On the Ambivalence of Art for a Transition to Sustainability



On the Ambivalence of Art for a Transition to Sustainability

Davide Brocchi on the almost right
Davide Brocchi (Social Scientist, Journalist, Cultural Activist) in a discussion on the almost right. Picture: Stephan Röhl License: CC BY-SA 2.0 Source: Flickr

March 14, 2012

In my opinion the main question of sustainability is: How to deal with the environmental complexity, considering that the human being is a limited one. We cannot control everything; we cannot understand everything, because we are physically and cognitively limited. Maybe the human being is more stupid, than we would like to believe. Social and environmental crises show, that the chosen way to deal with environmental complexity isn’t the good one… Two examples…

When I begin my seminars in the university, I show very often this documentary of ARTE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mokuOzj9kxc

The central question of this documentary is: How did ordinary people behave in the time shortly before the Second World War started? The answer: A lot of ordinary people in Europe simply made holiday; they sunbathed at the beaches of the Cote d’Azur or at the Baltic sea - while 60 million people were going to be killed. How was this possible?! My second example… When the financial crisis started in September 2008, many people were surprised; they didn‟t expect this to happen. But came the financial crisis really so suddenly? If we look back in the years before, we can find a lot of warning signs, for example these publications. The experts knew that a bad crisis was coming, but no investment bank changed its own behaviour; no government took measures to avoid the upcoming crisis. We see it: The so-called “knowledge and information society” isn’t really more sustainable than other ones.

What can we learn from such examples?
No social/environmental crisis comes suddenly, but only after a process of growing derealisation, in which people and institutions don’t percept the previous warning signs. Every crisis is the result of a growing gap between environmental reality and environmental perception. In the past we learned mainly after the catastrophe. But in the case of the climate change it won’t be possible. If we want to learn before the material experience of the catastrophe, we should ask first what hinders and what promotes the perception of the environmental reality; what hinders and what promotes a perception of the warning signs of the crisis. Sustainability is a cultural challenge, because in this century it means to learn a priori instead of after the material experience of a global crisis (a posteriori).
People don’t always do, what they know (Leggewie/Welzer 2009). Rational knowledge isn’t a sufficient condition for the perception of the environmental reality and a sustainable behaviour.

Aesthetics and anaesthetics
The German philosopher Wolfgang Welsch (2003:10) makes an important distinction, namely between “aesthetics” and “anaesthetics”. Aesthetic comes from gr. Aisthetik and means every kind of perceptions (sensitive, intellectual, trivial, sublime, artistic…). It is what we need for perceiving the environmental reality. What we need to prevent social crisis; what we need for sustainability. The antonym of aesthetics is „anaesthetics”; a state, in that the elementary precondition of the aesthetics – the capacity to feel – is missing. It means to lose the contact to the environmental reality. It is a state that threatens us. Aesthetic means connection to the environmental reality and anaesthetic means disconnection. Pay attention please: There isn’t only an extern environmental reality, but also an inner one. What about arts? In my opinion arts can promote the perception of the environmental reality, but also inhibit it.

Arts as anaesthetic factor
First I mean the art as part of the “Hochkultur”, of the advanced civilisation. The western culture, the modernity, has three main characteristics:
- The Cartesian separation nature/culture, object/subject, body/soul.
- It is not only a separation, but also a dominance (Genesis 1:28; F. Bacon). It is the dominance of the human being on nature, of the western culture on other cultures, of modernity on traditions, but also of the centers on the peripheries, of the social system on the environment, of the appearance on the being.
- And the third characteristic is the separation of individuals and community, that is represented in the demand of total autonomy of the artist.
I don’t want to idealize the community: In the western society the idea of community was basically designed by Thomas Hobbes. It is a big machine, in which individuals only function/serve as cogs. So the question isn’t individualism or communities, but the awareness of the connection or cultural determined separation in-between. Arts as anaesthetic factor aren’t only part of the western “advanced culture”, but they have been a medium of a “cultural colonialism/modernization /globalization” too. Art can be a status symbol, investment or the exclusive distinguishing mark of the “creative class” (R. Florida).This kind of art supports a social inequality – and social inequality inhibits the free communication, for example between “creative people” and “not creative people”.
The typical space for such kind of art is of course the temple, the museum, the art gallery. Instead the space for aesthetic arts is the social space, maybe the “common space”. Anaesthetic it is also the art as part of the cultural industry, as entertainment…
Sometimes people think, that the problem of the sustainability-discourse is that it is only about catastrophes and negative things. So we expect from arts, that they turn sustainability into a pleasure, into a good feeling. The danger of this strategy is of course, to conserve people in a state of anaesthesia, Instead of awaken them to see the signs of the coming crisis beforehand.

Anaesthetic art vs. aesthetic art
The gravitation point of an anaesthetic art is the idea, the creative idea of the artist, the own worldview, the own mental convictions. The world, the nature is only raw material, that has first to be designed into the same form of the given idea, for getting any worth.
The programme of the modernity is a total design of the world into the form of the dominant world view. An aesthetic art does the opposite: it doesn’t adapt the reality to the idea, but the idea, the convictions, the world view to the environmental reality. The gravitation point of an aesthetic art is the environmental reality: the ecologic environment and the inner environment, the cultural environment, the alien. In this case the arts produce those cultural mutations that a cultural evolution needs. For example a poet changes the code of the language, so that the language becomes able to grasp the ungraspable in our inner environment.

Arts as aesthetic factor
I said, that a rational knowledge isn’t a sufficient condition to percept the environmental reality. The “iceberg model” of the psychology confirms this thesis. What does this model tell us? The main part of the communication and of the behaviour of humans is based on subconscious emotions and feelings – and not on the conscious rational way of thinking. Nevertheless in the western culture the rationality has a higher status and consideration than emotions and feelings. Controllable quantities have a better status than fuzzy qualities. The verbal/digital communication has a better status then the non-verbal/analogue communication. So: If the psychology is right, then we need a revaluation of emotions, feelings and non-verbal languages in our society. It means also a revaluation of the arts, because in my opinion the special ability of arts in comparison to sciences is to communicate also on this level, to re-connect thinking and feelings, soul and body. Arts can promote the communication with the extern and inner environment; Aesthetic arts means to contaminate each other instead of remaining pure. Plurality instead of a universal monoculture.  Aesthetic art is also a laboratory for possible realities. We need such laboratories also for sustainability. A sustainable art can be more unpleasant than beautiful, because it shows us, what we usually don’t like to see: the alien – and I mean also the alien in ourselves.

How can we change it?
The ambivalence of arts is also the consequence of their institutionalization and commercialization. The dialogue between arts and sustainability shouldn’t be aimed to functionalize arts to a new discourse, but to a real defunctionalisation of arts. We need a redistribution of the wealth, a social security for everybody, so that everybody can express the own creativity. The debate on arts and sustainability has been centred until today on the fine arts. We need an integrative discourse with all the other arts (performing arts, music, literature…) and probably a wider definition of art, which is more integrative and less exclusive. Not only the middle and the upper class should be represented in such conferences, but also the biggest part of the humanity, the poorest ones.
Reflexivity means first the awareness, that the system and the culture, that we would like to change, is a part of us, of our own life. I want a better world, but here I am speaking the language of former colonialists instead of Esperanto. We shouldn’t forget, that we belong to a small exclusive circle of people worldwide, who fly sometimes several times per year to participate to conferences on sustainability. But this ambivalence isn’t necessarily negative. Ambivalence can become also tension – and without tension there is no energy and inspiration. Ambivalence means that the first possibility to experiment the cultural and social transformation is very close to us: in our own life, in our own social sphere. Reflexion means to see object and subject of creativity as interconnected instead of separated.


Presentation: On the ambivalence of art for a transition to sustainability (PDF)


Radius of Art - Creative politicisation of the public sphere

The conference was designed to contribute to the international discussion around the effects art and culture have on socio-ecological transformation toward cultures of sustainability, in particular on democratisation processes and forms of political participation and social empowerment, political awareness-raising and the forming of public opinion. The dossier offers a summary of the results and suggestions of the conference.
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