"Container yard #1, Seattle"
44 x 59 inches
Edward Winkleman's blog is host to an interesting conversation this week (or, rather, several related conversations). Over the course of four or five recent posts Winkleman and his readers, some of whom are very articulate and opinionated, have weighed in on a number of topics. Principal among them are art and commerce, "high" art versus populist aesthetics/inspiration, and the boundaries of the avant garde. The dialogue is pervaded by market concerns and, as I read through the comments, I found myself considering not only the art market, but also broad cultural attitudes toward commerce, creative responsibility, and the social role of the contemporary artist. Regarding this last point, there seems to be much confusion, even among artists themselves...and perhaps especially among artists. Eleanor Heartney's reaction to P.S.1's "Greater New York, 2005" exhibition came to mind.
“The show suggests that artists are connected to events in the outside world but have little sense of what to do about them, other than to create artworks that incorporate their frustration, rage, apprehension or sense of the absurdity of contemporary life.”The industry we've built up around contemporary "fine" art may be more thoroughly intellectualized than that of Hollywood or hip-hop (often without good reason), but it is, essentially, the same beast. It is difficult, if not impossible, to make a living in any of these industries without becoming bogged down in a muddy mix of networking, posturing, and promotion. I'm terrible at all of these (hence my choosing words with negative connotations, such as "bogged" and "muddy") and at times I wish for nothing so much as a full-time spin doctor. Most of the successful emerging and mid-career artists that I know excel at navigating the swamp of promotion (they either enjoy it or reconcile themselves to its necessity). The amount of time and energy they commit to such endeavor makes them jealous of our independently wealthy counterparts, artists benefited not only by abundant studio time, but by greater freedom from the system. Certainly some monied artists pursue the nominal celebrity offered by art world success, but because they don't need to sell their work, they can, in effect, choose to work away from the noise and the distraction of "the scene."
While reading through the comments at Winkleman, I begin to feel that the dialogue, interesting though it may be, is just an echo of that scenester noise. Most, if not all, of the conversation taking place is grounded on the assumption that when creativity meets money, competition results, which leads to even greater creativity. That assumption is the bedrock of neoclassical economics and, in turn, free market philosophy, but not every economist embraces it. I recall John Stuart Mill's assertion that a balanced, sustainable economy (as opposed to one that is "growing," "strengthening," or, in the words of President Bush, "getting going") is "more conducive to long term political, ethical and spiritual improvements." I was first introduced to Mill's writing a few years ago, when I began pondering the concept of the Steady State Economy. This economic philosophy received a fair amount of attention on HH in 2005, when I was initially digesting the idea, but I haven't written much about it since; you needn't ruminate so often on that which you wholeheartedly believe, and the benefits offered by economies of scale and measured population dynamics are clear.
As I wrote in "Ecological Economics 101,"
"...[Brian] Czech, [author of "Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train" and president of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE)], offers advice for building a healthy alternative to unrestrained, free-market capitalism. In the steady state economic paradigm, growth (or, as Czech calls it, bloating) is discouraged; a balance is sought instead. This balance requires a more simplistic lifestyle, one driven by the quest for 'self-actualization,' a term Czech borrows from Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs," rather than self-esteem, which, in today's culture of celebrity and distraction, is tied to bling-bling displays of real estate, clothing, vehicles, expensive dining, and so on."
"Crushed cars #2, Tacoma"
44 x 62 inches
If you feel that the contemporary art world mirrors the prevailing culture of distraction, you're not alone. Innumerable bloggers, several prominent art critics, and theorists have echoed the sentiment in recent months. Counter points have been made, of course, arguing that art and commerce/power have always been bedmates, but that very answer begs the question, why, then, is the volume of dissent so very loud today? I believe it is because more people (both in sheer number and portion) are dissatisfied with the current paradigm. The scope of the problem is far greater than the art world, however, so let me shelve art for now, and elaborate on some of Czech's core ideas, as I promised to do in August of 2005.
Czech's prescription for a Steady State Economy is not original. He is merely playing the role of popularizer and spokesperson. Unfortunately, I don't imagine that "Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train" is reaching the audience it so desperately needs to, the American lower and middle classes. My other grievance is Czech's rabid focus on the liquidating class, or top 1% of consumers. He insists that they should be "castigated" whereas the members of the "steady-state class," the lower 80% of consumers, should be thanked. His critique of the liquidating mentality is warranted, but Czech goes too easy on the American majority. Most Americans make $30,000 a year (or less), yet boast of purchasing the latest cellphone, car, or designer shirt. It's no secret that success is measured by consumption. Frugality is no longer considered a virtue and, to my way of thinking, people with such unhealthy consuming patterns - the lion's share of us - are not members of what Czech calls the steady-state class, though members of the middle class undoubtedly have a less dramatic impact than the multi-billionaire, with his or her car fleets, mansion, yacht, and extravagant lifestyle.
Describing the typical "steady-stater," Czech writes,
"...[they] have small houses and lots, taking up less space and leaving more for others. Their small house and lots require less infrastructure and less commuting. Because they drive small cars that get good gas mileage, they leave a greater stock of petroleum to be tapped while scientists grope for a sustainable energy source. They also pollute less. Many of them ride bikes or use public transit. Because they don't have a different warddrobe for every occasion, they require less production of fiber, leather, and fur, which means that they leave more land for wildlife and for the grandkids. They don't accumulate large, wasteful items, thus saving storage space and tempering the traffic in trivial pursuits..."This doesn't sound like a fair description of the lower 80% of American consumers! With the rare, off-the-grid exception, Americans exhibit r-selected, boom-and-bust tendencies, as did the citizens of the expansive colonial empires that preceded our own. The solution to the bloating and destructive habits must start with individuals and local legislation, eventually leading to critical mass and a paradigm shift that sees us abandon the fictions of neoclassical economics. (To many readers, this may sound idealistic, revolutionary, or just plain naive, but Homo sapiens are a young species and, taking the long view, we can surely arrive at a more equitable system; the troubling question is, will we be around long enough to get there?)
In his critique of neoclassical economic myths, Czech shines. He begins by pointing out popular misconceptions. Among his many examples is Robert Samuelson's article, "Stupid students, smart economy?," in which Samuelson "entertained an argument that despite the education crisis...the fact that economic growth continues is a sure sign of an intelligent, well-educated society." As Czech asks in response, "does a perpetual increase in American consumption of goods and services really mean that its citizens are smarter?"
"Scrap metal, Seattle"
44 x 57 inches
It isn't just economic journalists that associate economic growth with universally good tidings, though. Our government makes the same mistakes. Over a decade ago, the Republican Secretary of Commerce, Barbara Hackman Franklin wrote, "Recognizing that commerce has supplanted military and security issues as the main concern among nations, the 14 diverse agencies that make up the Commerce Department rallied...to advance a seven point agenda for fostering economic growth." What all this growth oriented talk ignores is the most basic principal of economics; all goods and services require input of land, labor, and capital. Actually, neoclassical economics doesn't so much ignore this truth as creatively amend it; its tenants are colonial in nature. Should a wealthy country fail to produce a particular commodity, due to a lack of land, labor, or capital, they can expand their reach, using trade or old-fashioned pillaging to acquire the commodity or the resources required to produce it. Today's celebrated globalization is another manifestation of colonial conquest. Because neoclassical economists observed this expansion (more accurately termed a displacement), they created the concept of substitutability. As Czech explains,
"...the factors of economic production could be substituted among themselves. For example, if land became scarce, more production could be squeezed from it if only more labor was applied, or more capital utilized, or both. The substitutability concept was extended to assert that a resource could not be depleted, because as it was extracted and the pickings got slim, another resource could be substituted for it."Because supply is finite, however, the end result of such substitution is inevitably importation. When a population exhausts the local wood supply, they might substitute aluminum, but when that supply, too, is exhausted, one or both resources must be imported. There's no way around it...or is there?
This question brings us to the next fallacy of neoclassical economics. Resources are not limited, free market advocates tell us, because substitutability should include what lies over the horizon, new discoveries and technologies. For example, a neoclassical economist might advance the argument that the globe's fresh water supply is not dwindling, as many environmentalists and some (too few) policy makers fear, because new technologies will be developed that allow us to desalinate or otherwise produce potable H2O. Therefore, they argue, we should continue to promote economic growth and forgo any legislation regulating access and use of the existing fresh water supply. Czech says,
"We can reply that these labor- and capital- intensive operations consume their own resources and cause their own pollution, but they will reply that once we get the right technology developed, the problem will be solved. Despite the ludicrousness with which we view such 'solutions,' we can't really win the argument. Not in theory, because until we prove that these solutions are untenable, the theory stands. That is how science proceeds."But neoclassical economics is not a scientific theory; there has been no rigorous application of scientific methodology. The free market is an experiment itself, one in which all of us are participants, whether we signed up or not.
"Pallets #1, Seattle"
32 x 40 inches
Another neoclassical argument related to the promise of technology suggests that we needn't worry about depleting resources because we are always increasing efficiency. Furthermore, the economists point out, most first-world countries are transitioning into service-based economies, which require less land and raw resources. Czech responds that efficiency, while certainly a good thing, is largely a myth. Most increases in efficiency are a result of new tools, many of which use more energy and require more fuel. In the end, the more efficient production methods save on labor, but use more capital and land, making them ultimately less efficient. If short-term economic growth is the goal, this model is sufficient, but, over time, so-called "efficient production" leads to a breakdown.
Though it remains popular even among the general public, the service-based economy argument hasn't a leg to stand on. A former co-worker of mine sometimes rhapsodized about humanity's "leaving behind the agricultural" economy in favor of a "white collar world where we will all be intellectuals." When I challenged her incomplete Wellsian fantasy, asking what she makes of the millions of blue-collar Americans, the outsourced jobs, and the staggering increase in imported resources, she dismissed my concerns as irrelevant. Overall, she countered, outsourcing and increased trade is better for the world economy, lowering the unemployment rates in other countries and giving "first-world" citizens more time to develop their intellectual capacity. The evident dearth of contemporary American intellectual capacity, our struggling public school systems, and the supremacist ambition of her arguments aside, she ignores the root equation: land + labor + capital = produce/goods. We aren't just the United States of America anymore; although I resist the label generally, we are a "global village." Turning again to Czech,
"The butcher and the candlestick maker depended on the farmer who raised cattle and pigs, while the baker depended on the farmer who grew wheat and oats. To 'produce' more T-bones or candles required more cattle and pigs. To 'produce' more bread required more wheat and oats. It is easy to see why Francois Quesnay and the so-called physiocrats (predecessors of the classical economists, prominent in France in the 1760s) argued that agriculture was the sole source of economic production and growth. That is how Thomas Jefferson saw it, too."Some of you may have played Sid Meier's computer game, "Civilization." In this game you achieve victory either by a) developing your technology to such a degree that you are able to colonize Mars, b) total conquest of all the other civilizations or c) playing until a set date while keeping all your citizens relatively happy and your culture successful. One of the most effective ways to keep citizens of different cities and towns happy involves "changing" farmers into artists/entertainers. This is a neoclassical concept if ever there was one! In fact, it can be used by economists to "prove" my co-worker's argument regarding the benefits of a service and substitution based economy. In the game, as in neoclassical theory, each painter, dancer, singer, or writer requires notably less resources than does a single farmer. "The conversion of one farmer, whose existence is based on using hundreds of acres of land, makes way for a great many painters, the existence of each being based on a studio and tiny bits of product from the land." In fact, neoclassical economists suggest we can remove one farmer and add many entertainers to obtain a net gain in available resources. This is patently absurd, particularly given the ugly consumption patterns of today's celebrities, but even if we assume that every entertainer will be a steady-state saint, the resource use has only been displaced. The laws of thermodynamics, the theory of relativity, and, well, common sense, all dictate as much. That farmland is reduced on our soil mean broad swaths of Amazon forest will be cleared to make way for arable land in South America. Or, as Czech writes, "Getting back to the services sector, then, we see that only a limited number of farmers are available for conversion to services. The rest will have to stick to farming, or those of us not trained to survive in the wild - assuming there is any wild left - will starve."
"E-waste, New Orleans"
44 x 57 inches
Conservation and humanitarian efforts do not begin and end with the construction of highway underpasses or overseas rice shipments (or sending money to organizations which undertake/fund such enterprises), though these are vital components. They begin, rather, with personal practice, particularly in regards to consumption habits. I'm still not living up (or, more accurately, down) to my target footprint, but I do try to defeat my consumerist impulses. All the same, I just replaced my dying computer - which was purchased in 2001; planned obsolescence, anyone? - with a speedy (for now) laptop and, worse still, after selling a number of paintings and drawings a few months ago, I purchased a wide-screen HDTV to heighten the pleasure of my NetFlix compulsion. The truth is, I'm only marginally less guilty than the consumer who flaunts such acquisitions. Granted, I do a great deal that is considered eco-conscious: paying a premium for "green" power from ConEd, paying carbon offset fees for airline travel, recycling and composting, using canvas totes instead of plastic/paper shopping bags, using energy efficient light bulbs, relying on public transportation, contributing to many environmental policy groups, and so on. But so what?
As Edward Hoagland recently wrote in his essay, "Endgame," published in the June 2007 issue of Harper's Magazine, "People want mobility, yet a hideaway 'off the grid,' and to have the heart muscles of a hunter-gatherer, attained in a gym, though practically living in cyberspace, but still touch the earthly verities through yoga. Meanwhile, the pace and enormity of destruction is paralyzing, as is our general indifference." In this high-speed market world it isn't just creativity and creative dialogue that have been hijacked by the headlong plunge of Czech's runaway train; wise mans' social and biological imperatives are being forgotten.
Photo credits: all images from photographer Chris Jordan