In A Distant Mirror (1978), historian Barbara Tuchman observes that we live in “an age of collapsing assumptions.” Even in our brief exchanges, we can see how right she was! We are already reflecting afresh on property, value, and civilization. Yet this is just the beginning of the implications of art like Tino Sehgal’s and of our conversation here.
In the previous round of discussion, one of the questions that arose was, essentially, Can art affect life? What happens if we turn that question on its head and ask: How can and will the current conditions of life affect art? From your last set of comments, I’ve extracted a few principles that suggest how we might shift the way we think about life on Earth—but these ideas might also bear on art:
The idea of the person is resituated. About This Progress, Simran writes, “We participate; we shape the performance—and the performance shapes us. This interconnectedness and interdependency illuminate the value of relationships.” As we adopt this perspective, we re-envision what it means to human and move away from the American idea of possessive individualism. The boundaries of the individual soften and we come to sense that in some ways there is no “other.”
Forging an ethics of connection. Juliet suggests that “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.” We are then forced to rethink ethics. The earth is not a place from which to take as much as we can and dispose of our wastes, toxic and otherwise. It is our home—a place where we can co-create with the living processes that surround us.
Facing up to (un)fairness. Martha points out that “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 the decades since World War II, we have mainly avoided issues of fairness by the false promise that, through growth, a rising tide will lift all ships. Footprint analysis, though not without its problems, shows us that even if the growth model had been true, there is no more room for growth in material consumption because we have exceeded our ecological limits.
With these tenets in mind, I wonder how we might reimagine art for these times. Sehgal presents one model that is more or less in line with the above, but are there others that exemplify values like an interconnected personhood, greater ties to the natural world, and an awareness of the inequalities in the world? To move beyond the world of high art, how might the planetary crisis affect mass-entertainment industries—movies, TV, music, books, and so on? How will increased awareness of our plight affect not only the content of cultural expression—TV network “green weeks” and so on—but also the form?
I’m afraid I’ve never been very good at predicting the future, so I don’t know about my qualifications to take up Peter’s mission of trying to reimagine artistic practice, even in its immediate prospects. And regarding the question of how life affects art—one could turn that around and ask in what fashion, if any, does it not?
One way to examine the relationship between art and life would be from the standpoint of production, as the individual artist’s vision necessarily reflects (even if by conscious negation) the conditions of possibility established by cultural and economic circumstances, training, etc. Another is to think about sites of engagement between art and its multivalent audiences, as the work reverberates thorough countless different contexts. Given that this particular dialogue is hosted by a museum in relation to the work of an artist who crafts very precisely calibrated responses to this institution and its practices, I’d like to offer a few brief thoughts about the current significance of the art museum in a way that balances approbation and critique.
For starters, linking antimaterialism to a critique of consumer society does not apply in the same way to the objects held by the museum, for the simple fact that their entry into the collection means by and large that they have been taken out of market circulation (and controversies about museum deaccessions only show how dearly this principle is held). Looking at a work of art held in a public collection is not the same as privately possessing that object. In this respect the museum is an important forum for public dialogue about art in its full range of forms, from object-based works to dematerialized acts.
Yet it is also important to note that the idealistic pursuit acknowledged through the museum’s nonprofit status is hardly without impact in the for-profit realm. The objects that reside in the museum often have close cousins out in the world, with their value in the super-expensive luxury market conveniently enhanced by the status associated with museum ownership. And the same art institutions that provide viewing access to the general public also serve as elite meeting grounds for their wealthy benefactors.
An interesting way to consider Sehgal’s gambit of emptying out the museum (save for the performers, audience, and museum staff) is that he has highlighted an aspect of the institution that was already one of its distinguishing virtues. Museums do and should continue to present a different sort of experience than a visit to the mall. Discounting for the moment the ubiquitous gift shops and substantial admission fees, museums frame a space for public interaction that is not entirely founded upon a depressingly pervasive equation between leisure time and consumption.
Perhaps the most important change will be that more of us create art. This is already happening through the explosion of creativity that new technologies have facilitated. From YouTube videos to blogging to GarageBand recordings, individuals who are not “artists” are creating and making art and sharing it with others. They may not be making money from it, and they are not full-time artists, but they are exercising their creative faculties. It’s fantastic, not because all the work that is produced is great (it is not), but because it allows people to satisfy deep human urges to create that have been stymied by our capitalist economy.
As I envision a sustainable future, one of the things I am most excited about is a release of labor time from the market economy, or an end to what I’ve called the work-and-spend cycle. In a sustainable economy, people will work fewer hours for pay and have more time to create and connect with each other. Without that time, art does not happen, both because it is time-consuming to produce and because a frenetic lifestyle is not conducive to what it requires.
Of course, we do need a new financial model for art. We are already seeing the collapse of the restrictive profit model in music, publishing, and other cultural outlets. Rapidly changing technologies may well make going back to the world of walled off content impossible. But when so much content is available without cost, how do we support artists? Even if a solution to this problem is not now in view, I am confident that we will find a new way to both make content widely available at low cost and support the people who produce it.
Peter also asks about the larger entertainment world. In addition to having a more decentralized production process with more participation from nonprofessionals, I wonder if we can stem the tide of commercial intrusion into the production of art and culture. The distinction between high and popular art may have disappeared, but the commercial interests driving popular art forms have not abated. Product placements, advertorials, product-driven plot lines, and similar practices are thriving. I’d love to see less of our entertainment geared toward the purchase of products, especially for children, whose cultural landscape has been almost completely colonized by brands.
It’s hard to talk about art you can’t see created by a person you don’t know.
As of yet, I have not seen Tino Sehgal’s exhibition in person. It tests and humbles me to think of how to interpret from afar the situations he fabricates from breath and bone. I struggle to illuminate an exhibition that leaves so little trace. Simultaneously, I recognize that this is the challenge of all storytellers (artists included) trying to make sense of a world outside of their immediate surroundings—and that this is a challenge I face regularly as an environmental writer and activist.
Environmental journalists such as myself strive to make the invisible visible and bring distant concerns to life: the loss of biodiversity in the Amazon, environmental injustice in an inner city, climate change in Topeka and Tuvalu. How do we stretch hearts, expand minds, and widen eyes enough to take in the whole world? Through studies of humanitarian crises, psychologist Paul Slovic has determined that we as a species cannot fathom the enormity of social problems on a global scale. It is only when reducing these challenges to the plight of a single individual are we compelled to act.
While there are inspiring ways to tell stories from afar, participation often begets deeper understanding. This is especially true when trying to articulate environmental challenges. In light of work, chores, kids, laundry, bills, and reruns of American Idol, distant or abstract concerns lose primacy. According to psychologists Patricia Linville and Gregory Fischer, humans swim in “a finite pool of worry.” We cannot hold every care in our consciousness. When concerns about one issue go up, concerns about another go down. In order to engage disparate populations, we must work with frameworks that already exist, in situations that are already familiar, within cares that people already hold.
We cannot miss what we don’t know. So, in the absence of being there (whether witnessing a couple locked in an embrace in Sehgal’s exhibition or watching polar bears struggle on an ice floe), we have to rely on trusted guides. The guide that helped me navigate Sehgal’s work was artist Lorae Russo. Lorae observed that the exhibit challenged the notion of art as a commodified object, yet, as a commissioned piece that visitors paid to access, was still involved in monetary exchange. “Can we challenge the structure and behavior while still participating in the exchange?” she asked. “I say, ‘Yes.’ I had to reassess the definition of art in order to give the benefit of my doubt that it was. There is no such thing as purity or absolutes.”
The stories we share, the stories we witness, the stories we live require continual reassessment. What we knew to be true yesterday may fall away today—and it always exists on a continuum. Sehgal’s truth is the truth of one intimate exchange in one moment in time. Does he limit mediated access because he wants you to trust your own experience? I’m not sure. I guess you had to be there.