Tuesday, 21 June 2005

Art and endangered species

I am considering signing up to the National Art Fund. This is because I think they do a great job in saving works of art for the nation, and more importantly I like their magazine. It also has a sobering effect on me, and puts the work of wildlife conservationists in perspective. To read that a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds of Omai sold for over £10 million is a staggering thought. Omai was a Tahitian brought to England by Captain James Cook in 1773. At that time the islands of Tahiti, Hawaii and other parts of the Pacific contained dozens of species now extinct.

A medieval psalter was recently saved for the nation at a cost of £1.7.million and Damien Hirst's pickled shark sold for £7 million. All of these are 'unique pieces of art". But there is unique and unique. While these art forms can be copied, and these days copies can be made that are so close to the original that only scientific tests can tell them apart, the originals upon which they are based cannot be recreated. The Tahitians and their unique culture have been destroyed, the Medieval countryside teeming with wildlife, portrayed in the psalter has gone, and even Hirst's shark is diving towards extinction. And none of these can ever be recreated, or even simulated. Once they are gone, they are gone forever.

With £5 million -- a quarter of the amount spent on these three art treasures -- the World Land Trust could save over 160,000 acres of tropical forests in Central America. Forests that are currently on the market and about to be sold into an unknown future. Countless species live in the forests, some of which may become lost for ever without even being known to humans. I am not such a Philistine as to suggest we stop preserving art and other aspects of human culture, but we should try and get a sense of perspective. Where are the wealthy collectors who will preserve the planet's heritage? Let's try and get some sort of ecological balance. It's a crazy world when a painting of an elephant by Stubbs (if one existed) could sell for more than the entire budget needed to create all 88 elephant corridors proposed for the Indian Elephant (Stubbs record at auction is over £3.2 million). And a single painting by Delacroix, famous for his lions and tigers has sold for over $9 million. Which is really worth more a painting, which can be copied, or a real living tiger and its descendants?

Fortunately, living artists are much more concerned than the collectors of art, and some of the most generous supporters of the World Land Trust have been painters -- and not just wildlife artists. And David Shepherd, famous for elephants and trains, has even created his own foundation, which funds conservation using income from his art. But compare the Getty Conservation Prize of $100,000 with the budget of the Getty Museum -- between July 2004 and March 2005 over half a million dollars were given as grants to interns alone. The total budget on art research, and the purchase of art objects is many hundreds of millions a year. Enough to make a sizeable dent on conservation problems of a large chunk of the world. And by a quirk of fate, it is the vast wealth of museums such as the Getty, that has sent art prices spiraling through the roof. If they were to change their remit, and treat wildlife as unique art treasures -- which, of course, they are -- perhaps there might be some hope for the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment