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Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink – there needs to be more promiscuity across different disciplines if there’s to be more fruitful solutions to environmental change. On Earth Day, Seed magazine published a well-toned article about economist Ben Ho, and suggested a need for joined-up thinking on climate change between behavioral economics (hence the reference to Nudge) and social sciences (erm… ‘winking’ is anthropological). And these latest understandings from the sciences about human behaviour bring big questions into focus for art practitioners.

Do the arts understate their potential role in generating a more holistic understanding of contemporary life? And what are our expectations of art? What kind of insights do artists bring about in relation to social change and environmental change…? (The most talked about art book on this is Bradley and Esche’s Art and Social Change, which is worth reading in conjunction with Mute magazine’s in-depth discussion).

The idea that people’s decisions are governed more by their subconscious emotional responses than by an impartial rationality is well argued by behavioural economics (and the RSA projects, Social Brain and Design & Behaviour). And that the social sciences grew from analysing how and why people behave they way they do, prompted Ho to reiterate the ol’ ecological adage: “The only way to get anything done is a holistic approach,” but then he emphasises the need for productive argument “We’re all speaking different languages, and that leads to conflicts. But that has to be the way forward.”

And this is surely the way forward for the arts too - art benefits hugely from engaging with other disciplines and there is real need for productive honest progressive debate about the ‘use’ of the art in relation to contemporary environmental change, without returning to the entrenched positions of instrumentalism v art for arts sake. Isn’t it the case that speaking provocatively about personal ethics and politics enhances our understanding of artists’ work?

And if emotional appeal is now regarded, by the natural sciences, as a highly persuasive human resource, why has visual art appeared to move so far away from ‘emotional expression’? And if it hasn’t really moved away from emotional expression – but has transposed it into provocative gestures , such as Jeremy Deller’s work – should artists feel any responsibility to make their own position explicit as part of a public debate? Art should still infuriate and delight us - so isn’t it time for the arts, and the discussion that surrounds it, to get more overtly passionate, excitable and intellectually promiscuous again? Wink, wink ...

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