Love among the ruins

This article was written for a sustainability themed issue of Artlink magazine, Vol 34 No 4, 2014. This version is as originally written, structured differently to the published version although the content is substantially the same.

Love among the ruins

Is art sustainable? Well of course that depends on whether you mean the official or the provisional wing of art, and whether you mean sustainable in the short, medium or long term. Examining it means writing a history of the future, one that turns out be a bit like Logan’s Run with me as Peter Ustinov, the crazy old cat man sitting in the ruins quoting poetry. But let’s go there, starting with an executive summary and then unpicking it.


  • Art forked in the 70s into two wings. (1).
  • The official wing, the conventional art world (2), administers art as a neo-liberal business model (3)
  • but neo-liberalism, faced with the climate disaster it has created, is only sustainable for the short term, maybe ten to twenty years. (4)
  • The provisional wing of art, the art that blended into daily life, (5) has become indistinguishable from other activities including ubiquitous media and the internet. (6)
  • It will exist as category for discussion (7) rather than as marketable material culture so it will last longer,
  • until our current technological civilisation collapses (8) somewhere in the medium term, later this century.
  • By then the whole subject of sustainability will be irrelevant as mass extinction (9) advances.
  • Maybe, just maybe, if a remnant population survives into the long term on a devastated planet it will be a case of love among the ruins (10) in the form of a reparative cultural meme (11) of some sort but unlikely to be art as we know it.

(1) Art forked in the 70s

In the mid 1970s the fall out from conceptualism split art into two competing practices. The conservatives became the manufacturers and distributors of commodity art and the radicals became integrated with community activism until they simply dissolved into day to day life, the energy of the individuals going into a whole range of culturally innovative activities that are rarely if ever described as art.

Conceptualism raised several problems that forced a major realignment. First there was the formal logic of dematerialisation then the implicit political logic that undermined the idea of art as collectibles. This occurred as the last major flourish of cold war welfare state funding bolstered the growth of museums, art schools and funding organisations. A gulf quickly developed between politicised forms of conceptual art and the punishing and straightening instincts of the newly born arts funding bureaucracies. The early Sydney Biennales for instance faced active hostility from artists demanding 50% women and 50% Australian representation. The ensuing demonstrations and protest meetings involved hundreds of artists and dragged on through the 1970s.

By the 1980s, however, the institutions were regaining control of the unruly artists. The problem the art world was digesting was the tendency of conceptualism to blend art into life, to emphasise that culture was an aspect of all activities rather than a discrete saleable product limited to a narrow range of legitimate media. A concerted return to order was happening with the promotion of institutionally safe forms and confected art movements. The conservative solution was to support traditional forms embellished with the novelty of conceptualist rhetoric, hence appropriation and conceptual painting.

The more politicised artists on the other hand were developing forms that did not involve exhibitions, funding models outside the art market and audiences outside the gallery system. In conventional art world terms many were regarded as having given up art because they no longer produced exhibitable saleable product.

(2) the conventional art world

Art isn’t a real category, like “work” it can be anything. There is a lot of money to be made in controlling the definition at any particular point in time. Post Bordieu, Danto, et al it is generally recognised that the institutional definition of art (“it is art because we say it is art’), the codified version of an understanding that began with the work of Duchamp and the dadaists, is now dominant.

(3) a neoliberal business model

What is not usually said is that the dominance of the institutional definition of art from the 1980s onward became the core of neoliberal commodity art and what it really means is “art is whatever suits our business model”.

Most western societies are ruled by neoliberalism, a corporate regime of extreme capitalism that enforces (with violence if necessary) the condition that all human endeavours must be about making a profit. Art, as conventionally understood, is not an autonomous activity independent of that regime. It is an ideological arm of that regime doing its bit to promote the market as the sole organising principle of economy and society while also decorating and entertaining in its spare time.

The art world has prospered by commissioning activities that conformed to their business model and promoting this as Art. It ranged from the large scale novelty entertainment of biennale art to the bijoux decorative collectibles sold by small galleries. In every case it involved manufacturing to a well known model, hence the rise of appropriation, a guarantee that consumer would not be discomforted by unfamiliarity. Any non conforming practices were simply ignored.

As the art world has perfected itself as a business model it has destroyed itself as a site of cultural innovation, the real business of artists. Unfortunately if the conventional art world is not where cultural innovation is happening then it is no longer significant except as a sociological phenomenon.

(4) maybe ten to twenty years

When people question the sustainability of art what they really question is the sustainability of the contemporary art world. Because a dominant ideology always presents itself as eternal it is usually forgotten how temporary contemporary really is. Most of the components of the contemporary art world were only inflated to their current size in the late 1970s when there was a two party consensus that supporting the arts was a good thing. The most self rewarding way for a government to do that was edifice and organisation building and sponsorship through funding bodies. The neoliberal undermining of government since the 1970s has imposed sponsorship and benefactors on institutions that were previously adequately publicly funded.

The conversion of art into just consumerism has converted cultural workers into just workers. Artists can no longer rely on teaching , for instance, nor are there now other reasonably well paid flexible forms of work, casualisation and the repression of the union movement has destroyed that. As always there is the opiate of the possibility of a brief flash of fashionability, a prize win, a small grant, but these are basically delusions to keep the peon artists supplying cheap exhibition fodder for the institutions and the market. The real money goes to the already rich speculator collectors who are usually buying in the secondary art market, of no benefit to the original producer.

Since the global financial crisis, however, neoliberalism only survives by its rigid control of a two party political theatre where nothing changes no matter who is in power. Despite its anti government rhetoric it depends on massive government subsidisation and although it seems at its most powerful it is also at its most fragile, described by some economists as a zombie system. Its nemesis will be the urgent need to deal with climate change on a global level, placing environmental issues as the the highest priority above corporate issues.

(5) the art that blended into daily life

Like the coal industry the art industry has continued to expand as it has been undermined. In the case of coal the unstoppable growth of renewables has produced far cheaper ways of generating electricity, sealing its fate. In the case of art the official art industry has been undermined by the growth of the internet and ubiquitous media which has turned the art into life credo of radical conceptualism into a normal facet of life.

A large portion of the population now generates their own visual culture on a daily basis and distributes it via youtube, facebook , instagram. This is the final formation of the provisional wing of conceptualism, the radical urge to blend art back into daily life. Although it too is implicated in the neoliberal project it is also more deeply rooted in widespread human creativity, more about play, less about profit. Ironically the neoliberal commodification of art produced a situation where those who manufacture official art are not cultural innovators and so are mostly not artists, whereas those who generate their own content mostly don’t make official art but are artists by virtue of being cultural innovators.

(6) the internet

Most of the components of the internet as we know it were in place by the late 1990s and social media around ten years ago. The first effect in art as in many activities is disintermediation, the removal of the intermediaries between the producer and consumer. The organisations of the art world are mostly involved in one aspect or another of sales, marketing or promotion, of cultural product. These are exactly the functions being fatally disrupted by the internet with its easy and virtually free access to global audiences and support for a wide range of media.

This erosion of their gatekeeper role makes the institutions increasingly irrelevant. At best they are reduced to one of many service providers, the exhibition format just one of many possible forms of distribution and disproportionately expensive for the size of audience that it delivers. It is not too hard to argue that to a large degree many institutions are also zombie organisations in a zombie economic system, a view reinforced rather than contradicted by a world wide surge of expansion – in New York alone MoMA, the Whitney and the Frick are all involved in massive building programs while in Sydney the AGNSW, already resembling a vast mall, is embarking on an enormous extension. This is unsustainable bloat rather than real growth, vigorous organisations tend to stay lean rather than bloat up.

(7) category for discussion

If we start talking about all human activity as the soil that must be sifted for the nuggets of art it becomes easier to recognise that the people who should be called artists are those who are most successful at developing our understanding of reality, no matter what media they used to do it.

This changes the nature of any discussion of art into a discussion of cultural memes, innovation and significance in any and every human activity. Most of the people who have been calling themselves artists can now be seen as small businesses manufacturing decoration or entertainment products, often highly creative but conforming to well known patterns. The result is an enormous industry producing stuff that looks like art once looked but without much cultural significance beyond the fact that its existence shows how evolutionary processes can be hijacked by parasitic memes.

Treating art as simply a descriptive term describing depth of innovation in all human activities may destroy the mystique of official art but is a sustainability lifeline for the concept of art. Art as cultural memetic innovation is no longer a form of consumerism and it requires almost no resources, guaranteeing its sustainability into the medium term, the final stages of social collapse.

(8) until our current technological civilisation collapses

Nothing about humanity is long term. A recent NASA funded study predicts the collapse of global industrial civilisation within decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution. This is no longer sci-fi fantasy, it is a likelihood.

(9) mass extinction

The collapse of global industrial civilisation is not even the worst case scenario. There is also the likelihood of near-term extinction (NTE). We are in a situation where one of our cultural memes, neoliberalism, is waging war on all the life on the planet and the planet is losing. We have entered the Anthropocene Age where humans are actually in control of the future of life on the planet without excuse or backup. There is a deep reluctance to face this fact. At a conference called 21st century Artist that I spoke at last year only myself and one other speaker out of about forty made climate change the heart of our speech. It’s not as if artists have no role in preparing us for our own extinction, you can already see that happening in Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia for instance.

(10) love among the ruins

Like Goering, too much talk of culture makes me reach for my Browning. We would not be the first human society to fail, as Browning’s arcadian poem noted, but we would be the first to take a large part of planetary life with us. And it is just possible that small remnants will remain, in fact perhaps a small hi tech society will survive that has learned once and for all the lesson of the anthropocene, that if we are now in control of nature then we must behave with absolute responsibility.

(11) a reparative cultural meme

And so love among the ruins may well be the most optimistic vision of the future that we could have, a love of all life and its amazing ecological weave, where there is no outside, no autonomy, everything is linked. It is inevitable that any human culture will generate constant cultural change as a type of adaptive evolutionary process. If we were to survive it would be by constantly adapting the cultural memes that make human society work and the people who do that are the people who should be described as artists. Sustainability isn’t even an issue here because it is as natural as eating, breathing, sex. It will continue as long as humans continue.

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