Sunday, November 25, 2007

Art and Sustainability in the New Millennium

by Ian Christopher Goodman
with guidance from Marcus Macdonald

In these most recent and frenetically developing years of the Information Age, art has also seen some surprising transformations. No longer is it an unusual metier practiced by quirky cave people who travelled deep into mountains’ hearts to paint the exotic menageries in their minds; nor is its existence dependent on the fickle patronage of an aristocracy, and it’s no longer reserved for idiosyncratic urbanites, like those who once lived in boho enclaves of cosmopolitan cities during the early 20th century. In the industrialized nations, art has been democratized, and the 21st century boasts the greatest number of artists the world has ever seen. With minimal effort, musicians can record concept albums in their own living rooms. Films can be shot with cell phones, edited on PCs and distributed on the Web. For anyone with the inclination, paints and brushes can be procured for next to nothing at the local dollar store.

From one perspective, this is a good thing. Making art is an incomparable way for us to explore society, culture, history, science, personal experience and many other facets of existence. Artists can share the fruits of their exploration—their discoveries—in stimulating ways that often hold deep resonance for audience members. Art can bring more beauty into the world and simultaneously sublimate tabooed instincts. Normally, as human beings, we imitate, but as artists, we originate. Marcus Macdonald has said that "...the very highest Art enables us to join with the Artist and choose our own vision. The freedom of spirit, and the exhilaration of vast choices, is what spectators revel in (or fear); it is this freeing of the mind that is searched for by Art lovers throughout history." Perhaps the most fascinating aspect about art is that it can be anything, playfully eluding our attempts at strict definitions. But unfortunately, art can also exacerbate the problems of environmental degradation and community fragmentation.

With millions of artists in the world now, that means millions of video cameras exported from Japan, millions of gallons of tempera paint shipped from Mexico then flushed down the sink, millions of spandex dance pants bought from China, millions of gallons of British beer sold at pubs in the name of rock ‘n’ roll. Art these days is unfortunately an intimate bedfellow with Consumption. And though artists may be concerned about sustainability as a concept, it’s much more difficult to bring those concerns into the practice of art.

Art, in its purest sense, shouldn’t be bound to any one mandate, which could risk stifling its freedom. As Marcus Macdonald points out, “In the Soviet Union, during Stalin’s reign…Social Realism stated that Art must always serve the people (hence, always be propaganda for the Communist Revolution). Art for Art's sake was deemed decadent and degenerate (capitalistic), and worse: antirevolutionary. Further, Art had to express itself in the simple, easily understood, popular visual idiom of Realism. The revolutionary giants of Constructivism and Suprematism felt the cold backlash of working for the State and had to relinquish their cherished exploration of abstraction.” However, I believe that, as artists in the Information Age, we have to remember our role as global citizens alongside our role as artists. As global citizens, we should not only explore the socio-economic mechanisms that sustain, impede and encourage art, but also live sustainably. We should consider allowing ideas of sustainability to inform our roles as artists, while also allowing the profound heritage of artistry to inform the relatively newer concept of sustainability. In this precarious millennium, art may have to satisfy one condition: sustaining itself. And to do this, artists and spectators alike must, at the very least, be able to live and regenerate, and at best, thrive.

Some artists have approached the subject of sustainable living within their projects. In the ’60s, Joseph Beuys developed the concept of Social Sculpture, and modelled society rather than materials. One of his greatest works was the planting of 7,000 oak trees. As Canadian artists, the Group of Seven brought our attention back to nature. Right here in MontrĂ©al, we have the artist Phil Allard. He created a five-story-tall sculpture in Eaton Centre made entirely from discarded plastic bottles that were collected from the shopping mall. And look to someone like the clothing designer Re-Gen, who cuts out fabrics using the Fibonacci sequence, so that no material is wasted.

Marcus Macdonald invited me to think about Andy Goldsworthy: “His work is free of any use of purchased materials; he uses just what nature provides freely. Nor is he concerned with fame; he is quite content living in relative obscurity, basking in the love of his family and close friends. His work has reached the far corners of the planet, and inspires with its elegance, parsimony of materials, mastery of technique, and majesty of vision. His work has been emulated by many. He is a humble, if introverted man; like a child, he explores whatever his spirit alights on.”

As we can see, sustainability can not only be a theme, but can also influence the process of creating art. Paint that uses natural ingredients can be bought in bulk, inside biodegradable containers; or better, it can be created by us, using easily accessible and natural materials. Filmmakers, painters and musicians alike can come together and pool resources. One camera can be purchased by a group of filmmakers; one art studio and its supplies shared by a group of visual artists; music studios and drum kits shared by numerous bands. Shabby, beaten-up, ducked-taped instruments can be salvaged and used again. With the right eye, mint-condition tools can be retrieved from needless disposal. All of this is easier said than done, of course, but these kinds of cooperative efforts and examples of conscientious consumption are things we may want to pursue if we want our future generations to…(insert the rest of the green rhetoric here).

Then there is the issue of community fragmentation, which also seems connected to unsustainable practices. In our current modality, everyone is compartmentalized and trained in efficiency for the sake of profit generation (of individuals, corporations and/or the state) without being aware of the entire system. Indeed, understanding the complete cycle of a system (be it economic or environmental) seems vital to the understanding of sustainability. If we don't have this understanding, we exist in a system that ignores the consequences. Oftentimes, it seems as though urban artists are just as trapped as everyone else behind these walls of fragmentation. We cohere into snobbish cliques, surrounding ourselves with each other, whilst watching the rest of our species madly careen towards the abyss of extinction.

As I had said before, some of the most important qualities of art are to explore and originate, then share the consequent discoveries and creations with others. Consider walking out from the hub of artists from time to time to mollify those barriers of fragmentation, to share with those who are more difficult to access: rabbis and monks, octogenarians, those who speak a different language, dudes and dudettes who drive those subwoofer-thumpin’ Hummers. Who’s walking outside our bedrooms window right now? How can we share our artistic discoveries with them? These are important questions. Humans of the future are waiting with baited breath right now, wondering what we’re going to do and whether or not they’re going to dematerialize, based on our actions that may irrevocably erase their timeline. (Did that sci-fi image make any sense at all?)

Finally, there is the issue of livelihood, of literally sustaining ourselves with things like food and shelter, which is tremendously important to everyone on this planet—artists and spectators alike. As artists, most of us can’t sustain ourselves on our creations alone, so we work those loathsome day jobs. Some of us revere all things artful while hazily drifting through the mediocre and ultimately unsustainable gigs that do those pettier things like keep our stomachs appeased and our feet warm. But rather than putting art on a pedestal and shunning those very actions that sustain us (and allow us to do the art in the first place), let’s try to connect art and work. Let’s see how they fuel each other, support each other, and mirror each other. It’s all right if we put our art on hold every now and then, while we invest in our livelihoods. This investment can come back to us in surprising ways. And let's look closely at how we spend the money from our livelihoods. Is it going towards products and services that are themselves sustainable?

Now, I’m going to offer details of my own life, not because I think people should try to emulate me. Rather, I want to show how, given the certain particulars of my situation, I was able to organize my art and work in a way that allowed me to function well as an artist. And hopefully, it will be inspirational to some. It may also generate criticism that will prompt me to reconsider my ideas.

In my late twenties, I had a crisis and believed I shouldn’t work whatsoever, because all jobs seemed to support a monstrous civilization that boasted of genocide, civilian collateral damage, species’ extinctions, demented crimes, landfills of mountainous proportion, and so forth. In that position, I had the choice of going on welfare (letting the monster support me without ostensibly giving it anything in return) or going to school. I choose the latter because I hoped that the experience would stimulate me in unpredictable ways and offer new approaches for interacting with civilization. So I went back for two and a half years to obtain a Joint Honours BA in English Literature and Creative Writing; believing that I would thence be primed for the somewhat bearable job of teaching ESL; and thinking optimistically that my studies would supplement my art in an indirect way. School was often difficult because I had to stifle some of the creative projects dancing in my head. Academic life was an exercise in patience, but I met some wonderful people, learned about academe as an institutional entity, and directed my studies, whenever I could, to subjects that interested me.

After graduation, I did get a job as an ESL teacher, but quickly landed the better gig of editing subtitles. This job was and still is good for me as an artist, though it’s far from being a sustainable profession (a hard thing to come by these days). I only have to work about 24 hours a week, while honing the art of living frugally. With a decent amount of free time, finding opportunities to do art isn’t too hard. The formula seems to be working and has helped me finish a fair number of art projects. And inside these projects are some of my modest attempts to help tame society’s monstrosities. To be sure, I still have a lot of work to do in making the practice of my art sustainable. What’s interesting, too, is that I’m not worried about trying to make money as an artist. I think that when art becomes attached to money, it has the risk of turning into work/propaganda/advertising/commodity. One of art’s great and essential qualities is that it remains unfettered. I count myself lucky that my art is free from certain restraints. Another approach, however, is that an artist may deliberately want to make money as part of their artistic practice, and then to channel that money in artful ways. Yet another angle is to create something that civilization deems valuable (for whatever dubious or noble reasons), and then be rewarded for that creation.

As artists conscious of our roles as global citizens, we can look for unusual community connections, find value in all work that we do, consume wisely, make wonderful objects, and continually redefine what it means to be an artist in the 21st century. Thanks for reading. And I’ll leave you with an forgettable story that Marcus Macdonald told me. I couldn’t quite figure out how to fit it in the essay, but I couldn’t leave it out, either.

“I had the great honour of befriending the Albanian artist, Max Velo. During the communist regime in his country, Max was incarcerated for spreading anti-revolutionary ideas (owning books about capitalist artists such as Picasso, etc.). He was sent to a camp especially designed for unrepentant artists and intellectuals. No creation whatsoever was permitted in this prison. During his decade of confinement, Max managed to make several small objects despite the severe punishment that was the due of any delinquency. The inmates worked secretly on these tiny objects. They used apricot pits and a glue derived from old bones to create those small islands of salvation.

One day, one of Max's fellow cellmates was caught working on an apricot-pit sculpture. Weeping, he was obliged to crush this labour of several years. He was then dragged out of the cell. The poor man was later returned to the cell with all of his members brutally broken.

Each year of his imprisonment, Max was brought to an office. He would be presented with a document stating that he recognized his past errors and would cease his anti-revolutionary activities. Had he signed, he would have been free to leave. He never signed.

Eventually Max was sentenced to slave in a copper mine (deemed a fitting punishment for an artist who had made such prolific use of this material). He was chained to a wagon on rails. His job was to load the ore at one end of the rails, drag the wagon to the other end, unload the ore, and resume. For seven years he was thus chained, working in the dark, his food and water was left to him randomly. During this period he never saw the light of day.

Max was finally freed from this hell when the communist regime in his country fell. I met him in Paris shortly after his release. It was with great emotion that I held his precious relics, those small apricot-pit creations. A diminutive box, a minuscule cup, painstakingly made in the very worst conditions. You would probably not even give them a second look, were they placed with other similar objects in a knickknack store. It was the stark simplicity of these containers filled with uncrushable courage that struck me. This artist had, despite the bleakest of existences, created these vessels of hope.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting read - dare I say, sublime.