Art & Energy: How Culture Changes
Timothy Mason
Barry Lord is best known in the UK as one of the co-founders of the cultural consultants, Lord Cultural Resources, which he established with his wife, Gail Dexter Lord, in 1981.

To date, his published output has been mainly restricted to a respected series of books on museum management. Art & Energy is more personal – indeed, it bears all the hallmarks of an individual passion.

It is based on the interesting hypothesis that “human creativity is deeply linked to the resources available on earth for our survival”.

Lord’s aim is “to illuminate how culture changes and the defining role that energy plays in that change”. To do so he begins an analysis of the earth’s primary sources of energy, assessing their impact on the development of arts and culture.

Early in this approach to his topic, he touches a seam of gold with a brief but memorable image which lingers in the mind long after reading this book. It is of as many as 100 artists working together in the flickering light of some 120 tallow lamps to produce the Magdalenian masterpieces that can be found on the walls of the caves at Lascaux and Elmira.

Lord pursues his argument with determination through coal, oil, wind, water, electricity, slavery and steam.

But despite his obvious enthusiasm for his theory, the book slowly metamorphoses into something of a textbook on energy studies, a sort of Ladybird book for adults.

It is evident that a great deal of research has gone into this book but too often the data feels raw and awkward. The promise of the early chapters is slowly dissipated and by the time the reader is at the halfway point, the arts seem to have become culture.

By the final chapters, culture has become cultures and we are dealing with the cultures of consumption, anxiety and stewardship.

Heavy weather

At times, it is the absentees that surprise. A section on the “energy” of slavery makes no reference to any artform, not even the spiritual, a musical form that transcended the abject horrors of slave labour in the Americas with its message of defiant optimism and hope.

As a matter of fact, there is no mention of the relationship of music and rhythmic dance and the production of energy, in for example, the sea shanty or the martial drum.

In a chapter on steam in which he surprisingly ignores what is perhaps the finest painting of steam and energy, Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed, Lord does refer to two paintings – Manet’s The Railway and Monet’s La Gare St-Lazare.

Certainly steam was an important source of energy, albeit hardly new by the late 1870s when these two paintings were completed, but it is hard to see how in themselves they show how steam has changed culture.

Indeed, it is arguable that Monet, “the epic poet of nature”, as the French critic Georges Lecomte described him, looked in later years to nature and the elements, rain, snow, wind and water.

In his final works, such as Water-Lilies at Sunset, he and Turner appear almost to collide in one glorious, golden moment of dazzling, shimmering light at the centre of which is the sun.

The sun, the energy source that must surely have the greatest impact on life on earth, has only one indexed reference. In fact there is one other, a 1933 quotation, from Thomas Edison, which receives no reference in the index: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

Energy loss

Art & Energy is a thought-provoking book but for me it’s case unproven on Lord’s thesis. I am not convinced that the weather might not have played an equally important role in shaping culture. Perhaps those early western European cave artists were working in caves in order to protect their work from the elements.

The rock artists at Gobustan in Azerbaijan had a milder climate with which to contend and painted more in the open air. Or was it the availability of raw materials – greenstone for New Zealand Maoris, soapstone for the Inuit peoples? And then there is the Lion man of the Stadel cave, 40,000 years old, and another absentee from Art & Energy.

What energy drove the creator of this small masterpiece, made from the ivory tusks of a mammoth?

In his final paragraphs, Lord writes: “Artists, architects, designers, musicians, filmmakers, actors, writers, dancers, artists in all media, will need to create their work with a consciousness of what is truly sustainable.”

Somehow I doubt it – artists will surely continue to do what they must do. An artist, as Matisse so succinctly put it, must not feel under any constraint.

Timothy Mason is a museum consultant

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