This is the first of a three-part post. Part II can be found here and part III is forthcoming.
What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!
– Bertolt Brecht, ‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake’ (1939)
Some months ago, after hurricane Dorian devastated the northern Bahamas, as one of several recent environmentally linked catastrophies, I had started to write a post about climate change and the Caribbean art world. For various reasons I did not finish it at that time but the Corona pandemic has driven me back to reflecting on the subject, albeit from a different perspective. Because the pandemic is, at a fundamental level, part of the broader environmental crisis that is engulfing us, as it stems from our rapacious stewardship of natural resources and a globalized lifestyle which is increasingly unsustainable. Our encroachment of natural habitats appears to have been a major factor in the emergence of the virus, while its rapid, global spread is linked to the intensive international travel patterns that shape our globalized world.
We live in an age of deep narcissism and thoughtless aspirational conduct — FOMO, YOLO, brand consumerism, and all — that has invaded all aspects of life, from personal relationships to politics. The current call for social distancing will require us to delve deeply into our reserves of personal resilience and self-reliance but this should be no excuse to to act with the sort of self-absorption and selfishness that has so become entrenched in our culture, as this will only contribute to the escalating crisis. The loathsome attacks on people of Asian descent that have been reported in various parts of the world will hopefully not be the start of new, detrimental waves of ethnic cleansing, or violence against those who are perceived to carry the illness or have coveted resources. We are in this together and our survival as a supposedly intelligent species may very well depend on our willingness and ability to think and act collectively, with wisdom, empathy, and foresight.
The current moment calls for reflection on many levels, in addition to the urgent immediate actions. In fact, it calls for major cultural changes. It is a moment in which many of our collective and individual priorities, actions, and responsibilities will have to be reconsidered, along with possibly our entire way of life. If we don’t, what is happening now — pandemic and climate disasters alike, along with the social disruption and conflict that inevitably accompany such events — will happen again and again, and worse every time, until human civilization ends.
The reality we all need to face is that the Anthropocene is in a deep, self-inflicted and possibly epoch-ending crisis. And, arguably, so is Capitalism, as the ethos that shapes its economic and social power dynamics. The much-feared recession has already commenced but it may be the start of much more than that: the possible end of a socio-economic dispensation that has proven to be unsustainable and fundamentally inequitable, and that is a root cause of the current crisis. Or perhaps it won’t and Big Capitalism will, once again, turn out to the biggest winner, at least in the short term — stimulus packages are being clamoured for by some of its biggest, most well-resourced exponents, along with calls for full economic activities to resume despite the anticipated human cost, while profits are no doubt already being made off the crisis or at least planned for. But that, in itself, will make its deep failings and injustices more visible than ever, and perhaps more likely to be decisively challenged. Such challenge is already emerging, for instance in the current #notdying4wallstreet call for a national strike in the USA, which almost immediately went viral on social media. We may soon find that the winds of revolution are blowing.
Because, as the outrageously irresponsible media briefings by certain political leaders drive home on a daily basis, the present moment is also a crisis of political leadership that puts into question the way in which modern democracies work, and the way in which they serve the economic interests of privileged elites rather than their nominal constituents, the mass of their voters. Democratic governance, too, is in deep crisis and it is time for major political reform, driven by new ideas, insights and priorities. We just cannot continue like this, generally speaking, and the Corona virus pandemic is our first major global confrontation with that reality. It is a warning we cannot afford to ignore.
Mythology is, at its best, a repository of human wisdom and I have been reminded in recent weeks of the story of Pandora’s box (or, more correctly, Pandora’s jar). When all the plagues and calamities had leapt out, there was one thing left at its bottom: hope — a most important resource since as humans, we are ultimately creatures of hope, who are propelled by our ability to imagine our futures against the challenges of the present. Unless the current crisis leads to complete societal collapse, which is not impossible, good things can perhaps come out of it, in terms of fostering, or indeed forcing, a new, more sustainable and balanced way of living on, and with our planet, and with each other.
What we will need at a foundational level, to move forward productively, is our creativity and our imagination. The arts have been among the first casualties of the pandemic. Museums, galleries and art schools have closed; art fairs, exhibitions, plays and music performances are postponed or cancelled. For most audiences, this means that all face-to-face, live interaction with the arts has been suspended, even though some of that has moved online. This may in fact help to foster innovative practices and more diverse audience engagement, so the picture is not necessarily all negative, but the economic implications are significant and complex, and hard to assess at this point.
Cultural institutions are already complaining that their revenues have been slashed and are clamouring for bailouts and other state support. While there is no doubt that certain institutions are at risk, and need to be supported, the situation is arguably far more dire on the ground. Many artists, and the cultural professionals who work closely with them, are self-employed and have only limited financial reserves and, often, no health insurance. They are among the most vulnerable in the current economic downturn, especially if their contributions are not recognized as essential. In the more affluent parts of the world, there are arts councils and foundations that have provisions to support cultural practitioners in such times of crisis, and the State is also being called upon to assist. Some Covid-19 rescue packages have already been announced such as the 106 million Pound Sterling committed by the Arts Council England. But in most of the general economic stimulus packages that are being devised in response to the pandemic, the arts do not even register, except for in obvious and direct profit-making contexts such as tourism. The non-profit side of the art world is far less likely to receive such support. These issues will require their own interventions and activism, especially in places where economic resources are scarce and where the arts not usually treated as a priority, lest a lot that is of tremendous cultural value be lost.
To many, art may indeed seem like a frivolity, a welcome source of (virtual) distraction and entertainment perhaps, but something that is ultimately non-essential and can easily be done without. Whether or not art is a necessity in desperate times however depends on how art is defined and viewed, and how it functions and positions itself in society, and that too will require some fundamental rethinking. I am not fond of prescriptive approaches to art but there are times when the social roles of art gain more urgency and now is one such.
The international art market — the aspirational, hyped-up traveling circus of fairs and biennials; of celebrity artists, curators, critics, and collectors; of sycophantic, uncritical brokered write-ups in equally compliant major art publications; and of mega-record-yielding auctions and sensational acquisitions by mystery “Ultra-High-Net-Worth Individuals” — is hardly a model of sustainability and in many ways it is part of the problem. And this complicity with power and Big Capitalism further fuels the view that art is, at its essence, nothing more than a luxury commodity, to be enjoyed by a disconnected elite, and not an essential presence in our world.
The embroilment of art with Big Capitalism exists in uneasy tension with the equally prevalent notion of the artist as a social activist, who heroically talks back to power, asks uncomfortable questions, and challenges the status quo. This is however often more evident in the content of contemporary art than in the manner it circulates economically. To use the words of Annie Godfrey Larmon, in what has become one of my favourite quotes, we have to ask:
How can [art] participate in networks of power that its content willfully rejects? Often, so-called ‘political art’ simply aestheticises protest or resistance. Sometimes, it has the effect of moral licensing – instilling in its viewer a false sense of having accomplished something. Art and power have always been begrudging bedfellows.
There has been an activist groundswell recently that has questioned the association between (art) museums, political power, ideology, and socially nefarious business practices. It is interesting, however, that this has been almost exclusively and vociferously targeted at museums and far less at the art market, which is just as culpable in terms of its association with the interests that are being challenged. Is it that many artists do not want to bite the hand that feeds them? I am reminded of a recent cartoon in which a fictional artist was scathingly described as an “art fair activist.” Right now, more than ever, is a moment where artists and other cultural practitioners will have to consider where they stand on these issues, and make firm and unambiguous decisions about what they are able and prepared to do. This is not a time for opportunistic behaviour. Choices have to be made.
I had selected an excerpt from the Bertolt Brecht poem To Those Who Follow in Our Wake as epigraph for the previous version of this post, after Hurricane Dorian, because I wanted to introduce a play on its words, arguing that it had now become a crime not to speak about trees, in the midst of our climate catastrophe. I decided to keep it for the present version because the entire poem speaks eloquently to the social responsibilities of artists in times of crisis, a question with which Brecht himself was acutely confronted at the start of World War II. And I also share my rather awkward attempt at a poetic pun because it remains relevant with regards to the pandemic, which is, after all, part of a broader environmental catastrophe, a point that cannot be emphasized enough.
To Those Who Follow in Our Wake speaks to artists being called upon to serve as witnesses to history and as the conscience of society. Artists before us have done it, often at their own peril, and have produced in the process some of the most powerful and memorable works of art in history, that made a difference in their own time and continue to speak across time, geographical distance and social difference. While the specifics are different, the similarities between the times of Brecht and our own are troubling — the emerging political position that lives must be risked to salvage the very economic dispensation that brought us to the current point is simply grotesque and reveals the depth of the problem we all face. The task ahead of us is enormous and the most eloquent and courageous creative imaginations of our era must be called upon to go to work urgently, to question and challenge what is happening now and to imagine and inspire a better future — the hope that is still left at the bottom of Pandora’s box.
Click here for part II.