Suppose you are tempted to regard artists as particularly positioned and obligated to bear witness, to tell the truth, to lead as the sharp point of inquiry into who we are and where we are going. In that case, you may be feeling, as I am, that that role is harder and harder to manage. It feels as though time has gone on ahead of us and we are being dragged along behind like herring in a trawl. By the time we make our art in response to the times, the times have moved, shapeshifted, and have dragged us through dense, turbid waters where we can’t see or predict. And when we are trying to bear witness as through a glass darkly, frustration encourages anxiety, and then apocalyptic vision. Apocalyptic vision may be as titillating as it is horrifying, and either way, it’s not helpful.
Usually, in my artistic life, I’ve befriended change like an exercise partner. Change proceeded slowly enough that I could trot along, comment on its behavior, engage in conversation, maybe even influence it in some way. I’m still trotting, but change is sprinting ahead. I’m aging, my legs are tired, but my senses are still limber, and they can’t keep up. Time itself seems afflicted with attention deficit disorder, the kinetics of a vituperative “I told you so!”
I think what has happened is that human insistence on economic expansion through environmental exploitation has precipitated a feedback loop which has accelerated time.
And the mechanisms which measure smaller and smaller increments of time seem, now, to be measuring particles of time blowing by like a solar wind. Time speeds up as the time necessary for remediation collapses. The pace of extinctions, storms, meltings, toxifications, population growth, and consumption, and greed is so fast that, by the time we try to comment with art and peer into the future, we’re actually peering into the past and beset with a depressing sense of irrelevance. I said, “I told you so!” because the warnings have been ringing in our ears like tinnitus for centuries. It turns out the music of the spheres was not a chorus of angels but nature crying out in pain.
The diagnosis has to do with our relation to reality. Nature—with its beauty, complexity beyond all understanding, resilience, and ability to heal and evolve—has been shunted onto the track of the bullet train. Nature is our reality, our governor of laws to live by—or else! Our species has set its desire for an aspirational and self-serving reality outside of and above nature’s laws. We are so clever and creative and insatiable, why can’t we create our own reality? We can, but the cost is immeasurable. And it makes the most conscientious and prescient art seem retrograde.
Am I saying it’s absurd now to make art? Not at all. But we need to reenvision our expectations. What we don’t want to be is like the economic system that caused this cataclysm by having only one law—expansion and profit, the cult of more. We can still say where we came from and who we are, but it’s very hard to say where we are going. What we can say is how we are going to get there—as frightened and partisan individuals or supportive communities. Even though artists can’t predict the where, we can predict the importance of the how. That art has never been more relevant and important.
Image at top: Robert Shetterly, Hostage.