the depicted wildlife for the first time. Make it new, said Ezra Pound, when asked how best to make art: and that’s what you’ve all done again and again across this exhibition. Wildlife is the most wonderful stuff we’ve got on this planet, and here, in room after room, we have a celebration of it.
Sometimes the best of what you all do makes me feel for an instant that life is nothing but glory and wonder and beauty — and I really cherish that feeling. Because as we all know, it isn’t like that. Not when we look at the bigger picture, the picture that lies outside the frame.
I’ve heard people criticise the entire genre of wildlife art. They say that it doesn’t reflect the horrors that — quite literally – surround the subject. That in looking at the joyful and exhilarating things we all love in the wild world, wildlife artists distort the hideous reality, hide from the ghastly truth and pretend that everything is really all rather lovely and cosy. When it’s not.
It’s a fair point. No one can deny that. The unfolding extinction crisis and the developing ecological holocaust make up perhaps the most devastating thing that has happened on this planet since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.
And perhaps someone should paint that. Perhaps the world is waiting for an ecological Guernica: for a picture so terrible and so powerful that it will sum up for all time the horrors that humanity
is hell-bent on committing. Or perhaps some one should try and emulate Goya and produce the Disasters of Ecocide, a series of images calculated to freeze the blood and make eternally clear the ghastly madness of the world we live.
It would a powerful experience to see such works: the terrible scars of destroyed rainforest, the mangled corpses of hen harriers, the death of the last baiji or Yangtze river dolphin. I’d admire them in an exhibition; I don’t think I’d hang them in my home.
True, my home is full of horrors. I have Silent Spring on my bookshelves. I have books about rainforest destruction, about climate change, about the extinction of the passenger pigeon, about the scandal of the grouse-shooting industry, about water pollution, about human over-population. I could put together an entire section of my library and call it 101 ways the world will end next week.
And in my writing I have made plenty of reference to loss and extinction and folly. In some ways that’s what I do: the great crisis and what to do about it is lurking about in most kinds of writing about wildlife conservation. So I could, if I liked, say that my work is far more meaningful than yours — because I look at the horrors and attempt to deal with them. And you don’t.
But that would be totally wrong: a deep failure of understanding. It’s as important – perhaps more important – to celebrate the wild world as it is to point out that there are a few problems here and there when it comes to keeping hold of it.
A painting that told the truth about ecological disaster would be a colossal wasted effort. I wouldn’t buy it, no public gallery would hang it. I can keep books full of horrors closed on the shelves, available when I need them. But a great picture is another matter entirely.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore said that you can always tell a great picture because the eyes follow you round the room. You could also tell that Cezanne’s Les Baigneuses was a great painting because the bottoms follow you instead. A great picture of ecological disaster would be an uncomfortable thing to have in a living-room because the blood on the shot harriers, the scars of the
fallen trees and the body of the last baiji would follow you round the room and haunt your days and your dreams.
No: the wildlife pictures in my place celebrate the wild. They aren’t about what we have destroyed or are destroying they are about what we’re all trying to save. They are a celebration. That’s a necessary form of art and a necessary form of conservation. The wild world completes us, the wild world brings us joy, and that is as relevant to our discussions of the ecological holocaust as any of the horrors and disasters.
And here before is and all around us, we find paintings and sculptures that express that view in the most gloriously eloquent way. Each painting, each three dimensional object that makes the beholder’s heart lift a little with the joy of non-human life is a potent blow for conservation. The social realists declared that a picture is an act of socialism. I declare that all good wildlife art is an act of conservation.
All around me I see images and objects that are about hope, and hope is not a cop-out because we would none of us be able to continue for an hour without it. You people are the artists of hope: that is your job and you do it superbly.
The fact that we have lost so much stuff is an enduring and continuing horror. But the fact that the world is still full of good stuff is what keeps us all going. A wildlife artist’s job is to celebrate this. A great wildlife picture is an act of conservation and this gallery is full of them. Many thanks to you all: please keep doing it for as long as we have wildlife left to bring us joy and to keep us in hope.