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Saturday, 23 May 2009

Writing in the times today, Kate Muir announced that eco-art 'will be huge this summer', arguing with typically lame eco-speak that 'Preserving sharks in formaldehyde is over; the days of preserving sharks in the ocean are here." The Barbican is leading the eco-conformist assault with its upcoming exhibition Radical Nature — Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet, followed by Tate Britain's Heaven and Earth, featuring the works of Richard Long. Long in any other age would have been considered an eccentric gardener, today he is considered an accomplished artist by tapping into the sense of insecurity about our 'fragile planet'.

Muir, as ever, knows a lot of big words, but doesn't have a clue how to make meaningful sentences out of them. Like many of her contemporaries, she absorbed a lot of concepts and phrases in college, without really understanding what they signify, but still has the audacity to use such concepts in print. She epitomises that breed of journalists who seem to think that the universe started in 1997, everything prior to that being a giant blob of events and concepts that are too hard to disentangle. This utter unawareness of history comes across in sentences like 'of course, Land Art has been around for ever'. Like, Kate couldn't be bothered to find out, like, when and why.

Muir's complete ignorance is manifested even more painfully in her naive proclamations: '..the new eco-art movement is not merely about the medium, but the message too'. Read: 'on message'. It is not important how banal and mediocre your 'art' is, as long as it is on message, as long as you feel the suffering of Mother Earth in the depths of your soul, and use whatever medium at your disposal to express that pain: sand, snow, rock, and ultimately, and appropriately, manure. Muir is happily preaching us that art will no longer be a selfish endeavour, it shall be put to the service of the great collective eco-whinge, the mighty bout of never-ending eco self-flagellation. Hurrah!

What Muir, and every mediocre curator that has been promoted to a position of responsibility because they are 'on message', doesn't realize is that this vulgar reduction of art to a tool of propaganda is antithetical to the spirit of art. Art has to be free from any such intrusions and demands to be meaningful, art has to revolt and kick back against the prevailing assumptions, and art should never be restrained by the parameters of 'social responsibility'. Art has been used historically as a medium for political protest, but how is that relevant today when everyone has embraced environmentalism? How radical could eco-art be when it is merely repeating what politicians and journalists are constantly babbling about?

Muir's attempt at making eco-art sound heroic are simply pathetic. She tries to portray two artists from Brighton as modern-day revolutionaries, claiming that their 'work exemplifies the combative mood around the country'. And I thought that people are actually worried about losing their jobs and paying their mortgage, silly me. Of course to Muir and her fellow 'organic-wine and fair-trade coffee' 'mentalists, such real-life concerns are not as important as the latest fad in eco-whinging. And this is why she thinks the antics of Hanks and McCurdy, the two eco-artists from Brighton, are examples of radical eco-art.

The pair dabble in the sort of art that bored teenagers and pensioners on holiday usually do, except that they don't think of it normally as art: writing on snow and bio-degradable graffiti. Their cause? Brighton beach is dirty and polluted, plastic is to blame. In a heroic feat, they visit parliament to lobby on behalf the Marine Conservation Society, then they flip their T-shirts, selflessly showing their bras in the process, to reveal messages about the dirty beach. Muir is nearly in tears at this moment, 'as MPs fiddled their expenses in the background and the planet burnt'. Drama straight out of Hollywood.

Of course the real message is: we are two smug, self-centred attention seekers who will do anything to get a bit of attention. That anyone could imagine that this has anything to do with art, or even politics, is a sign of how low public discourse these days is. And how degraded both art and politics have become, allowing such trivial concerns to grab media attention. Yet there is a danger in this trend to tame art and turn it into a medium for channeling social responsibility.

Firstly, there's the unbearable prospect of art being judged not on its intrinsic merits, but in terms of how much it serves a bigger cause. For the record, this is what Fascism historically did, it appropriated art for its own needs. Simply because we imagine eco concerns to be a more noble cause does not justify such an appropriation. Secondly, there's the even more serious prospect of a rigidly conformist society where dissent is not tolerated. Art should strive to liberate itself from the demands of conformity, when it starts seeking to be conformist, we know we are in trouble.

Kate Muir relishes the prospect of eco-art taking center-stage, but this is based on a completely wrong understanding of the nature of art and the parameters within which it operates. The logic of environmentalism has been internalised by the political classes and the media, and there are hardly any dissenting voices these days. Co-opting art into this un-questioning arrangement will not help matters at all, but will lead to more of the banal art that justifies its mediocrity through its important 'message'. In a civilised society we should not tolerate mediocrity, art should strive for excellence not conformity.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Tired of life in the materialist and consumerist West? Why not spend a few months in Palestine, away from it all, training the local population to keep their ambitions low and stay at the mercy of an agrarian mode of life? This is the vision that Green Intifada is promoting. A group of volunteers, mostly from the UK, "work in the community to implement initiatives for sustainable living and food production." For sustainable read pre-modern and backwards. These include "rainwater harvesting, vegetable gardens, tree planting, greywater reuse, composting systems and compost toilet building."

The days of solidarity with the Palestinian people based on a healthy notion of human solidarity and active human agency are long gone. Today, the Palestinians have been turned into our poor cousins that cannot fend for themselves and solidarity has been replaced with pity. Hannah Arendt pointed out that pity dehumanises its receivers, and this outlook towards the Palestinians is as dehumanising as Israeli aggression. The Green Intifada is an example of this patronising expression of the contemporary Western outlook towards the Palestinians. Rather than seeing the Palestinians as a people fighting for self-determination and national liberation, they are reduced to helpless peasants that need to be taught even the basics of a primitive agrarian way of life.

Time to start exposing these initiatives for what they really are: they are not motivated by concern for the Palestinian people but are an expression of western discontent with modernity. This is a form of escape from the demands of life in the west, a way of burying one's head in the sands of Palestine. In the process, the Palestinians are recast as pure, unspoiled peasants, the alternative to the modern corrupted western individual, the image of what could have been if modernity and industrialisation had not occurred.

In itself, the Green Intifada is not a sinister or dangerous operation, the Holy Land has always attracted all manner of lunatics to go and pursue their own brand of millinerianism. However, what it says about the state of politics and the outlook towards the Palestinians is quite revealing. The Palestinian struggle has been emptied of any meaning and completely de-contextualised. Instead of a cry for freedom and an aspiration for universal change, it is now treated as a parable for the wickedness of humanity. It is easy then to take sides not based on a genuine understanding of the political dynamics, but on the basis of cartoonish over-simplifications that are entirely wrong.

The Israelis are cast as the villains because they dared to spoil the virgin land with their western technology and intensive agriculture, while the Palestinians are the good guys because they retain the connection to the land. Aside from the fact that the relationship with the land is a Fascist invention that has its roots in Nazi ideology, it is also an extremely inaccurate depiction of Palestinian society. The Palestinian struggle for self-determination is the beginning of the process of by which the Palestinians can control their own destiny and build a modern nation. A modern nation, with modern infrastructure, not 'sustainable' compost toilets, there are plenty of those in the camps.

"People are being driven from the land, denied access to essential resources, closed into urban ghettoes and severed from their natural heritage". A process known otherwise as urbanization which every modern society goes through. The Green Intifada eco-imperialists are not resisting Israeli occupation, they are trying to resist the process of modernisation, a sentiment expressed clearly on their website. If their vision prevails, and I have to admit their is no real danger of this because the Palestinian people have not struggled for decades to end up in the 19th century, but if their vision prevails it would be entirely consistent with what Israel wants: a docile Palestinian population that is happy to live off the land with no aspiration.

Ain't gonna happen. Go look for your agrarian paradise somewhere else.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Surveillance society is once again a hot subject, in light of the DNA database debate. A reminder of my essay on the subject:

"It’s been said before, I am aware, but Orwell was immensely prescient. 1984 has come and gone, leaving behind an entrenched legacy of surveillance made even more powerful by the advancements in monitoring technology in recent years. Query the phrase ‘eye in the sky’ in your search engine of choice, and instead of a biblical reference or even the Alan Parsons Project 1982 hit single, you are referred first to surveillance camera manufacturers. Meanwhile, the unblinking eyes of CCTV cameras keep a constant watch on every street in London, and it seems that the rest of the nation is catching up fast." Read on: http://karlsharro.co.uk/surveillance.html