Who could have guessed that when the flood came it would come in slow motion, over forty decades rather than forty nights? As the polar ice sheets unravel and plunge into the waters, whose who have so mismanaged the fate of all things cling to their private arks. The animals, one by one, will be saved, if at all, as gene sequences.
What confronts us now, in our still cozy worlds, are spectacles of disintegration. There’s probably not much one can do to prepare American culture or polity to deal, not with its future, but with the very texture of the present. It wants to hide under the covers. As the philosopher Theodor Adorno might put it: let’s not let the power of others, or our own powerlessness, stupefy us. We can prepare the space of education, and joyfully, by inventing new practices where aesthetics and technics meet. That’s the kind of practice there may be call for soon enough.
One understanding of art – Adorno’s for example – would make it the antithesis of technology. Technology partakes in a certain kind of abstraction. It creates a grid through which to reduce qualities to quantities. The place of art is then to be a refuge for the qualitative. Art is where that which cannot be reconciled with an ever more abstract world takes its last stand.
I take a different view. I think of art as a different way of experimenting with a given technology. Art is a kind of practice which finds out what you can do in a given space of possibility. Art is about abstraction just as much as technology, it just uses different methods.
This kind of abstraction has nothing to do with ‘abstract art’ in the sense of abstract versus figurative art. All art is figurative, it is just that some figures aren’t human. Richard Taylor, a physics professor from the University of Oregon, maintains that some of Jackson Pollock’s paintings are actually of fractals. One might say that Pollock’s paintings are ‘figurative’ but the figures are not human forms, they are mathematical forms.
And while it is interesting that a scientist finds fractal geometry in Pollock, it is not that we can now discover what Pollock was ‘really’ doing because we can model it mathematically. It is rather that art is always experimenting with the possibilities of abstracting away from certain habits within a given space of materials. Pollocks are not fractals; fractals are Pollocks.
Art that seems to be ‘figurative’, in that it has representations of human figures, for example, may also be abstract. Impressionism, for example, was among other things exploring the possibilities of new kinds of industrially produced pigments. Modern chemistry was really changing the substance of our world at the molecular level. One expression of that is the experiments conducted by artists with those materials.
This is one sense in which one can think about art as ‘modern.’ Art was a space, not for retreat from abstraction but for playing out its possibilities in an experimental fashion. Whatever manifestos the artists signed, and no matter what readings we may put on – say – a Turner painting of a locomotive, the practice of making the art was caught up in experimenting with the technical possibilities of abstraction.
What I think changes is that we now know how all this ends. The capacities of abstraction seize hold of the materiality all around it, opening up its potentials. Modernity was a great liberation front. Only it wasn’t about liberating a people, or a class, or a gender. What modernity liberated was carbon. Modernity liberated fossilized carbon in the form of oil and coal and natural gas. Modernity fired it great engines on these fossils. (Think of Marinetti crashing his Bugatti and writing the ‘Futurist Manifesto’ about it.) Modernity released enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to change the climate of the whole planet, forever.
Climate change is the modern fully realized, the modern as tending towards undoing its own conditions of existence. Mitigating its effects is going to take all the ingenuity – technical, aesthetic, not to mention social and political – that we can muster. Mitigating climate change is not just a technical problem. Nor will the economy just ‘naturally’ adjust. And there’s no hiding from it in romantic ‘back to nature’ fantasies. If we refuse to deal with abstraction, then like Martin Heidegger the best we can do is throw up our hands and say ‘only the Gods can save us.’
A giant inflatable dog turd broke loose from its moorings outside the Paul Klee Center in Switzerland and brought down power lines before coming to a halt in the grounds of a children’s home. The Paul McCarthy sculpture, the size of a house, reached a maximum altitude of 200 meters. Other civilizations had their chosen forms: from the Obelisk of Luxor to Michelangelo’s David. Marinetti found his crashed motor car more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace, but he might have balked at flying dog shit. In the twenty first century, the insomnia of reason does not breed monsters, but pets. No wonder there are no longer any Gods, when what is expected of them is that they descend from Mount Olympus with plastic baggies and clean up.
In other words, there are no Gods to save us – not even Heidegger. There’s a role for art, however, in its experimental practice, which charts the possibilities within a given technical domain. The endgame of modernity raises the stakes for this game. Art has to experiment much more broadly across scales. Both the microscopic scale and the planetary scale come into focus as things that are related, interconnected.
Art can no longer be about a separate domain when the planetary scale – climate – and the molecular scale – carbon dioxide – are linked in their fates. Art can either engage with this fate by being a practice that is open to the kinds of experiment that might be needed to mitigate such a fate. Or, art can become a contemplation, not of origins, but of ends.
‘The Domain of Arnheim’ is a strange story by Edgar Allan Poe, in which a young man who inherits an incredible fortune decides to spend it, not on buying art but on fashioning a landscape. IN this story, Poe also imagines the Earth seen from space as itself a complete work of art. He anticipates the real ends of modernism.
Is not the totality of all our endeavors, all our social relations, tending towards the making over of the planet as a total work of art? This theme of a secular, aesthetic destiny has its roots in Romanticism, but lately it has lost its more optimistic cast. What if the work of art into which the word turns excluded the presence of its own makers? What if its creation destroys the biological possibility of human life on the planet?
What light does aesthetics as a branch of thought, and art as a contemplative practice, shed on the (possible) end(s) of the world? What if we consider the end of the world as the finished product of aesthetic modernity? The blue ruin of earth is the total work of art at the end of history. The earth will be buried at sea.
These matters are too serious to leave in the hands of technological optimists and apocalyptic doomsayers. Nor is moral scolding about doing the recycling either effective or adequate to conceiving of the whole picture of climate change and its consequences. Rather, it calls for an aesthetic sensibility oriented to the whole picture rather than this or that aspect.
There is a certain popular delight in imagining the modern world in ruins. It’s a theme Walter Benjamin identified early in the 20th century. In the shadow of the bomb, the Beats and their contemporaries occasionally gave it an incendiary cast. But what if we push beyond the picture of atomized cities to imagine not what passes but what is created at the end of human time? Our permanent legacy will not be architectural, but chemical. After the last dam bursts, after the concrete monoliths crumble into the lone and level sands, modernity will leave behind a chemical signature, in everything from radioactive waste to atmospheric carbon. This work will be abstract, not figurative.
Grasping this as a total work means understanding two tendencies in relation to each other: the global and the molecular. The tendency toward the global and the tendency toward the molecular are combined in work such as the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s guided tours of urban LA oil rigs or nuclear waste dumps in the salt flats, where the tour bus is an inside out vitrine. In the wake of the vast oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the artist duo übermogen.com announce: “oil painting has evolved into generative bio-art… an oil painting on an 80,000 square mile ocean canvas…” It’s simply a matter of taking the next step, of accelerating the parameters of the molecular aesthetic to the planetary limit.
Such would be the contemplative path for art, a perspective in which the vanishing point is the cessation of life, in part at least the efforts of modernity itself. The other path, the active or practical path, prepares us for a time – already present – when creative uses not just of technology but all the capacities of modernity will need to be put in play. As Hunter S. Thompson put, it, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. We are coming into the time of the artists, but hardly the kind of artists hitherto seen on earth.