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Trajectories: How to Reconcile the Careerist Mentality with Our Impending Doom. Part 2/4

Ellie Harrison

To read Part 1 of this article visit this link:

A Rude Awakening

What is curious about the neoliberal project that kick-started in the year of my birth, is that, from the politics of the preceding decade, it appeared history could have taken a very different course. 1972 marked the publication of The Limits to Growth – a study commissioned by the humanitarian think-tank the Club of Rome to estimate the planet’s reserves of natural resources, “including topsoil, fresh water, minerals, forests and oceans” – questioning for the first time what might be the consequences of “another 100 years of exponential growth” (M. Fowkes & R. Fowkes 2009, p.670). The findings of the study were so significant that they are cited by Maja and Reuben Fowkes as a revelation for the future of humanity on a par with Copernicus’s discovery of Heliocentrism: putting our lives on planet earth sharply into perspective. Essentially the report gave us all the information we needed to know: that the way of life modernity had accustomed us to, was not sustainable. The whole system on which our modern liberal democracies were structured was supported by a myth of continual and infinite progress (Kingsnorth & Hine 2009, p.3) and a universal belief that the future will always be better than the past – that it is always within our capable hands to control our destinies.

Rather than take heed of this advice and look for alternative ways of structuring our societies, what actually began towards the end of the seventies, continuing right up to the present day, was the opposite: a complete and utter acceleration of our production and consumption. Post- The Limits to Growth our lives were allowed to continue in a fashion now no longer based on scientific facts, but on fantasy:

“What this… illustrates is the fantasy structure on which capitalist realism depends: a presupposition that resources are infinite, that the earth itself is merely a husk which capital can at a certain point slough off like a used skin, and that any problem can be solved by the market… The relationship between capitalism an eco-disaster is neither coincidental nor accidental: capital’s ‘need of a constantly expanding market’, its ‘growth fetish’, mean that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.” (Fisher 2009, pp.18-9)

We were allowed to continue because we repressed this truth. Our ‘denial’ was constituted by what Freud described as our inability to hear the things which did not fit easily with the way we envisaged ourselves in the world (Kingsnorth & Hine 2009, p.9). We simply blocked out any hint of a hitch or obstacle to our career trajectories and carried-on regardless. Neoliberalism achieved this ‘state of mind’ purposefully – by pacifying us with the things we thought we wanted, that would make us happy, whilst removing the possibility for resistance. The “drive towards atomistic individualisation” (Fisher 2009, p.37) captured in Margaret Thatcher’s dictum “There is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women” (M. Thatcher n.d.), plunged us further into our internal solipsistic worlds; from where it became almost impossible to fully empathise with others, to acknowledge the wider consequences of our actions, to see beyond the fantasy – to believe that ‘an alternative’ might be possible. We lost our political ‘agency’ as our liberal democracies became governments-as-administration (Zizek 2009b); appealing to our burgeoning “individual ideals” (Strawson 2008) – to “short-termism” (Brown 2009) – rather than the bigger picture and a realistic long-term plan.

In his recent book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Slavoj Zizek describes the strategies the neoliberal policy makers employed to continue to maintain this state of denial well into the twenty-first century, explaining how the negative side effects of the bursting of the dotcom bubble in 2000 had been countered by a push on cheap loans to stimulate the housing market. This had simply allowed the US to “continue dreaming” (Zizek 2009a, p.20) for that little bit longer; essentially just prolonging the global crisis until a later date: until now.

Now or Never

“It’s useless to wait – for a breakthrough, for the revolution, the nuclear apocalypse or a social movement. To go on waiting is madness. The catastrophe is not coming, it is here. We are already situated within the collapse of civilisation.” (The Invisible Committee 2009, p.96)

The significance of this point in history cannot be underestimated. The hiatus caused by this latest epic crisis of capital should have given all of us opportunity for self-reflection. The connections between capitalism and environmental catastrophe have once again been starkly illuminated and so too has our own complicity in, and responsibility for, both. As the many climate scientists and campaigners have been telling us, we now only have one decade left – until 2020 – to stabilise and begin to reduce our rapidly increasing greenhouse gas emissions or we will be unable to avoid hitting the “dreaded two degrees” (Armstrong 2009b) – the tipping point at which we trigger runaway climate change and a rapid irreversible and uncontrollable descent into a new world of which the visions of The Road are not too much of an exaggeration.

Even mainstream politicians hungry for votes are forced to admit that “the age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity” (Cameron 2009). It does seem “useless to wait” (The Invisible Committee 2009, p.96). Now provides the opportunity to radically rethink the way we live, not just in practical terms, but in the way our minds perceive of ourselves in the future; of what we are working ‘towards’. We need to reverse our very ontological foundations so that we become capable of comprehending the opposite of progress – of approaching life in a world where deflation becomes the norm and where rationing is “inevitable” (Fisher 2009, p.80).

As artists – the producers of the non-essential – this rethink seems all the more vital and all the more urgent. It is now our ‘responsibility’ to redefine our roles within this new world, within the “collapse of civilisation” (The Invisible Committee 2009, p.96). As we approach the inevitable challenges of the forthcoming century we can no longer be immune to ethics – we must begin to question what practical function our work can have. And, if we decide that we can still persist in our roles as artists, then we must begin to generate new ways of finding “intrinsic motivation” when our traditional motivational structures of striving towards ‘goals’ such as “recognition and fame” (Abbing 2002, p.82); of creating a ‘legacy’ for ourselves in the future, no longer seem viable.

image from Dark Mountain Project
Image from the Dark Mountain Project

It is typical in periods of crisis (and opportunity) such as this to look to the past for guidance. Retrospective critique (as used to ‘set the scene’ for this essay) helps us to understand the causes of our current predicament in terms of a greater historical trajectory, to help us make sense of our own lives biographically. The real challenge, however, is in developing the suggestions, ideas and solutions that are essential to help us move on. The proceeding sections of this essay turn to two manifestos from 2009 which attempt just this: Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century by Rasheed Araeen and Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto. The intention is to draw together their recurring ideas in order to formulate a ‘plan of action’ which may constitute our ‘new moral code’, and then to examine how some of these ideas are already being put into practice, not just by some artists, but by other more radical elements of society.

Atomised Art World

In September 2009, the international journal of “critical perspectives on contemporary art and culture” Third Text dedicated an entire issue to contemplating a vision of the future of art, in which Araeen’s manifesto is published. In the preface, Araeen and his co-editor Richard Appignanesi give their own diagnosis of the predicament of artists “now as we face a legacy of failures in modern history that endangers the future prospects of humanity” (Araeen & Appignanesi 2009, p.500). Their suggestion is that we have reached a cynical and solipsistic impasse which it is essential to overcome:

“… the very concept of art will have to liberate itself from the two historical limits of containment and legitimisation. One is containment in the artist’s own narcissist ego; the other is art’s dependence for its legitimisation as art on the institutions that facilitate and promote art only as reified commodities placed in museum and marketplace showcases.” (Araeen & Appignanesi 2009, p.500)

Third Text cover
Image: Third Text cover, Sept 2000

Ego and individualism have always gone hand-in-hand with the relatively autonomous role the artist has historically enjoyed within society, however, it appears that these characteristics have only been exacerbated in recent years. Neoliberal ideology has led to a “convergence of artistic and entrepreneurial values” (J. Thatcher 2009, p.5) – flexible, creative and autonomous modes of operating have been co-opted by the business world, just as ‘the careerist mentality’ has been inherited by artists. Recent mainstream television programmes such as School of Saatchi (Priddle 2009) and Goldsmiths: But is it Art? (Kerr 2010), which pit artists’ egos and entrepreneurial skills against one another, show the extent to which these attitudes have become the norm.

The super-competitive environment of the ‘atomised art world’ engenders a survival instinct in artists which causes us, knowingly or not, to make our sole objective the expansion of our curricula vitae. The emphasis is on the development of a “narrative” – on forming a “brand identity” (Prince 2010, p.10), because this presents itself as the most efficient means to the desired ends of “recognition and fame” (Abbing 2002, p.82). Trapped in a perpetual attempt to impress art world institutions, artists inevitably end up feeding them with the art that they think they want rather than stopping to question exactly what they are producing and why.

In a pre-neoliberal world, choosing the role of artist was seen as an alternative to the mainstream: a point of resistance, a political statement even (Walker 2002) – art offered a potential strategy of “opposition to capitalism” (J. Thatcher 2009, p.6). Now as a small component part in this means / end cycle – art – simply acts an instrument to serve the “career ambitions of self-centred artists” – its “significant critical and social function” (Araeen 2009, p.680) disabled in the process. But, at this particular point in our history, art’s power in “subverting the dominant hegemony” (Mouffe 2007) – in creating an ‘alternative knowledge’ – may be its only redeemable function.

Free Our Minds

Araeen’s call for art to be liberated from “containment and legitimisation” (Araeen & Appignanesi 2009, p.500) foresees the unprecedented power he believes our ideas could have if completely detached from capitalism:

“It is in fact artistic imagination, not art objects, which, once freed from the self-destructive narcissist ego, can enter this life and not only offer it salvation but put it on the path to a better future.” (Araeen 2009, p.683)

He goes as far as to suggest that artists should “abandon their studios” and “stop making objects” (Araeen 2009, p.684). He urges us to reconfigure our roles to such an extent that our creative skills are put to use in conceptualising real-life practical projects, such as creating solar-powered desalination plants, which simultaneously address the two imminent global challenges of energy and freshwater shortages. Art should renounce its “freedom from function which constitutes its autonomy” (Prince 2009, p.7), leave the world of the ‘non-essential’ and begin to offer us with ‘practical solutions’ to real life problems.

Outside the Bubble

Whereas Araeen’s manifesto (inline with the desperate pleas of environmental campaigns such as 10:10) gives a sense that something can be done to avert ‘our impending doom’. There is, however, another concurrent school of thought which encourages us to embrace our fate. Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto was published in 2009 by writers Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, as a vision of the future of literature in the new form of “uncivilised art” (Kingsnorth & Hine 2009, p.13). It takes the pessimism of beliefs such as those of James Lovelock: that humans are too stupid to prevent climate change (Hickman 2010, p.12) and challenges us to invert these to become a positive creative force:

“We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.” (Kingsnorth & Hine 2009, p.19)

The key is in developing a sense of objectivity about the systems in which we are enmeshed. We are invited to “stand outside the human bubble”, to “tug our attention away from ourselves and to turn it outwards; to uncentre our minds”: essentially to put “civilisation – and us – into perspective” (Kingsnorth & Hine 2009, p.13).

Once we are able to shift our attitude from that of hubris to that of humility, it becomes easier to accept that resources are indeed finite; civilisations do collapse and that species, including our own, become extinct. With this finitude as a certainty, the petty squabbling of the art world and the insignificance of the ‘goals’ we have been striving towards become evident. We can be liberated from our career plans; from the careful crafting of our own personal legacies and can refocus our attentions on the immediacy of the present (Bey 1994), for it is perhaps here where we should learn to find meaning and happiness.

To read Part 3 of this article visit this link:


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Araeen, R., 2009. Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century. Third Text, 23(5), 679-84.

Araeen, R. & Appignanesi, R., 2009. Art: A Vision of the Future. Third Text, 23(5), 499-502.

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