Love among the ruins: The ends of art in the Anthropocene

Week 47, 2015: Grand opening of the Louvre, Abu Dhabi
Janet Koenig, Week 47, 2015, Grand Opening of the Louvre, Abu Dhabi, 2014, digital collage, from the series 52 Weeks, a one-year campaign by artists, writers and activists highlighting the unjust living and working conditions of migrant laborers building cultural institutions in Abu Dhabi:

Is art sustainable? Well, of course, that depends on whether you mean the official or the provisional wing of art, and whether you mean sustainable in the short, medium or long term. Examining the proposition means writing a history of the future, like science fiction, along the lines of the 1976 film Logan's Run, with me standing in for Peter Ustinov, the crazy old cat man sitting in the ruins quoting poetry. But let’s go there, one point at a time.

Putting it simply, art forked in the 1970s into two wings. In the mid 1970s the fallout from conceptualism split art into two competing practices. The conservatives became the manufacturers and distributors of commodity art and the radicals became integrated with community activism until they simply dissolved into day-to-day life: the energy of the individuals going into a whole range of culturally innovative activities that are rarely if ever described as art.

Conceptualism raised several problems that forced a major realignment. First there was the formal logic of dematerialisation then the implicit political logic that undermined the idea of art as collectibles. This occurred as the last major flourish of cold war welfare state funding bolstered the growth of museums, art schools and funding organisations. A gulf quickly developed between politicised forms of conceptual art and the punishing and straightening instincts of the newly born arts-funding bureaucracies. The early Sydney Biennales for instance faced active hostility from artists demanding 50 per cent women and 50 per cent Australian representation. The ensuing demonstrations and protest meetings involved hundreds of artists and dragged on through the 1970s.

By the 1980s, the institutions were regaining control of the unruly artists. The problem the art world was digesting was the tendency of conceptualism to blend art into life:  that culture was an aspect of all activities rather than a discrete saleable product limited to a narrow range of legitimate media. A concerted return to order was happening with the promotion of institutionally safe forms and confected art movements. The conservative solution was to support traditional forms embellished with the novelty of conceptualist rhetoric, hence appropriation and conceptual painting.

The more politicised artists, on the other hand, were developing forms that did not involve exhibitions, funding models outside the art market and audiences outside the gallery system. In conventional art world terms many were regarded as having given up art because they no longer produced exhibitable or saleable product.

The official wing, the conventional art world, now administers art as a neoliberal business model. Art, like work, isn't a real category ... It can be anything. There is a lot of money to be made in controlling the definition at any particular point in time. Post Bordieu, Danto, et al,, it is generally recognised that the institutional definition of art ("it is art because we say it is art"), the codified version of an understanding that began with the work of Duchamp and the dadaists, is now dominant.

What is not usually said is that, from the 1980s, the institutional definition of art became the core of neoliberal commodity art and what it really means is ‘art is whatever suits our business model’.

Most western societies are ruled by neoliberalism, a corporate regime of extreme capitalism that enforces (with violence if necessary) the condition that all human endeavours must be about making a profit. Art, as conventionally understood, is not an autonomous activity independent of that regime. It is an ideological arm of that regime doing its bit to promote the market as the sole organising principle of the economy and society while also decorating and entertaining us in its spare time.

The official art world has prospered by commissioning activities that conformed to this business model, ranging from the large-scale novelty entertainment of biennale art to the bijoux decorative collectibles sold by small galleries. In every case, it involved manufacturing to a well-known model, hence the rise of appropriation, a guarantee that consumers would not be discomforted by unfamiliarity. Any non-conforming practices were simply ignored.

As the art world has perfected itself as a business model it has destroyed itself as a site of cultural innovation, the real business of artists. Unfortunately, if the conventional art world is not where cultural innovation is happening then it is no longer significant except as a sociological phenomenon.

Neoliberalism, faced with the climate disaster it has created, is only sustainable for the short term, maybe ten to twenty years. When people question the sustainability of art what they really question is the sustainability of the contemporary art world. Because a dominant ideology will always present itself as eternal it is usually forgotten how temporary contemporary really is. Most of the components of the contemporary art world were only inflated to their current size in the late 1970s when there was a two-party consensus that supporting the arts was a good thing. The most self-rewarding way for a government to do that was erecting edifices and creating organisations through the support of public funding bodies. The neoliberal undermining of government since the 1970s has imposed sponsorship and benefactors on institutions that previously received adequate public funding.

The commodification of art has converted cultural producers into workers creating goods to meet consumer demand. Artists can no longer rely on teaching, for instance, nor are there now other reasonably well paid flexible forms of work: casualisation and the repression of the union movement has destroyed that. As always, there is the opiate of the possibility of a brief flash of fashionability, a prize win, a small grant, but these are basically delusions to keep the artist as peon  supplying cheap exhibition fodder for the institutions and the market. The real money goes to the already rich speculator collectors who are usually buying in the secondary art market, of no benefit to the original producer.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, neoliberalism only survives by its rigid control of a two-party political theatre where nothing changes no matter who is in power. Despite its anti-government rhetoric the neoliberal economy now depends on massive government subsidisation and although it seems at its most powerful it is also at its most fragile, described by some economists as a zombie system. Its nemesis will be the urgent need to deal with climate change on a global level, placing environmental issues as the highest priority above promoting corporatism and consumerism.

The provisional wing of art, the art that blended into daily life, has become indistinguishable from other activities including ubiquitous media and the internet. Like the coal industry, the art industry has continued to expand as it has been undermined. In the case of coal, the unstoppable growth of renewables has produced far cheaper ways of generating electricity, sealing its fate. In the case of art the official art industry has been undermined by the growth of the internet and ubiquitous media which has turned the art-into-life credo of radical conceptualism into a normal facet of life.

A large portion of the population now generates their own visual culture on a daily basis and distributes it via YouTube, Facebook , Instagram etc. This is the final formation of the provisional wing of conceptualism, the radical urge to blend art back into daily life. Although it, too, is implicated in the neoliberal project it is also more deeply rooted in widespread human creativity, more about play, less about profit. Ironically, the neoliberal commodification of art produced a situation where those who manufacture official art are not cultural innovators and so are mostly not artists, whereas those who generate their own content mostly don't make official art but are artists by virtue of being cultural innovators.

Most of the components of the internet, as we know it, were in place by the late 1990s and social media around ten years ago. The first effect in art as in many activities is disintermediation, the removal of the intermediaries between the producer and consumer. The organisations of the art world are mostly involved in one aspect or another of the sales, marketing or promotion of cultural product. These are exactly the functions being fatally disrupted by the internet, with its easy and virtually free access to global audiences and support for a wide range of media.

This erosion of their utilitarian functions and gatekeeper role makes the institutions increasingly irrelevant. At best they are reduced to one of many service providers, the exhibition format just one of many possible forms of distribution and disproportionately expensive for the size of audience that it delivers. It is not too hard to argue that, to a large degree, many institutions are also zombie organisations in a zombie economic system, basically already dead but still stumbling around as if they weren't.

If the form of art is no longer distinguishable from normal life it will exist as category for discussion rather than as a category of consumerism, so it will survive longer. If we start talking about all human activity as the soil that must be sifted for the nuggets of art it becomes easier to recognise that the people who should be called artists are those who are most successful at developing our understanding of reality, no matter what media they use to do it.

This changes the nature of any discussion of art into a discussion of cultural memes, of innovation and significance in any and every human activity. Most of the people who have been calling themselves artists can now be seen as small businesses manufacturing decoration or entertainment products, often highly creative but conforming to well-known patterns. The result is an enormous industry producing stuff that looks like art once looked but without much cultural significance beyond the fact that its existence shows how evolutionary processes can be hijacked by parasitic memes.

Treating art as simply a descriptive term, locating the quality of cultural innovation in any human activity, may destroy the mystique of official art but it is a lifeline for the concept of art. Art as cultural memetic innovation is no longer a form of consumerism, and it requires almost no resources, guaranteeing its sustainability into the medium term, the final stages of social collapse. But even the medium term will not be very long, lasting only until our current technological civilisation collapses sometime later this century.

Nothing about humanity is long term. A recent NASA-funded study predicts the collapse of global industrial civilisation within decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution. This is no longer just sci-fi fantasy but a real likelihood.

By then, the whole subject of sustainability will be irrelevant as mass extinction advances. The collapse of global industrial civilisation is not even the worst-case scenario. There is also the likelihood of near-term extinction. We are in a situation where one of our cultural memes, neoliberalism, is waging war on all the life on the planet and the planet is losing. We have entered the Anthropocene Age where humans are actually in control of the future of life on the planet without excuse or backup. There is a deep reluctance to face this fact. At the 21st Century Artist Conference, Artspace, Sydney, in October last year, only myself and one other speaker (out of about 40) made climate change the central issue despite the apparent major role for artists in preparing society for our likely extinction. You can already see this at work in Lars Von Trier's film Melancholia, a beautiful film about the end of the world.

Maybe, just maybe, if a remnant population survives into the long term on a devastated planet it will be a case of love among the ruins in the form of a reparative cultural meme of some sort. Like Hermann Goering, too much talk of culture makes me reach for my Browning. We would not be the first human society to fail, as Browning's Arcadian poem noted, but we would be the first to take a large part of planetary life with us. And it is just possible that small remnants will remain, perhaps a small high tech society will survive that has learned once and for all the lesson of the Anthropocene: that, if we are now in control of nature, we must acquit ourselves with absolute responsibility, through a form of enhanced, adaptive evolutionary process. If we are to survive, it will be by constantly adapting the cultural memes that make human society work. The people who do that are the people who should be described as artists. Sustainability isn’t even an issue here, because cultural adaptation is as natural as eating, breathing, sex. It will continue as long as humans do.

And so, love among the ruins may well be the most optimistic vision of the future that we could have, a love of all life and its amazing ecological weave, where there is no outside, no autonomy, everything is linked. 

Ian Milliss and Lucas Ihlein, Tour of Taranaki Farm, 2011, from the Yeomans Project, Art Gallery of NSW, December 2013. | The Yeomans Project is an interdisciplinary research-based series of activities begun by Ian Milliss in 1975, centred around the work of the Australian agriculturalist, PA Yeomans, whose development of the Keyline System of farming later led to the worldwide permaculture movement. The Yeomans Project is a model for the radical reinterpretation of the role of the artist as cultural activist: 


Ian Milliss is an artist who wishes he could live long enough to participate in the explosion of desperate creativity that will be unleashed by climate catastrophe.

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