I’m increasingly convinced that too much contemporary art making is becoming cultic and pseudo-religious. I see this trend most clearly in the various attempts to dematerialize art objects, the increasing visibility of relational art and most recently with the popularization in visual art discourse of the currently unofficial stratigraphic term “Anthropocene.” I think much of this turn toward the mystical is a result of concerns about high concentrations of wealth and existential fear about the destruction of human civilization due to catastrophic global climate change. These factors and the fact that avant-garde art argues for a linear, progressive aesthetic evolution has led to a general acceptance of eschatological pseudo-philosophy in the visual arts.
The Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey has suggested that people can approach works of art without the benefit of language by “empathizing with objects.” Former Menil curator and current Perez Art Museum director Franklin Sirmans said of the artist Glenn Kaino (who was included in Sirmans’ Prospect New Orleans 3 and currently on view at the Modern in Fort Worth): “There was something about the work—so based around science and technology but at the same time based around magic and spirituality. Glenn mixes them so easily.” The examples of this kind of thing really are endless and kind of astonishing.
The term Anthropocene was first coined in 2000 by scientists Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen. Anthropocene is meant to describe a geological epoch in which humans have caused mass plant and animal extinctions, changed the atmosphere with CO2 emissions and polluted the earth’s oceans. Officially, the Earth is still in the Holocene Epoch. Anthropocene is a cultural and political term masquerading as (and campaigning for inclusion in) science. Many geologists are skeptical of adopting the term because there is no clear demarcation in the sediment layer to which they can point to as the start date. Recent analysis by scientists at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History point out that anthropogenic changes in plants and animals began about 6,000 years ago when agriculture first spread around North America. The term Anthropocene has not been adopted by The International Commission of Stratigraphy. It is set to make a determination on the matter later this year.
Last year the high priest of Relational Aesthetics, Nicholas Bourriaud gave a lecture at the Fort Worth Modern on the possible cultural ramifications of this new pseudo-geological epoch. I recently listened to his lecture on the Modern’s podcast series and thought I’d share some thoughts here. In Bourriaud’s essay for The Great Acceleration, his 2014 iteration of the Taipei Biennial, he writes, “It is in this historical context that Speculative Realism has emerged—a holistic thought that humans and animals, plants and objects must be treated on an equal footing.” Speculative Realism (the name should already arouse suspicion) is also known as metaphysical realism (which should arouse even more suspicion) and asserts that the world around us is independent of our perception of it. This kind of realism is called speculative or metaphysical because it absolutely cannot be proven to be real. As in: God exists, he really does. You just can’t see him! This of course is anti-scientific and anti-Enlightenment. At the heart of all religion is a belief in an essential reality that cannot be falsified.
In his talk at the Modern Bourriaud makes the claim that art in the 21st century is not about looking at a work of art through your eyes and the mental processes of your brain but allowing the artwork to look at you. Bourriaud asserts (and promotes) the idea that the subject/object relationship is falling apart. He takes as a matter of fact that in the Anthropocene, the boundaries between human, animal, plant and manufactured object have dissolved. This allows him to assert that we have entered a new evolutionary phase in which ancient and superstitious ideas like animism, in which human or animal attributes are attributed to inert objects, has reasserted itself as a viable strategy not only for art making but for survival in the face of global climate catastrophe.
The idea is a kind of return to Eden where lions lay down with lambs. Bourriaud’s interpretation of art in the Anthropocene is one in which artists attempt to model a return to the wholeness of human existence or illustrate the tragedy of our disconnection with nature. These are essentially religious precepts that correspond to ideas about heaven and hell. At the heart of all this is a feeling of helplessness in the face of an economic system which seems to assert control over every aspect of human life and a paralyzing fear of environmental collapse. Humanity will continue to stumble along, facing disaster in its makeshift way just as it has for thousands of years. But it is possible that if we resist the appeals to salvation and damnation inherent in Bourriaud’s Anthropocene we may be able to do it on our feet instead of our knees. Artists might do well to empathize with their fellow human beings and stop talking to rocks.