23 May 2009

Art becomes Eco-Conformist

Writing in the times today, Kate Muir announced that eco-art 'will be huge this summer', arguing with typically lame eco-speak that 'Preserving sharks in formaldehyde is over; the days of preserving sharks in the ocean are here." The Barbican is leading the eco-conformist assault with its upcoming exhibition Radical Nature — Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet, followed by Tate Britain's Heaven and Earth, featuring the works of Richard Long. Long in any other age would have been considered an eccentric gardener, today he is considered an accomplished artist by tapping into the sense of insecurity about our 'fragile planet'.

Muir, as ever, knows a lot of big words, but doesn't have a clue how to make meaningful sentences out of them. Like many of her contemporaries, she absorbed a lot of concepts and phrases in college, without really understanding what they signify, but still has the audacity to use such concepts in print. She epitomises that breed of journalists who seem to think that the universe started in 1997, everything prior to that being a giant blob of events and concepts that are too hard to disentangle. This utter unawareness of history comes across in sentences like 'of course, Land Art has been around for ever'. Like, Kate couldn't be bothered to find out, like, when and why.

Muir's complete ignorance is manifested even more painfully in her naive proclamations: '..the new eco-art movement is not merely about the medium, but the message too'. Read: 'on message'. It is not important how banal and mediocre your 'art' is, as long as it is on message, as long as you feel the suffering of Mother Earth in the depths of your soul, and use whatever medium at your disposal to express that pain: sand, snow, rock, and ultimately, and appropriately, manure. Muir is happily preaching us that art will no longer be a selfish endeavour, it shall be put to the service of the great collective eco-whinge, the mighty bout of never-ending eco self-flagellation. Hurrah!

What Muir, and every mediocre curator that has been promoted to a position of responsibility because they are 'on message', doesn't realize is that this vulgar reduction of art to a tool of propaganda is antithetical to the spirit of art. Art has to be free from any such intrusions and demands to be meaningful, art has to revolt and kick back against the prevailing assumptions, and art should never be restrained by the parameters of 'social responsibility'. Art has been used historically as a medium for political protest, but how is that relevant today when everyone has embraced environmentalism? How radical could eco-art be when it is merely repeating what politicians and journalists are constantly babbling about?

Muir's attempt at making eco-art sound heroic are simply pathetic. She tries to portray two artists from Brighton as modern-day revolutionaries, claiming that their 'work exemplifies the combative mood around the country'. And I thought that people are actually worried about losing their jobs and paying their mortgage, silly me. Of course to Muir and her fellow 'organic-wine and fair-trade coffee' 'mentalists, such real-life concerns are not as important as the latest fad in eco-whinging. And this is why she thinks the antics of Hanks and McCurdy, the two eco-artists from Brighton, are examples of radical eco-art.

The pair dabble in the sort of art that bored teenagers and pensioners on holiday usually do, except that they don't think of it normally as art: writing on snow and bio-degradable graffiti. Their cause? Brighton beach is dirty and polluted, plastic is to blame. In a heroic feat, they visit parliament to lobby on behalf the Marine Conservation Society, then they flip their T-shirts, selflessly showing their bras in the process, to reveal messages about the dirty beach. Muir is nearly in tears at this moment, 'as MPs fiddled their expenses in the background and the planet burnt'. Drama straight out of Hollywood.

Of course the real message is: we are two smug, self-centred attention seekers who will do anything to get a bit of attention. That anyone could imagine that this has anything to do with art, or even politics, is a sign of how low public discourse these days is. And how degraded both art and politics have become, allowing such trivial concerns to grab media attention. Yet there is a danger in this trend to tame art and turn it into a medium for channeling social responsibility.

Firstly, there's the unbearable prospect of art being judged not on its intrinsic merits, but in terms of how much it serves a bigger cause. For the record, this is what Fascism historically did, it appropriated art for its own needs. Simply because we imagine eco concerns to be a more noble cause does not justify such an appropriation. Secondly, there's the even more serious prospect of a rigidly conformist society where dissent is not tolerated. Art should strive to liberate itself from the demands of conformity, when it starts seeking to be conformist, we know we are in trouble.

Kate Muir relishes the prospect of eco-art taking center-stage, but this is based on a completely wrong understanding of the nature of art and the parameters within which it operates. The logic of environmentalism has been internalised by the political classes and the media, and there are hardly any dissenting voices these days. Co-opting art into this un-questioning arrangement will not help matters at all, but will lead to more of the banal art that justifies its mediocrity through its important 'message'. In a civilised society we should not tolerate mediocrity, art should strive for excellence not conformity.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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