The art world has a carbon problem. Long-haul air travel—the lifeblood of biennials and art fairs, and the means by which artists, curators, critics, and scholars connect with their counterparts around the world as a matter of routine—contributes to climate change like few other activities.
This month, major biennials open in São Paulo, Brazil, and Gwangju, South Korea. According to an online emissions calculator designed by the Switzerland-based Myclimate Foundation, a person traveling to both exhibitions from New York and back would generate more than seven metric tons of carbon—about half the average annual emissions of a South Korean and more than double the annual emissions of the average Brazilian. (The average American leads the global pack, of course, with about twenty tons of warming gas.)
Though the aviation sector’s overall emissions currently account for only a small fraction of total carbon output, climate scientists warn of an “aviation multiplier,” as non-CO2 gases released at high altitude during a flight accelerate warming effects. We should also factor in the art fair multiplier: the emissions generated by the shipments of paintings and sculptures that keep the cultural economy humming.
It’s easy enough to cite alarming statistics and cast blame, but most of us could be scolded for any number of negligent behaviors. Activists and policy makers even warn that moralizing accusations can be counterproductive, diverting attention from the systemic nature of the problem and the need for governmental and intergovernmental action. Still, a transpacific flight is not like buying a single-use plastic bottle. We’re talking about tons of carbon, after all. Maybe we should feel a little bit bad.
If anyone does, I haven’t noticed. International travel is essential for career success. But it’s also more than a professional obligation, comprising an integral part of a fashionable lifestyle. I’ve heard artists humbly brag about the hectic life of hopping from one airport to the next, and curators express pride in having dashed off another catalogue essay in a departure lounge. Conspicuous mobility is a status symbol.
Few figures understood the current global system of contemporary art like Harald Szeemann, a peripatetic curator who worked while in nearly constant motion. The prolific Szeemann is the subject of an essay in this issue by Leland de la Durantaye, who reflects on an exhibition drawn from the curator’s extensive archives at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The traveling show includes a giant “sculpture” Szeemann assembled from the luggage tags he accumulated on his many trips.
Once an outlier in a field of stable museum professionals, Szeemann developed globe-trotting ways that are now replicated on a vast scale, by artists, arts professionals, and collectors. Many of us entered this field precisely to participate in the global conversation underlying his projects. Internationalism remains one of the great strengths of contemporary art and a bulwark against rising nationalism. It’s even possible to argue that cultural exchange fosters the sort of international cooperation and mutual understanding essential for global problem solving.
Part of me wants to believe this. But another part of me—the part that remembers what it’s like to attend an art fair—is more cynical. It’s hard to defend the notion of a brahmin class awarding ourselves a special dispensation to pollute because we have good intentions tucked away in our Rimowa carry-ons. The art world’s blasé acceptance of carbon-intensive behaviors replicates in miniature the global dynamics of climate change, whereby the wealthy produce vastly disproportionate warming emissions, exacerbating a problem that disproportionately affects the poor.
How can we mitigate the harmful effects of air travel without retreating from internationalism? Even acknowledging that there’s a problem to be mitigated seems like an important step for art professionals with a romantic attachment to travel. But symbolic expressions of concern, which now proliferate, are inadequate. Flying around the world to discuss the problem of the Anthropocene, or explore it in art, can only amount to rhetorical hot air if literal planet-warming gases are produced in the process. Plenty of organizations will offset carbon emissions by funding environmental projects, and we should expect fairs and other commercial organizations to consider such trades a cost of doing business. But above all it seems necessary to redefine what we mean by essential travel. Weaning the art world off regular flights may seem like an impossibility, given the status quo. But the status of our planetary climate is already changing whether we like it or not.