Realists of a larger reality

Realists of a larger reality

In 2014 Ursula K. Le Guin accepted the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters with a deliciously powerful speech. Aware that her time was nearing its end, she declared that her “beautiful reward” was accepted on behalf of, and shared with...
. . . writers of the imagination who, for the last fifty years, watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists. I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now. Who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries; the realists of a larger reality. . . . We live in capitalism; its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art: the art of words. . . . The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.
Today, it is evident that those hard times have arrived for many, and will continue to arrive for ever more people around the world. As Simon Mont wrote in Tikkun’s recent issue on the New Economy, “capitalism is collapsing under the weight of itself, and it’s not pretty”. Our globalised world finds itself caught on the horns of a seemingly impossible dilemma – either cease growing, and so collapse the economy on which we all depend, or continue to grow until we overwhelm and destroy the ecosystems on which we all depend. As my late mentor, the historian and economist David Fleming, put it,
It is certain that there are no simple answers to this—none that could be proposed without proposing at the same time a transformation in the whole of the way we think, work and order our lives.
Polyp - Steady as she goes It was in this context that I read that wonderful issue of Tikkun, exploring just such "alternatives to how we live now". I found myself in wholehearted agreement with the pieces therein, but I could still hear that voice in the back of my mind – surely it’s not realistic. Despite the numerous inspiring examples cited, surely the mainstream economy is just too big, too established, too real, to be overthrown by such utopian dreams. I’m certain I’m not the only one with this internal realist for company. But as the much-missed Le Guin said, the age of such realists is ending. Indeed, they have come close to dooming our world. For those paying attention, it could not be clearer that our time demands “realists of a larger reality”. To take one pressing example, the inherently conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent Global Warming of 1.5ºC report makes it abundantly clear that the unfolding realities studied by climate science are dramatically outpacing the policies notionally intended to address them. They find that we must halve emissions in the next twelve years, and so their observations force them to call for:
Rapid and far-reaching … unprecedented transformation in the economy.
In other words, it has become impossible to be simultaneously realistic with regard to both the political climate and the physics of climate. The two stubbornly refuse to reconcile, so we are forced to decide which carries more weight, and then be profoundly unrealistic about the other. To take present policy seriously demands a total rejection of the science. And to take science seriously demands a total rejection of present policy (with grassroots movements like the Extinction Rebellion and Climate Mobilization emerging accordingly). As such, I turn to my internal realist with a challenge – which reality is it that deserves our allegiance: today’s political economy or physical reality? Slightly to my surprise, he sees my point, and switches sides. And then, as an unrepentant realist, he gets straight to the point: What then does this larger reality demand? How might we solve the impossible dilemma? What is necessary, that we might have a future? “Patience”, I counsel my unexpected new ally. First, let us consider what we face. An economy so violently contrary to our human instincts and desires that it leaves epidemics of depression, loneliness and suicide everywhere it goes. That uses mass media and financial stress to hollow our souls and seize control of both our days and our hearts, sparking not only economic and environmental devastation, but cultural and spiritual annihilation. Like villagers glancing fearfully up at the castle of some dauntingly powerful vampire, we live our lives under the shadow of the economy of undeath. We owe this reality no allegiance. But we owe it respect. It is a worthy adversary, no doubt. Yet its weak point is obvious. People straight up hate it. They hate their jobs and the materialist hollowness imposed on their lives. Nonetheless, as I grew up inside it the corporate media kept us blind to other possibilities, made it seem patently obvious – only common sense – that continuing to participate in this grim reality is the only realistic option. But it’s a lie. And while a lie may take care of the present, it has no future. The truth is that it takes immense energy (of all kinds) to keep a population suppressed – to fight all our contrary impulses; to quieten our profound inner misgivings, our spark of creativity and rebellion. Leunig - Healthy Economy And this energy is running low. The domination economy of mass media and financial stress is probably the most effective system for alienating people from their spirit that our Earth has ever seen, but cracks are appearing everywhere. The edifice is crumbling. We all know, of course, that it is unsustainable – devouring its very foundations as it does – but it is somehow easy to forget that this means that it will end. Easy to forget, perhaps, because for all that we resent the hollow emptiness it imparts, the prospect of its absence too is terrifying, for those of us who were only raised to secure water from a tap; food from a supermarket. As Mont writes,
Only by knowing how to stay alive without the dominant system can we actually have the courage and wisdom to abandon or dismantle it.
He’s right, but it sounds pretty daunting. Must we then build a whole alternative economy before we can begin? Fortunately not… ~~~ An Teach Saor I am writing this article from my dear compañero Mark Boyle’s small community in Ireland, An Teach Saor (The Free House). It is a home from home for me, and one of many, many places around the world where the residents are making the logic of money and the market obsolete – abandoning it, before it abandons us. For example, the ‘free pub’ and bunkhouse here – The Happy Pig – is a place where anyone can stay, free of charge, and remember what it is to not have to find money simply to have a place to exist. You may not have heard much about such places, because that suits the corporate media just fine. But awareness of this agenda brings with it an emboldening thought. Doubtless, for every bastion of hope and joy you hear of or encounter, there are a hundred more that you haven’t. It is a heartening multiplication that I regularly remind myself of; a counterweight to the mainstream media’s narrow, oppressive ‘realism’. Here at An Teach Saor a different future is being built, day by day, smile by smile. One that is grounded in relationships of love and respect, and ultimately in the only economic system that has ever truly worked – the system upon which all others have depended – Nature. Being here is a healing, nourishing experience, surrounded by inspiring books, wild nature and wonderful, trustworthy people with hands dirty from the soil, who seek nothing more from each other than the pleasure of companionship. Once we remember the taste of freedom, the zombie economy holds little allure. Yet Mark’s words take me back to the wider world...
Despite knowing little or nothing of the bloody, mucky realities of land-based lives, techno-utopians will warn you to be careful not to romanticise the past. On this, I agree, and I know it first-hand. But be even more careful of those who romanticise the future.
No Exit - Andy Singer And among the books on the shelf here rests one that speaks to that very theme – Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy, a posthumously published work by my aforementioned mentor David Fleming. Therein, he reminds us of just how unusual today’s ‘ordinary’ is, and how profoundly unrealistic it is to pin our hopes on market capitalism – an economic system that has existed for less than 1% of human history and is already not only destroying its own foundations, but those of life on Earth. In his words,
The Great Transformation has already happened. It was the revolution in politics, economics and society that came with the market economy, and which hit its stride in Britain in the late eighteenth century. Most of human history had been bred, fed and watered by another sort of economy, but the market has replaced, as far as possible, the social capital of reciprocal obligation, loyalties, authority structures, culture and traditions with exchange, price and the impersonal principles of economics.
This historical context is critical. The New Economy our times call for is in many ways the Old Economy. We are rediscovering the ways human beings related to each other for hundreds of thousands of years before we were ripped into isolation by the brief historical anomaly of market capitalism, into which most of us alive today happened to be born. Suddenly it makes sense that living as we do here should feel so right. After all, what is the Happy Pig – which sounds so radical to modern ears – if not a simple rekindling of the ancient Irish tradition of hospitality? As Mont put it:
[The New Economy] is a groundswell to relying on a memory harboured in our hearts to make real a vision of humans returning to deep relationships with earth, spirit, and each other, that is constantly evolving and changing, while staying acutely cognizant of the fact that we must relearn how to keep ourselves alive without capitalism and extraction.
Fleming took that dear memory harboured in our hearts and wrote it large across the page. “We know what we need to do,” he writes, “We need to build the sequel, to draw on inspiration which has lain dormant, like the seed beneath the snow.” Lean Logic & Surviving the Future - David Fleming An Teach Saor is just one of thousands of communities around the world today inspired by his sparkling, tantalising writing, which also helped inspire the birth of the now-global Transition Towns movement. Why? Because his fundamental answer to our core dilemma is so refreshing – unique, perhaps, among modern economists. For him, the key to a better future lies not in jobs, growth and mathematics, but in culture, community and conviviality. He notes, for example, the startlingly extensive holidays of the medieval calendar (five months of each year, in some places) and ponders why the good folk of the Middle Ages were enjoying so much more leisure time than we are in our technologically-advanced society. What gives? He explains,
In a competitive market economy a large amount of roughly equally-shared leisure time – say, a three-day working week, or less – is hard to sustain, because any individuals who decide to instead work a full week can produce for a lower price (by working longer hours than the competition they can produce a greater quantity of goods and services, and thus earn the same wage by selling each one more cheaply). These more competitive people would then be fully employed, and would put the more leisurely out of business completely. This is what puts the grim into reality.
So in an economy like ours, a technological advance that doubles the amount of useful work a person can do in a day becomes a problem rather than a benefit. It tends to put half the workers out of work, turning them into a potential drain on the state (or simply leaving them destitute). Of course, in theory all the workers could just work half-time and still produce all that is needed, as is promised by today’s latest wave of automation utopians. But in practice workers are often afraid of having their pay cut, or losing their jobs to a stranger who is willing to work longer hours. In the absence of a sense of community or mutual trust, and having been taught to seek their security in a wage, people instead compete against each other for the right to perform the pointless tasks that anthropologist David Graeber memorably characterised as “bullshit jobs”. Dilbert BS jobs Meanwhile, governments see that the only way to keep unemployment from rising to the point where the system breaks down is through endless economic growth, which thus becomes a non-negotiable obligation – a dogma. So we just keep growing and cross our fingers that somehow Nature will continue to bail us out forever. As Fleming put it,
Civilisations self-destruct anyway, but it is reasonable to ask whether they have done so before with such enthusiasm, in obedience to such an acutely absurd superstition, while claiming with such insistence that they were beyond being seduced by the irrational promises of religion.
Take heart though, for when the current paradigm transparently offers nothing but a literal dead end, we can be sure that we are on the cusp of a fundamental shift. And Fleming provides the radical but historically-proven alternative: focusing neither on the growth nor de-growth of the market economy, but on huge expansion of the ‘informal’ or non-monetary economy—the ‘core economy’ that keeps our society alive, even today. This is the economy of what we love: of the things we naturally do when not otherwise compelled, of music, play, family, volunteering, activism, friendship and home. Yet over the past couple of centuries, this core economy has been much weakened, as the ever-growing stresses of precarious employment, debt and rising prices have left people with less time and energy for friendships, family and fun. As such, to sustain a post-growth economy we will need to get beyond mainstream economics’ aim of minimising spare labour. This ‘spare labour’ is what most of us might call spare time—time enjoyed outside the formal economy—a welcome part of a life well lived rather than a ‘problem of unemployment.’ Party night Those extensive holidays of former times were far from a product of laziness. Rather they were, in an important sense, what men and women lived for. ‘Spare time’ spent in feasting, performing, collaborating and merrymaking together formed the basis of communal bonding, membership and trust. These shared cultural ties then bind people together in cooperation, support and solidarity, the essential foundations for the communities which have thrived throughout history in the absence of economic growth (and its attendant certainty of devastating collapse) or full-time employment. As Fleming writes,
The [future] economy will depend for its existence on a deep foundation in culture. It is possible to live without it, but only for a time, like holding your breath under water.
Or as one of his readers put it – when productivity improves “in our system you have a problem; in Fleming’s system you have a party”. This is the party we are enjoying here at An Teach Saor, and in so many other places, families and communities around the world. Meanwhile, Fleming’s writing up on the shelf, with its rare combination of charm and rigour, reminds us that nurturing the core economy back to health in this way is not merely some quaint and obsolete shared longing, but an absolute practical priority – unadulterated realism. Wherever we are, we can spend our days relearning how to seek our security in each other – and in Nature – rather than in money, and as we do, we notice that the unfolding end of the undeath economy (no longer our undeath economy) becomes less something to fear, and more something to celebrate. We think less about what we might stand to lose and far more about the joys we had already lost and are slowly learning to regain, together. At long last we are remembering how to build a world in which, as dear David wrote,
There will be time for music.
-- Note: I first drafted this in September, but then decided to rework parts of it for publication as free-standing articles for Tikkun and Kosmos magazines. With those pieces now published, I have decided to release the original full piece here.
Interview on grief, Dark Optimism, aliveness and activism

Interview on grief, Dark Optimism, aliveness and activism

This is an excerpt from a longer video interview Rhonda Fabian conducted with Shaun Chamberlin at the opening of the New Story Summit in Findhorn, Scotland. Part of a Findhorn Foundation documentary initiative. Transcript originally published in the Kosmos Journal. -- Rhonda Fabian: Shaun, please tell me what Dark Optimism means to you. Dark Optimism is a widely misunderstood term. I get a lot of people coming up to me saying, “Are you feeling dark today, or optimistic?” That’s not quite what I mean. Dark Optimism means being unashamedly positive about the kind of world we could create, but unashamedly realistic about how far we are from doing that right now. So it’s not that sort of bright shiny optimism, which I can find quite frustrating. It’s more like, “Well everything isn’t fine actually", you know? It’s an ability to look at the more difficult aspects of where we are and what we’re doing, whilst also retaining a sort of deep faith in human potential. And also drawing on the deeper questions of why we’re really here. And does the state of the world in any way challenge our purpose in being here, or make that impossible? I don’t think it does.
Even if we are into a world of unstoppable, runaway climate change, for example. There’s still love to do, there’s still positive change to make in the world.
Fabian: How does it compare with the Dark Mountain movement? Well, obviously they stole my darkness! (laughs) Actually, their name comes from a Robinson Jeffers poem. But Dark Mountain plays an incredibly important part enabling us to ask the questions that we’re often not allowed to ask. You know, maybe it is all too late. And if it is, what does that mean? There’s a logical flaw at the heart of a lot of arguments that we make in “the movement” – whichever movement label you want to put on it – which is that we tend to look at things and say, “Well that won’t work, so we need this.” An example might be people saying, “Well renewable energy can’t ramp up fast enough to solve our energy crisis, so we need nuclear.” Or, “The mainstream parties aren’t going to give us what we need, so we need the Green Party." Or to not vote…or whatever. The premise isn’t the conclusion – they don’t join up! You might just as well say, “Renewable energy can’t ramp up fast enough to deal with our energy crisis, so we need sardines.” You’ve not said anything about the alternative. You’ve just said, “This doesn’t work, so that.” And I think Dark Mountain addresses that to an extent. The argument we hear again and again in environmentalism is, “Should we be working for radical change, or should we be working within the existing paradigms?” So, people will say, “Well, you know, we don’t have time to wait for a revolution. Everything has to happen now, so we’ve got to work within the existing paradigms.” And then other people say, “Well, you know, if we don’t have a radical, fundamental revolution, then what’s the point, because we’re just addressing symptoms.” And both of those arguments, I think, are completely valid. Yet, you hear people arguing back and forth and back and forth about this and never finding resolution. They can’t admit that they’re actually both right. There isn’t time for radical change, AND we need radical change. And so, if you can never accept that actually maybe they’re both right, and that we have to ask some really deeper questions about what that means, then you just end up with people over here having a nice career saying this, and people over there having a nice career saying that. And you never actually get to the deeper truth. For me, Dark Mountain is a venue where we can ask those kinds of questions. Well, what if this doesn’t work AND that doesn’t work? And what if we don’t actually know of an alternative. Can we sit with that? Can we actually sit with that together? And can we have a conversation about what that means? To me that’s a really potent and fertile space. Fabian: It says to me that there’s a place for sorrow in optimism? Yes. Part of my journey over the last few years is that David Fleming, who was my mentor and very close friend passed away very suddenly at the end of 2010. And actually, we were just a few weeks away from launching a big project that we’d co-authored. So it was a very difficult and busy time. To try and hold that – deal with the work and bring it to the fruition we were both hoping for, whilst also trying to process the grief of the sudden loss of my – my good friend. And then just three weeks after he passed, my fiancée passed away very suddenly as well. That was a profoundly challenging time. And I’m quite happy with how I moved through that. Yet, I don’t think grief is a process that ends. I think it’s a relationship that continues throughout your life. I sort of found over the past few years that when I reflect on and write about my personal grief, there’s a very strong correlation between that and the grief that many of us carry, maybe all of us carry, for the state of the world and the state of nature and the state of our society.
I think grieving, as opposed to loss, is a process of opening ourselves. When we suffer a loss that’s overwhelming, we shut down. Your body just says, “That’s too much”, right? “I’m gonna shut it down.” We shut down part of ourselves and that keeps us from being completely overwhelmed, but it also keeps us from being fully alive.
And so the process of grieving is the process of – of coming back to life. On a societal level, on a collective level, that’s true as well. Part of the reason we fail collectively right now to face up to the kind of damage that we’re doing in the world, is because the grief of it is so overwhelming, that the process of opening those doors again is incredibly difficult. Because behind them is a huge, overwhelming bunch of pain. So every time you open one of them again, there it is waiting for you. And so you have to have the space to do that – to work through that pain. And it’s only by doing that that you come back to life and you start to be able to respond to these problems in a way that is more open, to look at it all in the round and say, “Okay. What is the most appropriate way of acting here?” Rather than, “Oh god, I can’t look at that. I’m just gonna keep my head down and work really hard at this thing, because I can’t look at the bigger questions.” Because the grief is still there. Fabian: So if grief is a process, what about despair? Well there’s a really interesting thing about despair, I think. It has a spark in it of deep motivation. I think despair can be described as looking at every possible scenario and seeing no hopeful one. But what that means is, if you can present someone in despair with one scenario that looks hopeful - that looks like a real possibility - then there’s this immense wealth of motivation to drive toward it, because despair is not a nice place to be.
If you can actually present someone with a possibility, even if it’s just a narrow possibility, then despair becomes this huge driver, this huge motivation that can achieve incredible things.
Fabian: Is this despair at the heart of Dark Optimism? Does that drive your activism? For me, becoming whatever I am, whether that’s an activist, or whatever, was about selfishness really. It was about the perspective I hold that in a very real and important sense – we’re all one. And our well-being is completely interdependent. From that sort of spiritual perspective, the suffering of others and the suffering of the world is my suffering. Consequently, you know, sitting on the sofa, watching TV, selfishly consuming, wasn’t very selfish because it – it didn’t satisfy me. It left me with this – this sort of pain about what was happening. And it was really uncomfortable for me as an individual. And the only thing that could make me more comfortable, was to feel like I was facing up to these challenges, trying to engage with them in some impactful, positive way. That was the only way I as an individual could feel happier, more content, and more whole. And so, yes, that process of opening to the pain that we feel at the state of the world; the anger, or dissatisfaction, or sense of injustice, or whatever it might be that we feel when we look at how things are;
if we don’t try and face what we feel, and hear the call that it might give to us, then we’re shutting ourselves down. Then we’re becoming less alive.
The one piece of advice I would give to young people is to remember that you cannot NOT change the world. Whatever you do will change the world. If you take the most default option, you follow the most mainstream, down the line, ‘just keep your head down and get on with what they’re telling you to do’, approach, then that’s the world that you’re helping to create. There is no way that you can not change the world. And so open yourself to everything that you feel about the state of the world. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do. But just ask yourself, “How do I want to respond to this in a way that isn’t shutting me down; that is opening me up; that is helping me be fully who I am.” And that will lead you for the rest of your life. -- This is an excerpt from a longer video interview conducted on the 27th September 2014, at the beginning of the New Story Summit in Findhorn, Scotland. EDIT - 12th Jan 2017 - The video footage of this 14 min interview excerpt added above. The footage of the full 43 min interview is also available, here.
Of grief

Of grief

Let me tell you a story. It’s a story about our land – our home – and our ability to live peaceful, harmonious, respectful lives upon it and in partnership with it. And it’s a story about the big bad political structures and corporate institutions that conspire to stop us doing so, using the unspeakable, impenetrable black magic of bureaucracy and backhanders to bind our best efforts with frustration and fatigue. Oh, you already know that one?
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Ok, then maybe you’re ready for the next chapter, about what comes after? Fine. Sit down, make yourselves comfortable. But you should know that this isn’t a Hollywood story, about a heroic individual battling the faceless hordes of bureaucratic ennui and struggling towards an inevitable triumph. No, this is a collective adventure, and a story I have to try to tell from the inside, as it occurs. Although perhaps it could be all the more powerful, for that? This story really matters to me. To us. It is the story of our lives. It seems you know the early chapters. The ones where the twisted power of the demons seems unstoppable, where calling the future uncertain sounds recklessly optimistic, where our humble efforts seem insignificant, and where our all-powerful superhero is nowhere to be seen. And you know too that, as in the most gripping stories of our childhood, the stakes are higher even than death. Though death is at stake; for us, for our loved ones. Higher than the destruction of our entire communities. Though their destruction is ongoing. Maybe higher, even, than extinction: that death of birth itself. Though that too hangs in the balance, for us and for others.
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Here I sense some of your eyes widen. What could be worse than that? But some of you nod sadly, knowing that I speak of ‘undeath’. That living death that hollows all joy, pleasure and meaning from our souls even as our bodies continue to feast on all around us. The realm of zombies, of vampires. This is our story, so we all know it is no fiction. Rather, it is the true story that some of us don’t dare to tell our children, because we know they will be scared, and that we may have no honest way to reassure them.
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You should know that I do not speak of death lightly. Two years ago I lost both my closest partner and mentor, and my fiancée, both suddenly, and within a few weeks of each other. Shortly afterwards, my father suffered a double heart attack and barely survived. I am coming to know a little of death, of its causes, and of what it leaves behind. And I am learning a great deal. Eventually, painfully, I am beginning to learn what Nature tells us so clearly, and what our culture fights so hard to ignore. That death is not evil. That death has its rightful place, as the partner of life, and it always will. But that undeath does not. Undeath is the enemy of nature and of life. The enemy of art and of love. It is the hollow-eyed, insatiable hunger that works to consume all that we hold dear, and takes no pleasure in that work. But I am getting ahead of myself...
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Instead, let me speak a little to those who feel their unity with their lover, Earth. Those who step into the wild from which we came and can feel the terrible grief that she herself carries. Unending, as all grief is. As all relationships are. But who also feel something more from our wise, wise, deep lover. That grief too has its place. That feeling the loss of life, aching over it, is, truly, a triumph for life. Grief cannot – stubbornly will not – overcome death, but it vanquishes life’s true enemy. This is the gift we can eventually bring back from our time in the underworld, clutched tight against those from whose realm we return. The gift of the tingling intensity of full life – the simple joys of a path untainted by despair, corruption or surrender. The exquisite tastes of food, the truth and beauty ringing in the music and, for me, always the dancing; my wild, beloved dancing. The aliveness that grief works to return us to - in its agonising, unhurried way - in the aftermath of beloved death.
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And, possibly, the gift for which environmentalism hungers. So often, when I hear the learnéd speak of environmental collapse, ongoing or long done, all I can hear is their pain - sometimes articulated, often not - lurking among the figures and statistics. Unresolved.. I hear a zombie speaking. It is no great wonder that when a man seeks a podium to speak of his pain, the audience is limited. Most flinch before this uninvited onslaught, are put out, offended, impinged upon.
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Yet we can - I can - learn to speak from the place beyond agony. Joy. The place that faces down death, even the death of birth, and finds life beyond that. In this world. In that place I find the other voices, the non-human and the no longer human. The others who share in the life of this planet, and those who no longer do. All speak in this place. And those dread, tender voices speak of death. Shatter undeath. Bring life.
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epilogue
There is a time for everything – a time for grieving, a time for reflection, a time for action, a time for silence. I feel that the time for storytelling, and for sitting comfortably, is drawing to a close. On Dark Optimism I sometimes speak of the paths I am choosing to walk, and if they seem a little inadequate in the face of the big bad, well it is because they are. But they bring me life – true life – and a little voice whispers to me that that is enough. That that is everything. I know that voice, and I love her.
Maria
in memory of Maria Elvorith, 13/06/82 ~ 21/12/10
Untitled, 2010

Untitled, 2010

David Buckland, text Amy Balkin, ‘Going to hell on a handcart.’, Ice Art

"Untitled, 2010" was written by artist Maria Elvorith for The Future We Deserve, a book project about collaboratively creating the future we deserve, set for publication in January 2012.

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“The war that matters is the war against the imagination, all other wars are subsumed in it.” ~ Diane Di Prima
With each day we move towards a necessary revolution. Resource depletion, mass species extinction and the risk of runaway climate change highlight the great flaws in our current worldview and the society it has built. It is in this nebulous inner realm of intuition and story that a revolution quietly gathers strength. And it is in this realm that art has a unique power. Its intrinsic nature allows it not only to powerfully mirror ‘the now’, but to inspire and demonstrate a vision of where we can go from here. However, if society is not engaged with these pressing issues or actively debating the absurdity of the current system, then most artists won’t be either. It has taken a painfully long time for the predominant western civilisation to begin to acknowledge the devastating consequences of its current systems. Perhaps then it is no wonder that a lot of the artwork produced in the 21st century comments on excess, commoditisation, self-immortalisation and isolation. Artists are a part of society, and once they are aware of or involved in a debate, they will inevitably create works that communicate this understanding, whether through content, creation or presentation. But to ask an artist to respond to something that they have little or no understanding of – or interest in – invariably produces work which is contrived and short lived.
Pablo Picasso, ‘Guernica’, Oil on canvas, 1937. Pablo Picasso, ‘Guernica’, Oil on canvas, 1937
The greatest and most striking artworks tend to emerge instead from the expression of a tension within the artist, usually without a planned agenda. Take for example Picasso’s Guernica[1], painted almost immediately after the devastating casual bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and famous for its depiction of the horrors of war. When asked to explain the symbolical references in the painting, Picasso would often refuse: "...this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse... If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are." [2] And herein lies our Catch-22. The urgency with which we need to respond to these issues calls for the inspiration that artists carry with them, which could help to move the debate forward into actualisation. Dr. Gerald Bast describes this well: "The true beauty of art lies in its ability to move us intellectually, motivate us to follow new paths, shape awareness and character, demonstrate interconnectedness and teach us to employ all the things that surround us in a conscious manner. The achievement of social effectiveness can neither be the aim or the purpose of art. Nonetheless art has a social influence, either in the sense of change, or in the spirit of affirmation and conservation." [3] Yet unless artists themselves are genuinely intimately involved in the exploration, and can escape from the commoditisation of the arts sufficiently to find their true voice, then the need for their distinctive contribution may go unmet. In a sense, the future we deserve is inevitable – we will reap what we sow. But if artists can be released from their bind, then their ability to unite our hearts, minds and imagination could catalyse the creation of a future we all hope for. -- References [1] http://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp [2] http://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/guernica_nav/gnav_level_1/5meaning_guerfrm.html [3] U-n-f-o-l-d: A cultural response to climate change, exhibition catalogue, 2010, Springer-Verlag/Wein