Saturday, February 13, 2010

Anthony Gormley on art

An interesting essay by Anthony Gormley in today's Guardian, in which he ponders the future of art. He writes:

What I am asking for is a reassessment of what art is and how it works. I am questioning the linear trajectory of art history as part of western development, recognising that all art exists in the sense of a continuous present. We are now in a position to acknowledge that those stages in an evolutionary past that would, in previous times, have been thought of as primitive, are coexisting in this era and are not superseded – and actually the use of the fetish and the totem as reference points for a model of art are enormously useful.

I agree with him, although I think art already has been seen in a sense of continuous presence since modernism at the turn of the twentieth century. I also believe that what he is talking about when he refers to the fetish and the totem has always existed in art, subconsciously. This is the mythos, that strange way of culturing our existence and explaining it through myth and allegory and story. It is this that first distinguished homo sapiens from other animals, this ability to think in an abstract way and allow the totem, fetish, story, whatever, to stand in for everyday reality. So, to that extent, I don't think Gormley is actually asking for anything at all that doesn't already exist.

What concerns me more about his essay is his bald statement that:

The carbon crisis calls for a re-­examination of our faith in the technological basis of western progress. A change in belief is a cultural change; art and artists are implicated. As Paul ­Ehrlich and others have pointed out, human evolution has been driven by cultural rather than biological change; our brain size, synaptic activity, physical characteristics have not changed much in the last million or so years. What has changed is the material culture that we have made and which has in turn made us, from stone tool-making, farming, printing, the industrial revolution, the information revolution and now, maybe, the most critical and difficult revolution of all: a complete reversal of many of the values that we have held dear. We can no longer assume that more is better. Technology that was in some senses made to make life better has now become the problem.

I see Jock Tamson's baby being cast out of the window with the bath water. Gardyloo! The west is reaching a crisis, and instead of dealing with that crisis in a sensible fashion it is turning inward, turning against itself, losing its confidence, trying to change itself into something it cannot be. We are trying to do what Rousseau warned us was impossible - turn ourselves back into the noble savage. Note the way Gormley throws in, completely unexplained and unjustified, the loaded judgement that "We can no longer assume that more is better." Perhaps not, but who said we did? What has that to do with the technology he is warning against?

Thus, in arguing for an understanding of the coexistence of our mythical and technological modes of thinking, he is not looking forward, not being brave, but simply cowering into a safety that doesn't exist.

No comments: