To frame the next phase of discussion, I’d like to draw upon a metaphor from historian Richard Hofstadter, who in his 1948 book TheAmerican Political Tradition wrote that societies that perceive themselves to be successful “do not foster ideas that are hostile to their fundamental working arrangements. Such ideas may appear, but they are slowly and persistently insulated, as an oyster deposits nacre around an irritant.”
Is Martha suggesting that Sehgal’s work is like the grain of sand to our culture’s oyster, an irritant encapsulated while the organism continues to grow and prosper? In our culture, nothing is allowed to disrupt what Juliet rightly calls the “autistic” economy. Consume! is the mantra of our time—with little regard to the consequences.
Is there a way to pluck the pearl prompted by Sehgal from the autistic oyster and make it part of a beautiful string? Here are some possibilities inspired by the first round of responses:
Rethinking property. One such pearl is suggested by Martha’s anecdote about Donald Judd—the idea that having lawyers resolve a contract dispute brings one “within the door of the insane asylum.” Sehgal’s work opens a wider perspective on the asylum. The American legal system is based on strong property rights without corresponding responsibilities. Sehgal sets up a dialectic that questions the very existence of ownership: I see a relationship between an artwork that lives only in memory and the notion of a transitory planetary stewardship that “walks lightly on the Earth,” as some Native American cultures put it. As Juliet points out, it resonates deeply with the growing revulsion at the tragic “destruction of our planetary home” and, as Simran notes, the need to reduce our footprint.
Rethinking valuing. But we must also note that valorization in our culture is understood in economic terms—and Juliet is right that Sehgal has turned the tables on it. Despite Simran’s observation that nature is widely valued in our culture, the public religion of our time is an economics of unlimited growth—in the dominant paradigm, nature is at best a collection of “services” subject to dollar values. Hence a second pearl is the idea that we need a new theory of value—a narrative that, in environmental ethics pioneer Aldo Leopold’s phrase, “changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”
Rethinking civilization. Sehgal’s radical immaterialism forces us to face up to the poverty of our fundamental goals. “Sustainability” is like the oyster’s pearl, encapsulating the irritant to allow the rampage of the autistic economic system. It suggests that we need to do what we are already doing—just fairer and better. But our hubris is without limit—we aim to reengineer animals to suit our farming techniques rather than constrain our desires in the name of compassion and respect. If the human project is to be worthy of preservation, we must seek a new relationship with life and the world. This would be a pearl of wisdom beyond measure.
In Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the harbinger of rebirth arises miraculously from a (clam, not oyster) shell. But Earth’s prospects are in our hands. Is there any real chance that we can and will turn aside? What role can art play in our salvation—if indeed we can be saved?
Peter ends his post with an impassioned vision of an engaged art—a veritable hope for salvation. I’d like to step back for a moment and think about what aspect of Tino Sehgal’s This Progress might fulfill his dream.
First there’s the working method itself, centered around a process of engagement that refuses written contracts and documentation. But it is important to think about how knowledge of this method is imparted. The audience is aware of it from hearing about the work in newspaper articles, literature provided by the museum, and various other conduits. Yet even though the process generates the work, it’s not the ostensible subject of the performance taking place in the museum.
Then there’s the experience of the interaction, which will be different for each participant. It will vary according to what audience members bring to the conversation, and also because the performers clearly enjoy a certain latitude about how they want to frame the issue of progress. Opening gambits I experienced (pertaining to the diminishing quality of handwriting in the face of computer literacy or changes to New York’s architectural fabric) were not the same as those described in accounts I’ve read.
So when we talk about the impact of This Progress, are we considering our individual, imperfect memories of specific conversations, or are we discussing knowledge we have acquired apart from our walks up the spiral about the work’s intangible existence? I realize it may not be a strictly either/or situation, but it’s important to recognize these two different threads—the individual experience and the abstract concept of a working method.
Regarding the potential for art to change the world, I’m torn between optimism and cynicism. Research is a very important part of contemporary art, and often that research shines a light on phenomena or mechanisms that would otherwise remain only narrowly familiar. Yet there is always the question of what audience is thus addressed.
To invoke a different example, when Emily Jacir used her American passport to fulfill wishes of other Palestinians who did not have the same freedom of movement, the requests she documented in Where We Come From poignantly illustrated the unequal privileges attached to the accident of citizenship. The freedom of movement enjoyed by Americans is not directly equivalent to Simran’s point about our disproportionate ecological footprint, yet both involve a connection between individual privilege and the umbrella of state power.
In relation to Juliet’s observation about the significance of economic value, one might make an analogous point about artistic authorship, and what it means to define otherwise ambiguous or hard-to-categorize actions as art. A provocation defined as a work has the potential to remain in circulation for much longer than one perceived as random or inexplicable. Yet it also runs the danger of having some of its puzzling or disquieting elements explained away once it has been safely classified as art.
Peter invites us to rethink property, which is essential if we are to accomplish the task he sets out at the end of his post: human and planetary salvation. Political economy, Sehgal’s earlier field of study, teaches that the core of a capitalist economy is the concentration of property in the hands of a few. This trend has accelerated with stunning speed. In 2000, the top 1% of the world’s population held 40% of its wealth. The top 10% held 85%. And the bottom half of global inhabitants had just 1%. We need a radical change in human connection to land and other productive resources. As climatic and resulting economic instability grows, meeting basic needs of food, water, and shelter for people around the world will become more difficult. The key factor is access, whether it’s access to land, money, software, or energy.
Sehgal’s audience will be primarily those whose connection to property is secure—people who frequent art museums and galleries. It seems that he is attempting to move them to a different conception of wealth, as ideas, conversation, and connections among people rather than physical or material flows or objects. This is essential in ecological terms. Since 1980, global economic activity has led to the extraction of 45% more material from the earth annually, and now comprises in excess of 60 billion tons a year. In the United States alone, material extracted amounts to a hard-to-fathom 362 pounds per person per day. The rise of the information sector, which is far less materials-intensive than manufacturing, represents an important possibility for reducing material, and ecological, impact. Sehgal’s work is the artistic analogue to the open-source, peer-created production model that is thriving in the online world.
Even with reduced reliance on materials, we will still need to tap land, water, forests, energy and other resources. To do so sustainably, their monopolization by a minority cannot continue. We need a psychological shift in our relation to those material assets. Those who own and control this wealth must recognize that we need a new way of using and, indeed, sharing it. Seghal’s art invites people to step out of a grasping, self-interested mode into an other-regarding connection. When it works, this approach forges relationships, among humans and with the earth. That is art at its most sublime and revolutionary.
Survival and salvation is the crucial question Peter raises at the end of his post. The collapse of the Copenhagen treaty, the inability to get a climate bill through Congress, and the continuing failure to acknowledge imminent threats to the planet are rooted in entrenched inequalities. An unfair world breeds conflicts, mistrust, and destruction. A world of conversation, connection, and new ideas like Sehgal’s art seems to propose is one that respects every person’s viewpoint, presence, and right to participate. That respect is a principle of political economy we must insist on.
Thanks to Peter for his pearls of wisdom! I would like to start by clarifying that I believe we all care about our natural world but that our relationships to the food we eat, the fossil fuels we burn, and the countless other ways we consume natural resources have become strained. While we certainly have differences in why we care and how we express it, I believe a deep-seated biophilia exists in all of us. We have an intrinsic understanding that nature heals. Rampant logging, factory farming, and toxic dumping are all reflections of our disconnect from the natural world, as we sit sequestered in offices and lounging on couches, watching Discovery Channel instead of going out and discovering.
One of my greatest frustrations as an environmental journalist is combating assumptions that one group of people (say, hippy tree huggers or wealthy liberals) care about the environment while other groups do not (people of color, poor folks, conservatives). It is imperative that we recognize the universality of our needs for clean air and water, healthy food and soil, and safe, thriving communities. This recognition enables us to work across racial/geopolitical/socioeconomic divides to solve our most pressing environmental challenges.
The greatest obstacles to solving our problems are structures that keep us disengaged from environmental and social cares. Economic indicators like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ignore the greatest sources of wealth within our society: healthy individuals, intellectual curiosity, enduring communal bonds. GDP does not distinguish between revenues generated by admission to college or to prison, and it sets the intrinsic value of our natural resources at zero. We only count these resources when we have to pay to clean them up—or turn them into commodities to serve our needs. In this paradigm, which Peter alluded to, nature only counts when we use it or abuse it.
The term “environs” comes from the French root virer, “to turn.” It relates to the surroundings, or circle, in which something stands. Until the 1950s, the definition of the environment pertained to everything around us. Today, the word has a spin that puts humanity in the center and defines nature as in service to us. The ways in which we have defined who is an environmentalist, and who is not, have resulted in some people feeling that they are outside of the circle rather than part of it. Yet this anthropocentric identification has the potential to make us all shapers of our natural world and, by extension, stewards of its care. Tino Sehgal’s work happens to explore just such a responsibility. We participate; we shape the performance—and the performance shapes us. This interconnectedness and interdependency illuminate the value of relationships and allow us to count what really counts.