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A New Front


by Suzi Gablik (2004)

Reprinted with permission from Resurgence magazine, a journal of ecology, spirituality and the arts. www.resurgence.org


SEVERAL YEARS AGO, the University of Chicago alumni magazine featured philosopher Richard Rorty on its cover announcing "There Is No Big Picture." Not only do I not believe this, I think that this philosophical stance is partly what has brought the world to the edge of systemic breakdown and biospheric collapse.

When I first began to write Has Modernism Failed? more than twenty years ago, what I wanted to explore was the relevance of spiritual and moral values in a society oriented around manic production and a fixation with commodities. Since then, the art world of today appears to have bifurcated into two completely different aesthetic paradigms, each one differing sharply in their view about the meaning and purpose of art. In the first instance are artists who continue to proclaim and support the self-sufficiency of art in defiance of the social good and any form of moral earnestness - with social separateness as the basic premise of art-making. In the second instance are artists who want art to have some worthy agenda outside of itself, and a socially redeeming purpose.

Agnes Denes,
Agnes Denes, "Wheatfield - A Confrontation", Battery Park Landfill, NY, 1982.

In Western culture, artists aren't encouraged to be integral to the social, environmental, or spiritual life of the community. They do not train to engage with real-life problems. Instead they learn to be competitive with their products in the marketplace. All our institutions are defined by this market ideology-none have escaped. 'Professional recognition' in the form of brisk sales and positive reviews still remain the primary motivations that structure the internal rhythms of art-making.

But I believe that art can help us to participate in what Thomas Berry deems the "great work" of our time: moving from a devastating presence on the planet to a more benign presence. In our culture, there is a rigid, dualistic separation between aesthetics and ethics-just as there has been a split between subject and object, and between art and life. In the same way that science aggressively rejects religion, modern aesthetics has rejected ethics, as if the truths of the two realms were somehow mutually exclusive and had little in common. Few people are willing to talk about ethics and aesthetics in the same breath.

In his book A Theory of Everything, Ken Wilber puts forth a world philosophy that weaves together the many pluralistic contexts of science, morals, aesthetics, Eastern as well as Western philosophy, and the world's great wisdom traditions, to suggest that the world is one undivided whole, and related to itself in every way. The well-being of each part is the responsibility of every other part. Referring to the earlier cultural movements of traditionalism and modernism, Wilber suggests that integralism is the next big developmental step. 'Integral' conveys a sense of responsibility to humankind as a whole and to all living beings upon the earth. The idea of integralism involves some very real changes in perception and understanding that have been occurring over the past twenty years. I would claim that a more ethical artistic vision is already functioning among us. This new artistic culture no longer depends on the primacy of the dealer-collector- critic-curator network, but replaces it with very different networks of socially, spiritually and ecologically-oriented art makers.

STRATEGIC CHANGES ARE happening in which the individual artist becomes an integral component of a larger social network. Specialisation may still be the most general trend we know, but a significant number of artists have extended artistic activity into social and environmental domains, transcending disciplinary boundaries. Not surprisingly, institutions have begun to follow suit. The key metaphor here is that of the network, both as a new pattern of organisation and as a creative force.

My sense is that significant changes in power relations are occurring, as these decentralised network structures now offer the possibility for artists to interact with each other, and share information, in a democratic and co-operative atmosphere that was mostly absent within the hegemonic, competitive, institutional structures of modernism. The phenomenon of networks as a new pattern of organisation is nowhere more evident than among the many different 'communities of practice' to be found on the internet. These communities offer a collective identity for their members, who usually bring to the group a shared vision and purpose. These living networks have become so widespread that they are even breaking the stronghold of individualism in favor of a new communal "we".

Included in the category of 'netcentric' collectives, for instance, is Sam Bower's 'greenmuseum', a nonprofit, virtual museum of environmental art that serves as a highly interactive resource for artists and educators. Greenmuseum supports collaborations and interdisciplinary problem-solving, and encourages strong bonds of sharing among artists who love nature and want to create an honorable place for the idea of art as service. It publishes new writing, describes artists' projects, promotes on-line forum discussions about eco-art, prints out course descriptions by educators, offers links to artists' websites, and announces exhibitions.

AMD&ART, Vintondale, PA, Treatment Ponds Under Construction, 2002. (photo: AMD&ART)
AMD&ART, Vintondale, PA, Treatment Ponds Under Construction, 2002. (photo: AMD&ART)

In 2002, greenmuseum collaborated with another on-line environmental organization, ecoartspace, to produce an exhibition of environmental art called Ecovention, at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati. In conjunction with the exhibit, they co-published a catalogue which offers an overview of artists who have been engaged for more than three decades with the reclamation and restoration of damaged ecosystems. These projects involve strategies drawn from many disciplines, and invite collaborations with specialists such as architects, botanists, zoologists, engineers, and local city planners. Ecovention presented these projects as case studies that pave the way for "a new kind of art that can help realise needed change in the world."

"There is a small yet growing world wide movement of artists who are actively finding ways to creatively solve ecological problems," Amy Lipton writes in her introduction to the catalogue. Lipton is an independent curator who, in 1997, began a search "to find artworks that cross the line from traditional art production and institutionalisation into the larger context of human and non-human communities."

We are not used to defining art as research, or having environmental cleanup seen as its legitimate goal. 'Ecovention' cannot be easily absorbed within the prevailing ideology, and if truth be told, it is a world apart from land- or site-specific art, because of the ethical issues of responsibility it deliberately embraces. Tim Collins, an artist who focuses on restoring and preserving polluted rivers and ecosystems along the post-industrial waterfronts of the Allegheny County area of Pittsburgh, declares in the catalogue, "If it doesn't actually change the world, it is simply not an ecovention." All of this clearly represents a critical shift in the definition of an art object. In a personal conversation with me, Tim Collins shared his view that the self-referencing discourse of modernism, with its unilateral focus on fine art, has become tedious and circular for many artists who now embrace post-studio practices. Almost in spite of themselves, artists tend to fasten on galleries and museums as the penultimate repositories of art's truth and goodness. Collins believes, as I do, that within capitalist democracy, cultural production has become a monoculture, so the issue for him has become how to add diversity to this ecosystem. As an eco-artist, Collins tends to frame his thinking in ecological and biological models. "How do we diversify our own thinking in order to get off this singular path of market-based object production-along with its self-limiting notion of freedom of expression? How do we create new institutional forms, or else, through interdisciplinary practices, breach the existing forms to discover new options?"

RECENTLY I READ in The Structurist, a magazine published in Canada, that graphic designers have risen up against sterile corporate modernism and consumer capitalism, and are looking for other ways of practicing their craft beyond that of designing brand-name logos and promoting obsolescence. According to Kalle Lasn, founder and editor of the Canadian journal Adbusters, graphic designers want to put design skills to more worthwhile and ethical use than product marketing. These renegade designers joined up with the global anticapitalist movement, wrote a manifesto ('First Things First') and declared their intention to do something more interesting than just speed up the consumer purchasing cycle. They wanted to try a different tack-instead of promoting saleability, to promote sustainability. "You break out of the commercial box and start playing with the ecological and psychological dimensions of the product-in-use," Lasn writes. "It's an extension of your social conscience."

Kathryn Miller, Seed bombing the Raytheon Plant, Santa Barbara, CA, 1992 (photo: Kathryn Miller)
Kathryn Miller, Seed Bombs, 2003

I view all these transdisciplinary creative initiatives and modest proposals for ethical action as small ruptures in the continuity of capitalism. As artists, museums, universities, and other cultural institutions engage in a process of reevaluating themselves, they are forming what Jean-Francois Lyotard once called "a new front." This has brought about an astonishing breadth of practice and a new density of interaction with the world across a wide spectrum of artistic activities and institutions. The change is now perceptible: after a half-century of purist ideals, art has become purposeful again. And as Sam Bower of greenmuseum wrote to me in an email recently: "It doesn't really matter if they are seen as 'art' or not. That they function with a degree of elegance like seeds and help carry this important evolving meme effectively is what's important. New paradigms demand new systems to support them. I hope the environmental art movement encourages people to see the entire world as deserving of aesthetic attention."

I believe the great era of academic specialisation and value-free experiment is coming to an end. The demarcation between professional fields is being absorbed by a new understanding of the omnipresent relevance and intimate connection of all fields to each other. Integrated organisation and quantum entanglement are now understood as the underlying structures of the universe. We need to change our basic one-dimensional linear models to something more dynamic, branched, and multidimensional-something that is more in harmony with the interconnected nature of the real world. In Zen there is an old saying that expresses this: "When you pick up one piece of dust, the entire world comes with it."

The above essay consists of excerpts from a new, updated version of Suzi Gablik's book, Has Modernism Failed?(Revised Edition), to be reissued by Thames & Hudson in May 2004.

Suzi Gablik is a writer and artist.

© 2010 greenmuseum.org