Alternative Æsthetics

An essay by Suzi Gablik


Several years ago, the University of Chicago alumni magazine featured philosopher Richard Rorty on its cover announcing, “There is no Big Picture.” I happen to believe, myself, that this philosophical stance is partly what has brought the world to the edge of systemic breakdown and biospheric collapse.

Anyone who wishes to change the tides of where our civilization is headed needs first to look at the Big Picture — and then to become conscious of how profoundly they have internalized the values and dictates of the dominant cultural and economic paradigm. After that, as writer Annie Dillard suggests, you go home and soak your feet. Because the task at hand, the task of transformation and renewal, is very daunting—and will require a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce. Constructing a life outside the numbing conditions of the status quo is a difficult path to undertake. But the journey is an essential one for anybody who is concerned about the future of this planet.

In the past, artists were valued because of their sensitivity and their ability to distance themselves from received ideas. Such an artist would have been a kouros, a visionary who could gain access to the world of the gods. Today, artists do not dabble much in metaphysics. The connection to perfecting “the temple of the soul” has been cut, and the spiritual dimension of art has been replaced with something else: a set of rules and external standards that artists are expected to follow.

In Western culture, artists do not train to engage with real-life problems; instead they learn to be competitive with their products in the market place. Today we live in a society oriented around manic production, maximum energy flow, and consumerism. Profit is the primary criterion by which we measure every good, every activity, every attitude, and every cultural product. All of our cultural institutions are subtly and lethally influenced by this ideology, and are based, therefore, on set patterns of behavior. Artists are constantly challenged in their identity as winners or losers in the success game, and “professional recognition,” in the form of brisk sales and positive reviews, has become the primary incentive that colors the internal rhythms of art making.

Often artists and critics become imprisoned by what they have come to accept as “institutional truths.” Some time ago, I read a conversation between the curator Robert Storr and the artist Gerhard Richter in Art in America. Storr asked Richter what he thought about Joseph Beuys’s idea of art as “social mechanism” — referring to the notion that art could be used as means for sculpting, not just objects, but society itself. Richter responded that he thought the idea was “absolutely stupid.”  Often in my writing, I have cited a similar comment by the painter Georg Baselitz. When Baselitz was asked by an art critic from the New York Times at the time of his 1995 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum what role he thought art plays in society, he replied: “The same role as a good shoe, nothing more.” 

I suppose you could say there is a kind of modesty attached to this attitude. But anyone who has ever read anything that I have written will know that I believe fiercely in art’s necessary engagement with the world. My books are meant as a challenge to our reigning paradigms of economic control and domination. They expose the coercive propaganda of capitalism and the acquisitive society as a form of spiritual and ecological suicide. And they try to look at the Big Picture: How do individuals overturn a dysfunctional world view and break free of its limiting ideologies? What makes anyone change their beliefs about something?

So are we forever locked into the inevitability of a paradigm based on materialism — and with it, a certain kind of art fixated on the notion of saleable objects? Or can we recover, if we choose, from the estrangements of Western civilization? Instead of art-as-commodity, deprived of any useful social role, can art actually help us to revision ourselves and our way of living on this earth? Can it participate in what geologian Thomas Berry deems the “great work” of our time: moving from a devastating presence on the planet to a more benign presence?

People will want to say, for instance, what do art and issues of chemical contamination have in common? What possible link can there be between concepts like “endangered species,” renewable and nonrenewable resources, or damaged forests—and the personal problems artists have in trying to build a successful career today? Until a few years ago, artists generally were not motivated to express concerns about biodiversity, global warming, reclamation of wetlands, or acid rain directly in their work. Aesthetic paradigms acting in partnership with environmental impact statements were not part of contemporary modernist virtues. Now, however, a whole new cadre of artists has emerged with a new form of practice. They are calling themselves “eco-ventionists,”  and their art actively intervenes to heal environmental problems. This art blurs the distinction between art and life.

If you are going to challenge the old Cartesian dualisms — like the one that separates art from life — with more participatory and engaged forms of consciousness, then you will also need a whole new language: one that expresses interdependence and reciprocity, so that the creative imagination can meet its new task. Changing paradigms is more than just a conceptual challenge: it requires that we personally leave behind certain things that have been a central part of our individual and cultural self-definitions. Hard-edged individualism will not apply. The bare white walls of the gallery and the aluminum frame will not apply. Recognizing an artist’s worth through the fact of showing or not showing, selling or not selling, will not apply. This kind of art comes from a different vision, and is dedicated to a single perception: how to live appropriately in an interconnected universe.

In my own writing, I have been drawn mostly to the work of artists who have peeled away their attachment to conventional success and made the shift into what the Dalai Lama calls “altruistic mind.” This is because I believe, along with the Dalai Lama, that compassion, love, and altruism are not just desirable spiritual attributes; they are human qualities that are fundamental to our survival. In general, artists do not aspire to become models, exemplars, or harbingers of a new way of being — but some of them, acting from their own power and truth, know there is a better path than the one currently being exhibited. And they let their whole life communicate a different message.

What I am really talking about here is a quantum shift in the motivational attitudes of the artist—not just away from isolated individualism and the self-serving, self-seeking world of commodity capitalism, but towards new forms of compassionate interaction and being-in-relation. What I am talking about involves a radical refusal to collaborate any longer with an economic system that leads us away from spirituality, soul, mutually supportive communities, and responsible stewardship of the earth. Art itself is an instrument; it can be used to develop a civilization with heart — a civilization with compassion at its center, instead of greed.

This may not be the most popular view, but I agree with what Friedrich Nietzsche once said: “The product of a philosopher is his life. That is his work of art.” I believe the same dictum applies to artists as well. Creativity is a process that goes on all the time, not just when one is in the studio or at the desk. Creativity is connected to the whole of life, and to the totality of our experience. When it is made to fit the rules and standards of a specific institutional filter, the soul’s personal reality easily gets lost in the culture’s shadow.

Sometimes when I talk this way, people assume I have a grudge against objects. But it isn’t true. I’m not attacking objects. I’m just making a strong case for something else. Or people think, given the problems of the world, I am suggesting that art has to do something about them. In truth, neither art nor artists are what will save the world. Only a new way of being can do that — one that knits people together and inspires an ethos of generosity and caring, and a return to the root idea of what it means to make moral choices. The fundamental problem in the West today is the illusion of autonomy. It fails to recognize the interconnectedness of everyone and everything. And it ignores the well-being of the whole.

Only when we dissolve our historical ties to the modern paradigm of materialism, and overcome our habits of passivity and consumerism, is there any hope of moving towards a more spiritually informed way of looking at the world. Art that is oriented towards empathic attunement goes against the prevailing current. It suggests a radically different approach to the way that artists do their work, often requiring a step out of line and a break with the past. Other people will feel the ripples, and sometimes they won’t like it. Allan Kaprow used to say (way back in the 1960s) that “the artist of the future must learn how to evade his profession.”  I think he knew what he was talking about.

My friend and colleague Carol Becker, Dean of Faculty and Vice President of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, claims that what our culture really needs now, especially since 9/11, is to put community at the core of our species nature. “The collective project of our species,” she states, “is to engage in its own conscious evolution beyond individual identity, difference, and nationhood. Its success can best be measured by how well we care for, protect, and value each other’s lives.”  It has been said that “acedia,” or not caring, is the most dominant sin of our culture today. If selfishness is indeed the virus that pervades the human species, then the high-level commitment of artists who want to use art to change life for the better can lead us in a new direction. We need this higher view, since we have been horribly sidetracked by the negative influences of a superficial culture that is spiritually illiterate and morally bankrupt. What I am proposing is that the cultivation of compassion and the attainment of our Buddha-nature are the crucial cultural and spiritual tasks before us. Because nothing less than a transformation at the core of our being — manifesting in the courage to act differently in the world — can save us at this juncture.

So let me close with my favorite line of poetry, by Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart work.”  

Suzi Gablik is the author of Has Modernism Failed? and The Enchantment of Art. Her most recent book, Living the Magical Life, is a memoir published in 2002 by Phanes Press. She lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

This article was originally published in Landscape & Art, Summer 2003.

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