What Use is Art?

'What does modernity cost, and who pays for it?' In the light of recent climate protests, Mat Osmond considers the disabling rhetoric of emergency, the role of art as a 'life-cherishing force’ and what it entails to hold ourselves accountable to a generation facing catastrophe.
is a writer and illustrator based in Falmouth, Cornwall and has been a Dark Mountain contributor since 2009. Mat’s recent work includes a book of poems and pictures co-produced with the artist Kate Walters, The Black Madonna’s Song , by Atlantic Press. In November 2021 he convened a creative summit with art.earth in Dartington, Borrowed Time: On Death, Dying and Change.

Tell the truth. Act as if the truth is real.

 –  Extinction Rebellion 2018 

Here in the UK the past few weeks have witnessed a new turn in the faltering cultural response to biospheric collapse. Three years after the first wave of School Strikes, the same generation has taken to occupying oil infrastructure, invading Premier League football matches and Formula One race-tracks, and are now glueing themselves to landmark artworks in galleries across the country.

As I write, two of these young Just Stop Oil activists – Hannah and Eben, pictured – have just entered London’s National Gallery and placed an adapted version of Constable’s The Hay Wain over the original, before supergluing their palms to its gilt frame. Calling on UK art institutions to join them in civil resistance, the online banner for their action asks us, with Big Oil now considered  more valuable than culture, heritage, human bodies, home, more valuable than the beautiful web of life on Earth, What Use is Art?

Given what the young and anyone else listening are hearing every day now about the future being prepared for their generation, Just Stop Oil’s campaign feels both timely and inevitable  –  as does the mounting sense of desperation which these escalating tactics bear witness to. If anyone thinks they have a better or more intelligent plan as we watch our interlocked societies heading directly towards intergenerational catastrophe, I’d like to hear it. And in taking Hannah and Eben’s question seriously – what use is art? – we need to consider what it entails to hold ourselves, our practices and our institutions fully accountable to that growing desperation.

 Paralysis

 We are living off expired or expiring stories.

 – Hospicing Modernity, Vanessa Machado de Oliveira 

What happened with the Netflix release of Adam Mckay’s Don’t Look Up last winter still fascinates me. Not the film itself so much as the nerve it touched. As the critics lined up to write it off as so much heavy-handed sermonising, the film immediately and thoroughly smashed Netflix’s online streaming record. Not, it seems, because of a thirst for apocalypse porn. There were plenty of more lurid examples of that the same year which got no such attention. Might it be that the unexpected surge of interest in Don’t Look Up reflected not simply a growing anticipation of disaster but an already-present state of paralysis, alienation, and meaninglessness? It’s in its address to this resigned foreboding – the minority world’s pervasive condition of ‘reflexive passivity’, to borrow a phrase from cultural theorist Mark Fisher – that we see what McKay’s satire gets right about climate catastrophe, and what it gets wrong, or just omits to mention.

These stories about anthropogenic ecological collapse clearly matter: they occupyus, shaping for better or worse our notions of what ‘responding’ actually requires of us

These stories about anthropogenic ecological collapse clearly matter: they occupy us, in both senses of that word, shaping for better or worse our notions of what ‘responding’ actually requires of us. And it’s into this contested space that activism, art and education all enter the fray – for better or worse. Of the stories now circulating within and among us, the one that keeps catching my ear – one I now hear voiced by both children and adults, by professors of ecological, climate and social sciences, by writers and artists, by exhausted activists and by their sneering online hecklers – can be spoken in three words.

It’s too late.

The more I hear this narcoleptic story, the more it strikes me that the seemingly intractable state of passivity it voices feeds parasitically on proclamations of ever-decreasing deadlines, with their drop-what-you’re-doing short term urgency. Especially when the deadlines in question happen to be crushingly true. What to do?

Unthinkable

 Every member of my immediate and extended family has struggled with anxiety, depression, addiction. Tragedy resists truth-telling almost as much as it demands it.’

 – This Sad Little House: on mourning in America, Hal Niedzviecki 

 If Don’t Look Up temporarily bookends a growing collection of modern eco-fables, what story would you place at the other end of that shelf? Of the places we might begin to track this ongoing conversation with despair and its opposite, I want to step back 80 years to the 1942 publication of a much-loved classic of children’s picture-books, Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House.

Illustration from THE LITTLE HOUSE by Virginia Lee Burton. Copyright © 1942 by Virginia Lee Demetrios. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. (from Issue 11)

 Burton’s tale speaks of a happy cottage on a green hill, surrounded by nature and well-being, around which, by degrees, a modern city builds up until the now sad little house is completely hemmed in by urban frenzy. One day the grandchild of the house’s previous occupant recognises her beloved little house, pops it on the back of a trailer and takes it off to a new and equally charmed green hill.

 I encountered Burton’s story through the Canadian writer Hal Niedzviecki. Writing in 2016 as Trump was sweeping to power, Niedzviecki suggests that The Little House voices a nostalgic hope no longer available to citizens of industrial consumer societies: that 80 years on there now remains no conceivable possibility of reversing the escalating global devastation which has followed the book’s publication. Niedzviecki’s short essay concerns a specific sense in which this mounting loss, as Indian-born writer Amitav Ghosh puts it, remains even now curiously unthinkable. As the grandchild of Jewish refugees whose entire extended families were murdered in European death camps, Niedzviecki has an unchosen intimacy with the realities of intergenerational trauma, and of the ways in which such trauma’s damaged and damaging legacy becomes functionally unthinkable, and unspeakable. ‘Tragedy resists truth telling almost as much as it demands it.’

Drawing on the Old Testament’s tempered literacy in mourning, Niedzviecki makes the case for a renewed culture of lament – for a discourse of grief adequate to the unspoken condition of our shared lives. As an insight rooted in a specific and troubled family legacy, his take on Burton’s story brings to mind eco-philosopher Timothy Morton’s proposition, spoken in relation to the English poet John Clare, that depression, far from being a distorting bias that impedes a clear apprehension of ecological crisis, in fact offers us the most accurate lens through which to view it.

A Spiritual Crisis

On a planet with a biosphere, what’s education for?

 – Earth in Mind: on education, environment, and the human prospect, David Orr

In 1994 the US environmentalist and educator David Orr published Earth in Mind, a collection of essays that revolve around his own troubling realisation, as a lifelong lecturer and academic, that the Higher Education knowledge economy of his day was proliferating in close step with a global ecological collapse that, far from being solved by this educational flourishing, was in large part being driven by it.

‘On a planet with a biosphere,’ Orr asks us, ‘what’s education for?’

Speaking to us across 40  years of accelerating mass-extinction, Orr notes the confusion inherent in referring to this as an ‘ecological’ crisis, as if what was lacking here was an adequate grasp of ecology:

For all that we do not know,’ Orr muses, ‘we know without question that we are rapidly unravelling ecosystems and destabilising the biosphere with consequences that cannot be good … Why then, do we find it so difficult to do what is merely obvious and necessary?’ 

Orr’s conclusion is that what we face would be more accurately named a political crisis. His observations are all the more terrifying for when they’re written, but ‘political’ doesn’t quite get us there either. ‘A spiritual crisis’ might bring us closer, inasmuch as that slippery word turns us toward the root of the matter: how is it that minority world citizens have so normalised destroying Earth’s miraculous web of speciation? Knowing what biospheric collapse means for complex human societies – which is to say, for everything and everyone we love, value or need – how is it that these societies seem not to mind?

Hospice

For the mind is busy in a house of its own, which house it calls the universe. And how can there be anything outside the universe?

 – Kangaroo, D.H. Lawrence

Coming to these questions as empty-handed as the next person, I seem to spend a lot of my time listening for voices who might help me respond to them. Once such is Brazilian academic and activist Vanessa Machado de Oliveira (aka Vanessa Andreotti). Having been influenced by her thought for several years, a few of us here in Cornwall have begun to work more systematically with the pedagogic project Oliveira launched in 2021: Hospicing Modernity.

Modernity, as spoken of here, refers to a way of living that normalises and conceals an innate structural and racialised violence. This violence, now catastrophically globalised by five centuries of European settler-colonialism (as brilliantly set out in Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse), has remained ongoing ever since the colonial genocides which accompanied the European Enlightenment. The Hospicing Modernity project understands this traumatising, extractive shadow of modernity to be inseparable from our deepening ecological crisis. It sees modernity as we know it to be inherently and radically unsustainable: ‘beyond reform’.

In its systemic whole modernity is referred to more precisely, with the Peruvian scholar Anibal Quijano, as ‘modernity/coloniality’. Lest we confuse modernity with whatever privileges it may happen to have bestowed on us, Quijano’s term functions as a reminder to keep in view a more fundamental question about the broken and stolen ground it stands upon: What does modernity cost, and who pays for it?

Developed through Oliveira’s ongoing collaborations with indigenous communities in South American and other zones of ‘high intensity struggle’, the project’s core generative metaphor, The House Modernity Built, offers a framework for reparative adaptation to the all-encompassing predicament that globalised modernity has become. In Oliveira’s analysis modernity is approached as an example of what is known in indigenous thought as ‘a worlding story’. In distinction to our various ‘wording’ stories – the maps of meaning by which we interpret, predict and seek to control our lived experience – a worlding story operates autonomously within our shared lives. It forms a ‘complex adaptive living system’ that actively conditions ‘the habits of knowing and being of those whose lives and livelihoods are intertwined with it’. Modernity is therefore approached in Oliveira’s work not as a ‘what’, but as a ‘who’ – a dying mycelial entity that variously and unevenly occupies humans throughout and beyond the minority world, and in whose inevitable and even necessary death processes all are now entangled.

Intended as a tool to help us navigate this dying, Oliveira speaks of The House Modernity Built as an ‘entity map’ – one whose purpose is ‘not to represent something already visible, but to do work in the world by surfacing what is unconscious, invisibilised, and naturalised, and moving things within and between us’. In this sense, she tells us, the evolving map invites us ‘into an aesthetic experiment where we can un-numb and activate other senses in order to experience reality in a different way – intellectually, affectively, and relationally’.

 

Tools

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

 – Audre Lorde 

As you’ll have guessed by now if you’re familiar with the quote, The House Modernity Built was inspired by the self-described ‘black lesbian mother warrior poet’ Audre Lorde, who observed back in 1979 what can and cannot be achieved using ‘the master’s tools’.

The tools which Hospicing Modernity seeks to foster don’t concern the practical and strategic goals that characterise effective civil resistance. Guided by an ethic of ‘co-sensing with radical tenderness’, they foreground instead adaptive relational capacities such as honesty, humility, humour, hyper-self-reflexivity. For those turning to meet this crisis from within zones of ‘low intensity struggle’ – where engaging in arrestable civil resistance, for instance, is a choice we can step back from as and when we feel like it – they include a willingness to tolerate and even befriend our own inherent ridiculousness.

This is not to suggest that nonviolent civil resistance offers too blunt or literal-minded a tool, or that we should be eschewing disruptive campaigns like Just Stop Oil in favour of more ‘positive’, grown-up or critical approaches. With a broken political system now actively choosing to hand down a legacy of ‘grief without end’, as Jennifer Abbott’s film The Magnitude of All Things put it last year, it is to propose precisely the opposite. Lorde’s warning might now be applied at least as usefully to the radical complacency of pretending that the omnicidal Master’s House might yet be dismantled by a further proliferation of academia – which, as Oliveira observes, is carefully structured so as to critically invigorate modernity without presenting any substantial threat to its continued operation.

Our one real certainty is that failing to interrupt the fossil fuel economy’s continued escalation will without doubt make things exponentially worse.

Less still is this about quibbling the predictive tools of climate science. However bad this situation may appear to be, our one real certainty is that failing to interrupt the fossil fuel economy’s continued escalation will without doubt make things exponentially worse. What prompted this essay was just noticing the effect these do-or-die deadlines have on me – have always had on me, since I first began hearing ‘how long we have left to act’ a couple of decades ago. Twelve years, five years, three years. The trouble with this perfectly reasonable science-led framing of the crisis is the impure thought it breeds, usually relegated to unspoken 3am misery. As we hear endlessly-repeated admonishments concerning what should happen, what must happen, we find our gaze straying back to what is actually happening. 

What this does concern, then, is how we understand the living ground we stand on, come what may, and the reparative work that ground calls us to. It concerns the ways in which humans will foster and sustain these intergenerational processes of repair when the once-relevant motivational tool of the unarrived deadline has become unavailable to us. For all the urgency of our predicament, another of Lorde’s remarks – that she’d always understood her life’s work to be planting a tree which she herself would not live to sit in the shade of – seems no less relevant to our present need.

Here, then, is my provisional reply to Hannah and Eben’s question. What use is art? Art provides the sustenance we need for that work. Art isn’t simply words, pictures, sounds; less still ideas, concepts, meanings. The language of art is ‘a life-cherishing force’, as Mary Oliver once said of poetry, a tool that provides us with ‘fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost’, something as necessary to us relational hominids ‘as bread in the pockets of the hungry’.

Writing in 1939 as Europe hovered on the brink of all-out War, British-American poet, W.H. Auden, also noted that there have always been a hundred far more urgent matters for poets to be giving their time to, but fortunately that’s never quite stopped them from writing poems.

With admiration and gratitude for Just Stop Oil’s call to their fellow citizens, what it may be too late for is any further talk of deadlines. Ironically, this rhetoric might actually be distracting us from the gathering wind these budding civil resistance movements have at their back as they face down the juggernaut of Big Oil. If they have a superpower on their side in that stand-off, I don’t believe ‘fear’ or even ‘desperation’ names it. The energy and determination of these activists feels far more positive than that. What these campaigns hold out to the young and all of us is a means by which to shrug off the passive foreboding endemic to modernity’s cannibal economy. They invite all of us to open our eyes to what’s happening, and to then join with others in reasserting our common humanity – and it’s surely here that they draw their durability, volatility and strength.

Art’s not simply useful to that healing, it’s essential. If artists were somehow persuaded to drop what they’re doing, and to thus leave activists unequipped to hospice the expired worlding story which yet inhabits them, if they somehow found themselves no longer moved to envision what lies beyond it, it’s probably safe to assume modernity would find some fiendishly clever way to finish the job it started, with or without fossil fuels. 

What such tools look and feel like, and what it means to actively cultivate them, begins another conversation. When I look for where that conversation finds me, I keep coming back with writers. I can think of no better place to start it than with Audre Lorde’s 1977 essay, ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’. ‘Our children’, Lorde tells us, ‘cannot dream unless they live, they cannot live unless they are nourished, and who else [but poetry] will feed them the real food without which their dreams will be no different from ours?’.

All well and good. But lest any of us imagine we might afford ourselves the luxury of ‘just making art’ as our world ignites around us, Lorde’s next sentence returns us to the burning ground we now stand on, and to the mounting desperation we began with. ‘“If you want us to change the world someday, we at least have to live long enough to grow up!” shouts the child.’

 

To join the growing campaign to end all new UK oil field licences: /juststopoil.org/ 

To call on your institutions and unions to do likewise: weallwanttojuststopoil.com/ 

 

Sources

Hal Niedzviecki This Sad Little House: on mourning in America, The Dark Mountain: Issue 11, Spring 2017

Orr, David, Earth in Mind: on education, environment and the human prospect, Island Press 2004 (first published 1994)

 Machado de Oliveira, Vanessa, Hospicing Modernity: facing humanity’s wrongs and the implications for social activism, North Atlantic 2021

 Ghosh, Amitav, The Nutmeg’s Curse: parables for a planet in crisis, John Murray 2021

 Oliver, Mary, A Poetry Handbook, HMH Books 1994

 Lorde, Audre, Your Silence Will Not Protect You, Silver Press 2017

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 21

Our Spring 2022 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that revolves around the theme of confluence

 

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