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There are several curators who have been making the running in laying out the territory of arts' response to environmental issues, from Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna of the excellent Latitudes to Maja and Reuben Fowkes of translocal.org.  There's a good wide-ranging interview with Maja and Ruben Fowkes in Antennae Magazine in which they discuss altermodernism, the macho nature of Land Art, and how in sustainable art, form becomes a matter of ethics. All great stuff. One thing in the interview pulled me up short though:

There are several curators who have been making the running in laying out the territory of arts' response to environmental issues, from Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna of the excellent Latitudes to Maja and Reuben Fowkes of translocal.org.  There's a good wide-ranging interview with Maja and Ruben Fowkes in Antennae Magazine in which they discuss altermodernism, the macho nature of Land Art, and how in sustainable art, form becomes a matter of ethics. All great stuff. One thing in the interview pulled me up short though:

As curators, can you provide some idea as to how art has been influential or can be more effective in making people more environmentally aware? Should it ?

We do not envisage art to have utility. As soon as art is seen in this way it is connected to the art market and we’re back into the capitalist, market-driven, growth model of production. If the utility of art is understood as a vehicle for advocating social changes or raising environmental consciousness we come to the problem of art as propaganda, which can also be counterproductive, as it undermines the subversive potential of artistic autonomy.

It's true this view represents an orthodoxy within art - that artists should not be looked to for their "utility" -  but Maja and Ruben Fowkes present this orthodoxy in a way that shows up how questionable this notion is.

Utility isn't the quality capitalism prizes in art, it's its lack of utility. Capitalism, the market, call it what you will, drives art forward by seeing art as the ultimate surplus value - as an entity with no purpose.

Jake Chapman is always good on the notion of surplus value in art. This is him discussing George Battaille's The Accursed Share:

The best argument for a work of art pertaining to that surplus value is that it's an act of absolute pure capital, pure taste without purpose. I think you could assert that about high modernist art but it's impossible to say that now, because contemporary art is anthropological, and it's social.

[Read the full interview by Simon Baker in Papers of Surrealism [PDF 728KB]]

To resist the idea of art having no utility is to resist the market's attempt to commodify it. I'm with Bob and Roberta Smith on this one; in Hijack Reality Patrick Brill writes about how artists should be happy with the leaden box ticking culture of public commissioning, because at least it is a tangible acknowledgement of a value in art that is non-monetary.

Maja and Reuben Fowkes say:

If the utility of art is understood as a vehicle for advocating social changes or raising environmental consciousness we come to the problem of art as propaganda, which can also be counterproductive, as it undermines the subversive potential of artistic autonomy.

Firstly, there is nothing less endearing about the world of art than art proclaiming  its own autonomous subersive potential. Secondly, the idea that propaganda and "subversive potential" are mutually exclusive doesn't bear close examination.

As George Orwell said, "all art is propaganda". The importance, he went on, is to distinguish between "good" and "bad" propaganda.

Interestingly, Emma Ridgway's excellent interview with Gustsv Metzger found him referencing Eric Gill as a major influence. I'll leave the last word on this to Eric Gill:

Art which is not propaganda is simply aesthetics and is consequently entirely the affair of cultured connoisseurs. It is a studio affair, nothing to do with the common life of men and women, a means of 'escape.' Art in the studio becomes simply 'self-expression,' and that becomes simply self-worship. Charity, the love of God and your neighbour, which, here below, every work of man must exhibit, is lost. If you say art is nothing to do with propaganda, you are saying that it has nothing to do with religion - that it is simply a psychological dope, a sort of cultured drug traffic. I, at any rate, have no use for it. For me, all art is propaganda; and it is high time that modern art became propaganda for social justice instead of propaganda for the flatulent and decadent ideals of bourgeois Capitalism. (excerpt from a letter to The Catholic Herald, 28 October 1934)

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