This book, by Brad Evans and Julian Read, was published earlier this year by Polity and is starting to cause quite a bit of debate. I discovered this having taken it to finish while travelling to and from the Waddenacademie symposium on Terscheliing in The Netherlands (see previous post). Almost before we’d started the flight Prof Owain Jones was talking about having heard a paper by Julian Reid and, as it turned out, he was also reading the book. It’s not an easy book and one that carries views that I suspect a lot of people may misconstrue – wilfully or otherwise – not least because it shows just how far the dominant culture has managed to co-opt ecological concerns and terms to its own ends. It is, however, a book that in my view should certainly be read widely, and particularly by anyone who thinks that there is a relationship between, broadly speaking, what might be called ‘relational aesthetics’ and issues of ecological action and social resilience. This impression is reinforced by the authors’ own brief comments about art. Given that this is a book by political scientists I’m not really qualified to comment on much of what the authors write, other than to say that the book certainly makes good sense in terms of my lay understanding of the issues under discussion. However, I’ll risk some comments on the areas in which I feel I have a reasonable degree of informed understanding, starting with their very interesting call for “a new aesthetic beyond the judgemental” (p. 131) as part of a more general need to move away from the sense of “suffocation and lament” that permeates the narratives of impending and inevitable doom that now dominate so much environmental thinking (p. 132) – the inevitable counterweight to the Edenic view of the environment that remains so profoundly locked within the conservative theological presuppositions that underpin mainstream Western culture (and that the Enlightenment inherited from Christian monotheism). This concern converges with a good deal of current thinking in the arts but, rather than frame their concerns specifically in terms of a politico-aesthetic balancing act (I’m thinking of Clare Bishop’s discussions of Rancière and Guattari in Artificial Hells) their concern is more open; namely to search for a way to look forward “with a confidence that is atmospherically-aethetically-affectively enriching” (p. 137) and leads to the question of how we might resurrect Nietzsche’s proposal, taken up by Foucault, that we live our lives as a work (verb) of art that includes the political but avoids the normative (p. 174) in its transformative possibilities, an untimely ‘autoaesthetics’ dedicated to a “meaningful and chimerical fabrication of the (un)self” (p. 172) which, interestingly, they relate to narrative and values that are lived rather than simply felt and which I would want to relate to Ricoeur’s notion of narrative identity. The authors are clearly not overwhelmed by the kinds of claim often made for the socio-political impact of ‘radical’ forms of contemporary art, stressing the importance of not confusing “the art of living with the conforming arts that merely perform a well-rehearsed dance” that, by definition, cannot in any very real sense to “the yet to be revealed”. (p. 173) . Obviously this very general statement can be interpreted either in relation to the whole fixed category of ‘art’ itself or, as I suspect many artists with an interest in this field would much prefer, simply to those ‘conventional’ approaches to art in which they believe themselves not to be involved. However, the authors are very clear on this subject. Their concern is with the need to produce “a non-stable subject that does not seek to emulate some normative standard” – for example, I would suggest, that evoked by the claim to ‘be an artist’ – “but instead forcefully challenges the vulnerable ground which it is said to occupy” (p. 174). At which point I’m reminded of Pauline O’Connell’s exemplary self-characterisation during a conversation about her Drawing the Water project – http://paulineoconnell.com/drawing-the-water/ – in which, picking up an earlier comment about attitudes to working dogs in rural Ireland, she referred to herself as ‘a compound cur’ (for more on that conversation, see this blog 2013/06/05). I take this as a parallel characterisation to Geraldine Finn’s exemplary insistence that “we are always both more an less than the categories that name and divide us” – including, of course, the category ‘artist’ upon which we place such exclusive emphasis as one means among many to overlook the fact that, as Evans and Read remind us, “much of contemporary art” – ‘radical’ or otherwise – “is what money makes of it” (p. 175).
So what currently seems most important to me in all this is to look to those exemplary people willing to acknowledge working between multiple lifeworlds – that’s to say actively participating in a polyverse rather than always aspiring to construct a self-reductive identification with the professional mono-verse of the artist/creator. This, which is a shift of values rather than of occupation, seems to me one constructive way to avoid variations on the endless return to the traditional avant-garde ‘cusp’ of art/not-art that oh-so-conveniently leaves the subjectivity of the ‘artist’ untouched and untransformed.