Can an artwork change your life? Yes it can. Read what happened to me after seeing an artwork about the history of oil made by artist Sandra M Sawatzky. Going from a climate shock to redesigning my purpose in life to new thoughts about moral responsibility and our power to act.
Woken up by an artistic tapestry
I remember the day I was behind my computer sending some files via wetransfer when I saw the story about this artwork from Sandra M Sawatzky. A 67 meters long tapestry relating to the saga of oil, global societal change, and energy transition. You can see how the world evolved from dinosaurs to the first airplane that mankind invented. In the text, they mentioned something about this important energy source that will run out in just a few decades.
Suddenly I was totally awake. I knew that we polluted the air, I read about the ice caps that were melting, but suddenly I realized I must have been sleeping. This awareness was suddenly magnified by the news about the IPCC report and the link with the recent fires all over the world. The reports were clear: mankind causes global warming. We knew that already by the time I was born in 1985, but well, it did not stop us from massively increasing our consumption, because apparently we find that more important than our planet.
Fear of climate changes and energy supplies
I read that we have goals to be climate neutral in 2050, whereas environmental activists and scientists warn that to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming, the commitment laid down in the Paris Agreement must be increased fivefold. We need to be climate neutral in 2025. But what I was not aware of all this time, is that in 2050 a large part of our easily accessible oil supplies will be finished. So it’s not only about global warming, it is also about our energy sources running out. We are literally ‘eating’ the planet’s resources at high speed. That’s also why our government wants to phase out oil and move to gas in 2050. I started looking around me and thought: how are we ever going to manage to switch by 2050?
I started thinking about the cars, about our houses, about all the lights in the shops and the products in these shops. Actually everything runs on energy. I was highly alert to all the surrounding stimuli. The word that rises in my head every day is: why? Why do we need all this stuff? Why aren’t we aware of what is happening? And if we are aware, why do we keep on doing what we do? Why can we stop doing things when our lives are ‘threatened’ by a virus, whereas a similar and even more urgent and threatening problem – the climate and our energy resources – leaves us motionless? Why do we think it is legitimate that we have limitations in our lives for a virus, but not for the care of our planet?
Dealing with my climate fear
Two weeks later, I sat in front of the doctor crying. I have never felt so bad in my whole life. I felt guilty about my own behavior of the past years, I felt anxious, and also I felt a lot of anger towards the countries, the companies and the people who keep stimulating this capitalistic system with endless growth and consumption without any form of awareness of the damage that it brings to our world. The doctor looked at me and said: “Well, it is good that you worry, but it should not make you depressed.” I thought that the doctor was wrong about this. Maybe more people should feel depressed about this. We are so afraid of feeling down, but as an artist you know that this is often a motor for change. The doctor continued: “And just to be sure, this all happened because of an artwork?” I imagined how he would get home that night and laugh with his wife about this silly girl sitting in front of him crying and feeling depressed about the climate because of an artwork that she saw.
People feel powerless to climate change
When I started talking with my friends and family, I heard the same things: don’t be so hard on yourself, you can’t do anything about it, we are powerless, you can’t change the world. Everybody thinks that there will be a solution, because mankind is so smart. We also closed the hole in the ozone layer. Well, I will tell you one thing. When the earth is warming up, there is no turning back. Maybe we can find other energy sources, although I am pretty sure that we need to cut back on our energy use, but more importantly: we can’t ‘freeze the world back’. We are maybe not the first to feel the consequences of this – which is part of our lack of action – but others will, and they actually are already feeling this. Not only where it’s warm, but also or maybe especially where it’s cold. The people in Greenland literally see the ice melting under their feet.
How climate fear led to a new personal journey
Anyway, this story will get way too long if I start talking about all the arguments why we should be worrying and doing something about the climate. You can look up the information yourself and if you are still thinking that you shouldn’t care about it, well, I don’t know, email me because I am interested in your experience. What it caused in me is a big stir in my life. I started thinking about what I do in my life, what is my purpose, what I can do, what I should do and what I want to do. And although I feel extremely depressed every time I read about the climate again, I also feel that the only way to go forward is to see this as a personal journey in which I can figure out how I can positively impact the world. Because I do believe I can do that. Not because I am arrogant, not because I am such an optimist, but because this is how I was born. I want to believe that we can learn from our mistakes, that we can change and that we can inspire others to do good.
Mourning about a lost future
If you are still with me after all this depressing talk, I will start with something positive. I paused my life, thinking about how I can process all the information and emotions that I experienced and thinking about what will be my next step. Something that really helped me was the lecture of Guy Cools in gallery H401 on lamenting the future. It was a performative lecture about mourning as a source for activism. I learned that you can also mourn your future. It is something that the younger generation increasingly experiences: ‘climate grief’ or forms of state violence. You can mourn the wildlife that has been lost and will be lost, you can mourn the people who will suffer from climate change and you can mourn to a carefree future shattering before your eyes. The latter is what I mostly felt and still feel. It is hard for me to see the positivity in my future because I feel like it’s not going to get better, it’s just going to get worse. Guy really helped me understand what I was going through and that it’s not strange to feel bad about it. Let that come in. Cry, scream and feel very, very shit about it. Feel your emotions.
Redesigning my life after the wake-up call
So I kind of lost my purpose of life a little bit after the summer. Luckily I found someone who helps me with this process I am going through, Julika. She is a coach, yoga teacher and therapist who helps people to redesign problems. What I like about her approach is that she sees a person from a holistic perspective and incorporates design thinking to solve problems. She works from the body and mind as a connected entity ánd helps to redesign my problem: how can I go further from here, in my personal life as well as in my art? My art? Yes, I started questioning my art and the way I was dealing with it. After my wake-up call, I felt extremely disconnected with what I was doing in my art practice. Not only regarding the themes I am investigating, but also regarding the way how I am investigating my themes and how I try to make it work financially.
The capitalistic and unsustainable side of art
I was doing business coaching sessions to make my art more financially sustainable. Although I have no kids to take care of, I have just one salary for three days and the rents in the Netherlands are so shamingly high that even living in a small room and living minimalistic eats my salary in a way that I can’t invest in my projects anymore. I also realised that the art world is part of the same capitalist system in which everything revolves around money. I feel the pressure to comply with the rules of this system, whereas I am very much against this system. My art comes from my heart. I do it because it allows me to express my feelings and ideas and because I strongly believe that art plays an important role in starting social change. Actually, for me, art has nothing to do with money. I find it hard to see some art being sold for millions because it has become an investment. That money ends up in the pockets of a small group of rich and powerful people that can decide what to do with the money and with the art. As an artist you can’t say that because you will basically offend your buyers with this. You will dig your own grave. During this business coaching, I realised I was not making art anymore but I was just sitting behind my computer ‘claiming’ my share within that money-driven system and that made me very sad. In addition, I realised art is also part of the system of consumption and damages nature through the materials used. There are artists who work with recycled material and it made me think about what I can change in my art practice. I still have a lot of art works lying in my storage. All produced materials that will not have any purpose anymore. What shall I do with that?
Regaining my purpose, focus and pleasure in art
After a couple of weeks, I already felt some energy coming back. I also saw that what I was doing in my art (gender, sexuality and power relations) still relates to the new environmental perspective I have. I think my work has always been related to my involvement in socio-environmental challenges in today’s society and I believe that to solve these challenges we need connection, we need empathy, we need to reshape our perspective on value, and we need to nurture a non-dual perspective. This will help us to reconnect with ourselves, with other people and with nature. From this point of view, it makes sense that I work with the body in my projects and that I often place the body in natural settings. Also, it makes sense why I started dialogues with other artists and why I feel the need to extend that to a more social community form of art. Deep down in my heart I don’t necessarily want my art to be sold as a product. If I need to sell anything, it would be love and connection that can be experienced through art. What I didn’t notice so much, but what I see now is that vulnerability, intimacy and empathy play a big role in my work, especially in the projects that I am doing now. In the project Intimalecy I am investigating social touch between men. Touch is a complex sense through which we communicate and connect, and it’s strongly related to empathy. But also in my project with the poet Onno Peerlings, we investigate how two humans who do not know each other can connect with each other by opening themselves up and letting the other in while bravely exploring their boundaries.
The power of the people
Last weekend we had a nice conversation with my friend Onno about my recent development. We talked about the power of people. I said to him that what I heard and read everywhere in the last few months, is that we people are powerless. People say it’s the big companies and the governments who can change this. I said to Onno that somehow I just don’t want to believe this. And then Onno said: “Do you know what happened after this show of Youp van ‘t Hek, when he talked negatively about the alcohol-free beer Buckler? Sales went down, and currently it’s not on the market anymore.” Wow, that’s what we people can do, apparently. If we don’t buy stuff, it’s not getting sold anymore.
Another thing that got me really inspired are the activists. In the video of Extinction Rebellion you hear them talking about all the revolutions. These revolutions were caused by people, individual people who gather into groups and act. So anybody who comes to me and gives me all these arguments that we are powerless, I want to say this: I don’t want to believe it. It is also you who does not choose to be powerless. I studied psychology and there are so many studies that show we have power over our behaviour. It’s hard. It’s damn hard. Because it takes up to three weeks to change a behaviour and you have to go through all these struggles to get there. Think about smoking. My mother smoked her whole life. Even though she got into the hospital and did not smoke for two weeks, she started smoking again. I thought she would never quit, that it is undoable, that she is a slave of the sigaret. But one day, when she was already in her fifties, she quitted. So apparently she could quit! It was her choice to quit and it also means that before, it was her choice to not quit.
What philosophy learned me about moral behaviour
Just to close this part of my process with some philosophical insights, I came across an interesting article discussing moral behaviour. How are we, as responsible agents, related to our actions? What power do we exercise over these actions?” They state there are two possible answers to this question and it has to do with our belief in determinism or free will. Could we do otherwise than to perform the action in question or do we believe that our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature (or society) and events in the remote past. Determinism states that it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of our present acts are not up to us.
Our power of action within a partly determined world
There is also an answer in between and that was proposed by what they call the Compatibilists. These philosophers maintain that free will and moral responsibility is possible even in a deterministic universe. For them, determinism does not entail that human actions are entirely explained by external factors. They believe that although there might be specific instances of necessity that are imposed on us by everyday constraints on our behaviour, human actions are still compatible with praise and blame. So even if our behavior is in a way causally determined (or restrained), this behaviour may still be something that we choose to perform. In the case of the climate I would say that even if I am restrained by governmental laws and the behaviour of companies, I can still choose if I join the game. It is ridiculous that flying is cheaper than more sustainable transport like the train, but I can still choose to go with the train. If I don’t have money to go far, I stay close. Or I can still choose to not go at all. It’s a hard thing to hear maybe, but I feel it’s not fair to say that this is the fault of the government solely. The government does not force you to go with the plane to Thailand. That is a personal choice. In fact there is only a relatively small group of people that flies around the world. The people who go because they can financially and because they want to. Before you think I want to judge everyone who reads this, I also acted (and still act) according to my desires. I’ve flown all over the world and I feel guilty about it.
Reflection on our desires and their impact on our actions
Back to the philosophers. The Compatabilist even proposed something on top of their theory: conditional analysis of the ability to do otherwise. Basically, it means that even if a person’s actual behavior is causally determined by the actual past, it may be that if the person’s desires, intentions, choices, etc. had been different, then we would have acted differently. A bit cryptic but if I would take this as an example for myself, it would look like this I guess: even if in my past life I did not know so much about climate change and there were no environmental laws and therefore I did not act on it, can I keep on saying “well but I am powerless because I did not know and the government did not take responsibility?” If I would have been more morally responsible and spiritual at the time, I would have had less egocentric desires, the choices that I made would have been different and I would have put societal and environmental topics higher on my list. Maybe I would have been an activist, who knows. In any case, I would have known more about it and I would have acted differently. We all have a choice to inform ourselves, to choose what is important for us, to not act on our desires, to have the right intentions and thus, to act.
Of course, there were also people who disagreed with this, the Incompatibilists. Because what if we have desires as a result of indoctrination, brainwashing, or psychopathology? It might be true that we choose our actions, but it might also be true that we suffer from an overwhelming compulsion to perform certain behaviour. The conditional analysis suggests that we retain the ability to do otherwise, but, given our compulsion, it seems clear that we lack this ability. So then this is my question to people who say we are powerless: do you think we are brainwashed or do we suffer from overwhelming compulsion to fulfill our desires?
Moral responsibility for the impact of our actions
Some philosophers even go a step further. In a very influential 1969 paper, Harry Frankfurt proposes that we can also be morally responsible for an action even if we could not have done otherwise. Although his analysis goes a bit too far for this blog, I would explain it like this: so let’s say we all do want to fly less. The government could help us with that if they believe it’s too hard for us to fly less, for example by making train transport cheaper, but the government does not do this. So Frankfurt says, we could not have done anything other than fly, yet we are responsible for our actions. Frankfurt does not want to deny that we act as we do because we want to, and because we see reasons in favour of acting. With this, he wants to draw attention to the significance that the actual causes of our behaviour (our own reasons and desires) can have, independently of whether we might have done something else. “When a person acts for reasons of his own…the question of whether he could have done something else instead is quite irrelevant for the purposes of assessing responsibility.”
The paradox in our perspective on powerlessness
The interesting thing is that when we talk about behaviours like smoking or overeating, we do not say we are powerless. We do believe we have power over our actions. We do believe we should change ourselves although we know that can be hard. Or we accept that if we won’t change, we will suffer from the consequences. In that sense we can be very hard on people, saying that somebody with lung cancer deserved to die. We would never say that it’s the fault of the government. In the case of smoking, we even kind of blame the government for helping people to quit smoking (by talking about how inconvenient it is that we cannot smoke inside, that cigarettes are getting more expensive and that they will not sell cigarettes anymore in certain places etc). We also do not question Marlboro that much. Ok the government obliged them to put very scary pictures on the package, but I never hear anybody talking about the fact that Marlboro makes us smoke. Isn’t that interesting? When it is (in our view) a personal thing that does not affect other people, we don’t think people are powerless, but when it’s a societal thing that affects us all and that we have to work on together, we start to completely abdicate our responsibility. And is unhealthy behaviour like smoking really a personal thing?
Our personal responsibility in moral behaviour during the covid pandemic
To continue on this last question, something interesting happened recently with the covid pandemic which is clearly a problem that affects the whole society. The government held us accountable for our healthy behaviour by asking us to stay inside and to take a vaccin. What I found specifically interesting is how we dealt with this moral responsibility. Remember how covid was said to happen more in obese people? Around 78 percent of the covid patients on the icu are overweight or obese. In the newspapers but also in my own surroundings I hear very aggressive comments about people who choose to not vaccinate themselves. They say that four out of five people on the icu are not vaccinated which is almost the same percentage as the obese icu covid patients. The unvaccinated are portrayed as asocial people but what about the moral responsibility of the obese? This is a taboo subject, but to me it seems a bit like a double standard. To keep our society healthy, we have to exhibit certain behaviors, but why do we hold some people accountable and others not? Would our opinion be differently if it were the smokers who occupied most of the icu beds? Or people who drink or use drugs? The biggest problem in this discussion is that we want to blame certain people, while everyone has a responsibility for his or her own health. I would have been happy if the government had made more advertisement for healthy behaviours and not just about taking the vaccin. Not only because this is a long term strategy, but also because it shows the different forms of responsibility that you can take.
Our moral responsibility to overconsumption of our bodies and environment
The human mind just puzzles me. It seems like we find it very hard to understand moral responsibility. We are just finger-pointing. It wasn’t me, it was you, or it was ‘them’. The last example may seem a bit off-topic, but if you think about it, it makes sense. It shows that our perspective on socially moral behaviour can differ a lot. It is also interesting if you consider that many of our problems are related to the same kind of behaviour: overconsumption. Fulfilling our desires. Smoking, obesity and pollution are all rooted in the same kind of behaviour and as a Neuroscientist I know that all the desires that we have come from the same pleasure centre in our brain. In any case all these behaviours have an effect on our bodies and on our environment. Our consumption behaviour dramatically changed during the industrialization and now it taking its toll. The important thing to realise for me is that we did this overconsumption to ourselves and we did it together. Companies make products, but we buy them. Governments make policies but we obey to them. Fast food restaurants and supermarkets sell very unhealthy and unsustainable food, but we eat it. I wonder, if we managed to get into this society of overconsumption together, shouldn’t you think that we also work our way back together?
Limiting our energy use for our bodies, our minds and our environment
So to conclude, in a way I get people who say we are powerless. It is difficult to make sustainable and healthy choices if the government and the companies do not help. You feel you are very small in this big mass of people. It is difficult to make the right choices if you are poor, if you don’t have access to sustainable and healthy choices, if you don’t have access to education etc. But philosophers propose that even if these difficulties exist, we can still choose our actions, so we are always responsible. I think that is especially true in our Western society in which the majority of people do have the opportunity to make these choices. Of course, I am not neglecting the fact that governments and companies have to change as well, and that they really play a big role in our current problems too, but I do believe that human revolution starts with the people. There is this interesting tv serie about people that are considered outsiders because they go against ‘the system’. In one of these episodes there was this guy who almost didn’t eat. Nobody could believe that this is possible, but it is possible, because he lives from the principles of Prana. I had to think immediately about Marina Abramovic and Ulay, who stretched the possibilities of their bodies in various ways (pain, starving etc). In the other episode of this tv program you see how people choose to live, eat and think differently and most of the time more minimalistic. These people manage to make other choices and they also take all the consequences of it. For example, they live without heating, without permanent housing, without holidays, without certain kinds of foods, without certain kinds of products and some even take the consequence of being alone. Our body ánd our mind can be very strong, if we choose to be strong. So, are we really powerless or is it that we just don’t want to give up on our personal desires? I think this is a really nice question for myself and I am excited to start working on that in my art projects. I am not scared to take big steps, leaving photography, leaving video and returning to the body. We will see, but I am sure it will bring more depth to my life!
Taking responsibility for ‘the other’
Of course, my view on moral responsibility is debatable. It’s my view and it is also my personal mindset that I don’t want to believe that we as human beings are powerless. That’s the choice that I make in my life. I take full responsibility for what I have done in the past and I take full responsibility for my actions now and in the future. Of course I will make mistakes and it will be hard to give up certain desires, or to change them a little at least, but I will do my best to improve myself every day. I imagine that if I change, it could inspire other people to change and they will inspire others etcetera. So my question to the people I spoke to is: can you still say you can’t change the world? And even if that might be true, isn’t it worth giving it a try? For the people in the world that will lose their lives because of the climate change, for the future of your (our) kids, for the generations after that. What do you think they would feel if they are living in a world of chaos and you come to them with the argument: well I couldn’t do anything about it, I was powerless? Or would it maybe be more fair to say: I take full responsibility for my desires and the damage that this caused to the world, I did everything I could, I marched, I rebelled, I worked on changing my behaviour and I will keep doing that until I die!