Art miles: environmentally ethical or indulgent?

June 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

When I go grocery shopping, I always consider food miles. I am not suggesting I never buy produce from far off places. With my coffee habit and love of home-made cakes, coffee and cocoa from Latin America are regulars on my shopping list. I do, however, make every effort to buy local and in-season produce, and if I want to make an out-of-season treat, I aim to source the ingredients from Spain rather than Mexico or further afield. These considerations are second nature to me as far as food is concerned. Recently, however, I have questioned the environmental ethics of my “consumption” of art.

At the end of May I travelled to Paris to hear two performances by the San Francisco Symphony. It is not the first time I have travelled to the city to enjoy a particular cultural event. Five years ago I also travelled to Paris for a major exhibition – one on Cézanne –  and I have since travelled to Amsterdam, Paris, Prague… on a number of occasions specifically for concerts, plays or exhibitions. I do not mean I take in a concert or wander round a gallery when I happen to be in foreign cities – which of course I also do. Rather, the artistic event is the rationale for my visit.

As I was sitting on the Eurostar I wondered whether carbon footprint considerations should inform my “consumption” of art.

Art, however, has long been associated with travelling and abroad. For centuries artists have been on the move. Composers, painters, sculptors and writers would travel to the court of their benefactors, tour the cultural capitals of the known world or leave their own land to go into exile, whether self-imposed or not. By the nineteenth century artists, writers and composers travelled far and wide for inspiration, to become acquainted with a new trend or style, or simply to reinvigorate their muse. Think of Gaugin, Henry James and Dvořák to name a few.

It is only natural that artists travel. Whether their art reflects the country left behind or their experiences in a new one, creative juices flow intensely when senses are heightened, as is often the case at borderlands or in foreign countries. Somehow home is more clearly visible at a distance and the colours, sounds and smells of unfamiliar territory feed the imagination.

If artists travelling to create or perform is nothing new, is the travelling art lover a product of modern times? Within Europe, Eurostar and budget airlines have certainly made impromptu city trips affordable and quick. For me a one-night trip to attend a play or a concert is no more involved than a visit to catch up with a sibling.

Although the frequency and immediacy of such travel may be new, travelling to soak up art is not. In the nineteenth century affluent and even aspiring classes made the grand tour, taking in key cultural cities between the Channel and the Mediterranean. And since the arrival of summer festivals in the early seventies, many people in the last for decades have thrown a tent in a car or jumped on a train to spend several days in a muddy field miles from their comfortable home.

As I was speeding towards Paris, I rationalised my trip. Forty hours in Paris for two concerts may sound like an indulgence but just like raspberries on an early spring Pavlova, these indulgences are rare treats. Most of the time I consume art at home. (I admit, living in London makes it very easy to “shop locally”.) Also, Mr M and I enjoy short breaks away to hear great orchestras rather than flying off for far-flung holidays, so overall our carbon footprint is no worse than my sister’s with her annual trip to Australia. And in the case of May’s extravaganza, a train to Paris to hear the San Francisco Symphony definitely accounts for less carbon than a return flight to California.

If I had any lingering doubts about art miles, they dissipated as I left the Salle Pleyel quivering after a breathtaking performance. Michael Tilson Thomas and the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony made Mahler’s Second Symphony their own. Mr M and I are still living off the tingle factor a fortnight on! Just like a rare Argentinian steak, the memory of an outstanding performance can keep me going for quite some time.

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