The art show

The art show in the James Hockey Gallery of the University for the Creative Arts, (UCA Farnham), was entitled ‘Coming up for air – responding to climate and sustainability’. A text accompanying the exhibition situated it against the backdrop of an enduring concern with ‘climate change’ – as well as the challenge of finding ways to engage, sustainably, with our local contexts. However, and perhaps wisely (given the idiosyncrasies and apparent individuality of contemporary artists) we were also told that ‘the works on show do not seek to illustrate this subject’; instead we, the visitor, were invited, through the stimulus of whatever it was we would encounter, to ‘wrestle with these contexts and ideas, their contradictions or paradoxes.’ The onus was on us to make some sort of intellectual effort if we were fully to appreciate the distinct meanings of the show. 

I am not at all sure that I would have been able to grasp the fact that this was an exhibition taking as its aim a collection of works of art that would surface pressing problems to do with the global and local issues intrinsic to climate-change and sustainability. I say that from the outset because my first impression was contingent upon the presentation of the work: overall, it had an immediate, obvious and alluring aesthetic appeal. It was almost spectacular. In short, it looked pleasing to the eye – and had about it the seductive bouquet redolent of a quiet hyper-reality; it conformed beautifully to the conventions of ‘advanced’ or ‘elite’ art and reflected the ‘dematerialisation’ of such art that has been so confidently and normatively established since the mid-1960s. However, if it was radical and focused on the intimacies of the local this was not immediately apparent: the exhibition was placed in an institutional context that is, at the very least, somewhat detached from the local; the gallery itself is, de facto, rather exclusionary: and Pierre Bourdieu was almost certainly correct when he contended that the ethos and preserve of contemporary art is mysteriously esoteric – and more than a little estranged from the hard-pressed practical concerns of ‘ordinary’ people; the spaces and places of advanced art – such as the gallery in which ‘Coming up for air’ found itself – remain charming but more or less mystifying. 

Nevermind: I took the staging of the work in good faith and, after my initial perceptions, I began to engage with the questions that the various works raised. Some were amusing and ironic, some were redolent of a distant mythology, some were formal and so ‘unnatural’ as to make me wonder whether the artist was playing with the whole idea of his or her alienation from the way our cultural world is configured. But for me the work that surfaced, most effectively, the big ecological, environmental and existential questions of our day was a short film; it showed some of the things resulting from the detonation of nuclear bombs. On seeing the film I was once again struck by the fact that a strange kind of beauty finds itself attached to the actual flash of the explosion and the rising cloud of chemical dust. Here though, is a profound warning: the visual obscures the real. And so this film (rather like the famous film,‘Threads’) got to the heart of the matter – and related directly to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the subsequent paradigmatic work of the artist Joseph Beuys. Heidegger’s philosophy came to grapple with the problem of our ‘technical being’, its culmination in weapons of mass destruction and, thereby, the possibility that this enduring aspect of our being had the potential to destroy humanity itself. Beuy’s successfully re-framed the height, breadth and depth of art by expanding its identity, its reach and its transformative potentials. 

Since the aim of the exhibition was to provoke a serious response to both global and local environmental and quality-of-life issues I thought it sensible to surface those aspects of Heidegger’s philosophy that, for me, were catalysed by the short black-and-white film and which confront us with the ‘deep’ ecological problems of our time. So, for Heidegger, anxiety, alienation and the problem of authenticity permeate our modern ‘being in the world’. He argued that we are part and parcel of the world of nature, or, put more generally, the cosmos. However, we have become alienated from this ‘interconnectedness’. He thought that the overall problem with modern culture is precisely that we have lost our cosmic roots and become detached from the whole. Increasingly, we have come, especially with and through the advance of science and an allied way of ‘thinking (a mind-set), to set ourselves in some sort of ‘apartness’ to ‘the world’: on the one hand, there is the ‘human’, and, on the other, everything else. This alienation is particularly apparent in modern culture – and one of the reasons it happens is that we have, compared with heretofore, built up a much more intricate technical society. 

As the Heideggerian scholar William Barrett puts it: ‘We’re more encased in the sheer human [especially technical] framework of things compared with earlier times.’

Barrett goes on to say that:

‘The later Heidegger is centrally concerned with … the problem of technology. He feels that one of the tasks of philosophers in our period is to try to think through what technology involves. Modern thinking is too superficial, too inauthentic, with regard to the subject of technology … It makes no sense, Heidegger said, for humans at this particular juncture of history, to be for or against technology. We’re committed to technology. If you removed it the whole civilisation would collapse  … On the other hand, there is the fact, which the atomic bomb has brought before human consciousness generally, that technology has drastic possibilities. Hitherto people protested against technology as a cause of local nuisance – unemployment, pollution and so on – but the notion that humanity could self-destruct showed us the fearful possibilities within the technical complex.’

And he continues:

‘ … Heidegger was concerned with thinking through to where, in the historical destiny of humanity, the roots of our technical being lie, and where it may be carrying [us]’; he felt that the dominant metaphor which could be used to describe our time was that of mining: everything was (and is) to be ‘set upon’ for that which it might yield. Underneath it all ‘we’ have found ourselves in the grip of obvious or less obvious forms of exploitation.

Plainly, then, Heidegger was worried: he was worried about where our ‘technical being’ was headed …

The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, extends Barrett’s discussion and finds that, indeed, the roots of our technical being lie in ‘efficiency’ – which is tightly linked to the understanding of ourselves as ‘separate’; we are locked into a predominant mode of being that is wedded to ‘efficiency’ -and the examples are obvious: a more efficient way of threatening people with obliteration, (the atom bomb), of killing enemies (the machine gun), of controlling water (dams and water courses), a more efficient way of communicating (Facebook), ‘InDesign’ as a more efficient way of producing highly attractive publications, applied psychology as the means to developing ever more efficient way of disciplining people, the promise of ‘AI’ as a more efficient way of solving problems, and more and more ‘apps’ to make health and wealth and pleasure readily available etc. etc. To this we ought to add the idea of ‘effectiveness’: our technologies emerge from a seemingly endless push for efficiency and effectiveness; this lies at the very heart of that form of our human being that has progressively dislodged itself from nature and the cosmos. Efficiency links to the ‘will to power’ and the mastery of, in principle, everything: the beauty of nature, as Jackson Browne put it, has been ‘tortured into power’. 

The black-and-white film of the nuclear explosion therefore pinpoints, in principle, the apotheosis of technical thinking; by extension, it reveals how the underlying quest for efficiency has brought us to where we are – at both global and local levels. And it was the late Joseph Beuys who grasped the devastating implications of technical thinking; in response, he launched a focus and practice of art as a therapeutic ‘reconnection’ – a form of ‘de-alienation’ from our disrupted and unsettled being-in-the-world. In1982, against the background of his environmental and political activism, he began what was a perhaps his most celebrated work – the planting of 7,000 oak trees around the city of Kassel in central Germany. Beuys hoped that his ‘7000 Eichen’ would serve as a conduit for re-connecting the citizens of the heavily bombed city with their natural environment. But perhaps more profoundly he wanted to offer them alternatives to the cultural and societal zeitgeist that had taken them into the lunatic and catastrophic war in the first place. As each tree was planted, it was paired with a pillar of basalt – a strategy designed to symbolise the destruction that had befallen the bombed city. Forty years later it appears to have worked: Stay close to the rhythms of nature; feel the earth in your hands, watch the mini-ecologies of the riverbank, listen to the music of the spheres … 

Beuy’s pioneering work and his challenge to our ways of engaging with the world inevitably raises a question about the very staging of ‘Coming up for air’ in a well-lit rectangular gallery situated within a modern university for the creative arts: I cannot but ask of the show: Does the actual setting really connect with anything local, with anything close to home? Does the work – in its various and distinct forms – have much to do with local issues – except in an oblique and relatively abstract way? Worse, does the work essentially highlight the embeddedness of the artists in the advanced capitalist neo-liberal ethos of prizing sheer individuality – and does it serve to amplify their profiles in the highly mediated world of ‘look at me’ and of ‘Please, I do so want to be somebody?’ It inevitably raises questions about integrity and authenticity. It raises questions about what game is really being played. 

In the face of these questions, I had to make an effort to ‘see’ the local but the effort was rewarded: it was discernible in representations of strange excavations or in a bizarre ironical dysfunctional mini wind turbine; it did ‘show up’ in many (conceivably all) of the separate works. It showed up in intricate patternings and moments of intimate delicacy. To the extent that there were some direct references to the ‘local’ – that is, to the actual town in which the exhibition took place – it reminded me of the town’s diminished sensitivity to any form of eco-consciousness and its failure to take proper care of its environment: Over time, the town (a place that the estate agents enthusiastically proclaim ‘has it all’) has manifestly suffered from ‘over-development’; it has degraded itself. The streets in the heart of the town are crammed with cars (often big fat cars) with the inevitable result that the air is suffused with noxious and toxic substances. ‘Coming up for air’, then, is pointedly ironical. But perhaps the most ironic and dismal part of this is the way the town has allowed a site of ‘strategic visual importance’ (an open field adjacent to and abutting the University for the Creative Arts itself) to become a housing estate. The estate is virtually without any architectural or aesthetic merit. Worse, there is little if any evidence that the design of the overall environment embodies the restorative sensibility that Joseph Beuys pioneered. I think this is perfectly emblematic of the problem intrinsic to capitalism that Rosa Luxembourg identified more than a century ago: it is founded on the need for continual growth – and the importunate necessity of more production and more consumption. Sadly, the trajectory of the town itself serves as a case study – a micro-study – highlighting the wider global problem of the neo-liberal (or even the state-controlled) models of political economy. 

However, and notwithstanding, ‘Coming up for air’ may well highlight a crisis in contemporary art; It is this: Since we are in a world saturated with images – and since we have become so used to art-images as surprising, or interesting, or unexpected or original – that any message, anything really worth saying, is trumped by the ‘presentation’ and thereby effectively negated. I get the impression that we are more and more the children of Susan Sontag and oblivious to her serious reservations about the vast repository of pure image that we cannot but consume. In consequence, we systematically sleepwalk into a kind of de-sensitisation. And, on top of this, isn’t there something odd about an art institution that profiles and prides itself as the efficient provider  and producer of large numbers of people who will come to service the ‘creative industries’ – and, thereby, promote the seductions of the object-fetish? If we take the issues of global and local sustainability seriously then surely a radical questioning of the basic ethos of art and the cultures of the art institution is absolutely essential. We have to ask: How well do they model the moral and ecological values that they espouse? What role do they actually play in the ruination or preservation of our ecosystems? 

There is, though, a counter-argument to my concerns that the art on display is more a way of conforming to the norms and blandishments of ‘advanced’ art than of ‘really’ dealing seriously with the global and/or local concerns with sustainability. The argument has been well put by Iris Murdoch: writing as both a philosopher and a literary artist she stated, flatly and sententiously, that the artist has no ‘duty to society’. Instead, the artist has ‘a duty to art ‘- to ‘truth-telling in his or her chosen medium’. In other words, quietly or subtly, loudly or spectacularly, insouciantly or soberly, the artist has to find a way of communicating the truth as he or she sees it. And Murdoch adds: ‘If serious art is a primary aim then some sort of justice is a primary aim.’ It follows that the art of any lasting value is ultimately concerned with the good in opposition to evil, the worthwhile instead of the meretricious  – and, enticingly, always enjoys and expresses some sort of erotic charge. Murdoch’s is a reassuring voice. For her, art ‘goes deeper’ than philosophy – and, provided the artist counters the seductions of narcissism and has a go at truth-telling and truth-revealing, then his or her art is destined to be a precious thing. ‘Coming up for air’ may be a moment for clear critical reflection or a polished masquerade in which the art ‘show’ is a performance which nicely conceals an ideology of self-interest. 

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