Friday, 3 October 2008

Sustainable Sculpture

Last week I spoke at the UK’s Sustainable Development Research Network’s annual conference (see below). It was an interesting day, but the most interesting remark came very close to the end and left little time for further discussion.

In closing the conference, the conference chair permitted himself an anecdote, explaining that he had become convinced that ‘sustainable consumption’ probably meant buying smaller numbers of higher quality things. He meant, and explained, that rather than buy twenty shirts for £5 a time, one should buy a single shirt for £100. The single shirt would last much longer than any of the cheaper shirts, implied far lower total resource use and was an altogether more pleasurable experience to wear. The chair was, in fact, wearing a bespoke suit (“My first!”) as prima facie evidence of his commitment to this new insight.

But he went further, and this is where it gets weird. He told the audience – a couple of hundred of researchers and academics and policy wonks from the world of sustainable development – that he had bought an expensive piece of sculpture (for his garden) as a deliberate act of sustainable consumption. As his wife had put it (he told us) – “How much?! We could have gone to Australia and back half a dozen times for that!”

“Exactly” he said.

How do you feel about this? On the one hand, there is a horrible sense that this is right, yet wrong. It’s right, because if you’re going to do something with the money that you have, then spending it in a manner that produces the least possible carbon is surely a good thing. Yet it’s wrong, too, because buying an extravagant piece of sculpture is simply not an option for most people, indeed it would be somewhere between insulting and inflammatory to suggest to the good people of the world that they should begin spending their money on low carbon fripperies in order to save the planet.

On the other hand, it’s wrong but it’s right. It’s wrong because ‘art’ is invariably self-indulgent twaddle, huge quantities of which are produced by over-privileged mediocrities with nothing better to do, and great swathes of which are purchased by over-privileged non-entities with more money than sense.

(I have to endure this juxtaposition rather regularly: I live in what has become a rather prosperous part of west London, and my morning coffee is routinely spoiled by clusters of private-school mummies wondering what to do with their day, their conversations burbling with talk of painting classes and sculpture treats; while my local high street has just seen the arrival of a new ‘gallery’ that sells shockingly bad large-canvas art, the majority of which is straight from the more embarrassing end of the Athena spectrum, with retail prices starting in the low thousands of pounds and rising as steeply as your goldcard will allow.)

But it’s good, too, because humans have an innate creativity, and an economy of enough, in which we’re not running around like blue-arsed flies trying to buy the next pointless consumer good should be a future in which we have more time for conversation and philosophy and creativity and – and art.

Art? Or should that be ‘craft’? The fabulous Richard Sennett’s latest book “The Craftsman” draws attention to the immense value we all do or can derive from doing something well. It almost doesn’t matter what it is, but attention to quality rather than quantity, attention to craftsmanship and detail, the satisfaction of sustained effort over time, of the reward from knowing that something has been done as well as it could have been, these are factors that apply to any area of human activity and deliver enormous reward to individuals.

So if was a truly deep sculpture – a sculpture made by hands and a mind that had invested the 10,000 hours that folklore suggests are needed for true skill to develop – that depth would be evident, and it would be good, and it would be like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and it would be part of sustainability. But if it was superficial, consumerist, a commodity, a pastiche, an effete indulgence, then it is phony, it is part of the problem not the solution, it is not part of enoughness.

But how do we tell the difference? If there is no objective measure, which seems likely, then the distinction is unavoidably subjective. And if it is entirely subjective, who am I to suggest that your art is an ersatz piece of climate hostile self indulgence?

The answer, I suspect, lies in the perspective you choose to take on human nature. Looking around, it certainly seems that human beings en masse produce and consume an awful lot of utter tat; and this applies just as much to the appalling nonsense of the high street as it does to those twee stalls in Cornwall and Covent Garden and Provence where local ‘artists’ peddle their vernacular ceramic tourist fodder. And it would be easy to presume that since so much of this stuff is being produced and consumed under conditions approximating to freedom that this is indeed what people actually want to do, and like.

But the evolutionary perspective taken by the economics of enough would infer a different interpretation. The kinds of choices culminating in the pattern just described have evolved and developed within a very particular socio-economic structure (the fitness landscape). The most particular feature of that landscape is the notion of exchange: and the most acute manifestation of that feature is the notion of monetised trade.

Imagine making a birthday card for your mum; and compare it to the card you last bought. How does that feel?

Or: imagine the most handmade card you can imagine in the shops – and ask yourself whether this is the card that the person who actually made it would give to their own mother.

In what is called ‘the gift economy’ the rules are different, but we are still talking about exchange. If the rules can be like this in one place, there seems to me to be no reason in principle why the rules in any other place should not be like that.

Imagine if we made art we loved; and simply gave it away.

Would that be enough?

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