Can artists save the world?

Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley and others respond to climate change

A large, parasite-like form has appeared on the façade of 6 Burlington Gardens, London. It is the installation CO2morrow, by the artists Marcos Lutyens and Alessandro Marianantoni, for the exhibition "Earth: Art of a Changing World", which has just opened at the Royal Academy of Arts. The show presents the creative responses of 35 international artists to the pressing issue of climate change, just days before the big summit in Copenhagen is due to start.

CO2morrow's spectacular shape is the result of a cutting-edge technological innovation from California. It is made from recyclable carbon fibre and is based on a new carbon-scrubbing molecule. Commissioned by the National Trust for this exhibition, it shows, using a light display, fluctuating levels of CO2 in the atmosphere at specific national heritage sites.

"These molecules have the power to capture and retain carbon dioxide," Marianantoni tells me. "They are being produced in tonnes, with the main aim to be positioned on the top of power stations' chimneys. Scientists are currently working on a version for cars."

Like the whole RA exhibition, it raises fundamental questions about the responsibilities of artists in contemporary society and the relationship between art and technology.

"New technology is part of an artist's palette, as oil paints were during the Renaissance," explains Lutyens. "In a world where it is harnessed by corporations and by the military, it is important for artists to harness that same tool and use it for good."

The combination of science and art "helps to draw people's attention", continues the artist, "providing a wider view of what's going on. For example, the hi-tech sensors used in this installation to collect data extend our nervous system into the world around us. Without this kind of access, we would be blinder."

The artists exhibiting in this seminal show are, in the words of the co-curator David Buckland, "going to the edge before us". From Antony Gormley, with his striking crowd of clay figures staring at the viewer, to Mona Hatoum's threatening, cage-like steel globe; from the evocative island project by Antti Laitinen to the poignant journey to the Arctic reported by Sophie Calle, each issues his or her personal warning.

"There is no plan B for failure at Copenhagen, only plan A, and A stands for action," the UN's top climate official, Yvo de Boer, said recently. Six hundred digital clocks hanging on the wall of the RA, hauntingly ticking, help us to internalise the message.

How then to respond to these threats? Some artists have found their answer in a return to emotions. "My message is about love, nature and respect for nature," says Tracey Emin, commenting on her embroidered piece with figures of birds, flowers and insects. "For this work, I was inspired by a story that my father told me. At my father's wedding, my grandfather told his son's bride: 'Draw yourself a cross and in that cross put a volcano, a tidal wave, an avalanche and a hurricane. Now go and throw yourself at anyone.' "

Asked about their hopes for the coming climate conference, some artists are optimistic. But, as Emin remarks, "It is absolutely down to individual people to try to change something. After this show, I'll go home and I'll do stuff -- I'll turn my lights off and so on."

Leaving the Royal Academy, I hope that passers-by will raise their heads and wonder at that strange object nesting on the building's façade. Cycling, I feel I'm doing at least something to join the effort. And echoing in my ears is a line of a song from a video installation in the show: "What if we got it wrong?"

Photo: ASA
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA