On utilitarianism

abc tv shoots the audit
[Lucas all teachery-like with the ABC TV crew, in front of the Environmental Audit blackboards, at the MCA…]

In the week following the exhibition opening at the MCA, there’s been a flurry of media attention for the show (at least on good ole Aunty). (And The Artist as Family’s Food Forest has generated its own flood of media.)

Why? Is it because “the environment is so hot right now”? Which makes me wonder: how long will it take for the media to get “climate change fatigue”…?

Here in the photo above, I’m chatting with Fenella Kernebone from ABC TV’s Art Nation. I think her short piece on In the Balance (also featuring Diego Bonetto, Lauren Berkowitz, Rachel Kent, Future Farmers and Janet Laurence) will be broadcast this coming Sunday.
[update – watch Fenella’s TV spot online here…]

I was also invited to participate in a radio interview with Amanda Smith, from Radio National’s Artworks programme, who spoke with me and curator Rachel Kent. (You can listen to it here).

One of the interesting things that Amanda asked Rachel, at the start of the interview, (roughly paraphrased) is this:

There have been a lot of documentary films and books coming out in recent years about climate change and environmental crisis. What can art offer that we couldn’t get from one of these other forms of communication?

Excellent question, Amanda! Of course, my good friend and enthusiastic blog commenter Ian Milliss would probably answer, rather derisively, that what makes art stand apart from these other media forms is, precisely, that it is useless. I’ll come back to this in a minute…

I think the beginnings of another answer might be that art can shape an experience with a particular subject in a different way – certainly not better or worse – but perhaps complementary to these other forms.

A book by Tim Flannery, for example, enables you to blow your mind while sitting on the bus heading to work; a documentary film can dynamically deliver visual and testimonial evidence towards a convincing argument which you might watch on your TV or at the cinema.

To walk through the MCA (not to mention all its peripheral sites) is to cobble together a three-dimensional experiential collage. The works in the show – by different artists, using widely varying approaches – will probably not cohere together into something as singularly convincing as a book or documentary film. But they paste themselves together in the scrapbook of your own concrete experience: and each visitor’s scrapbook is unique.

One fellow who popped in to my audit room last week told me that he always likes to spend time in the gallery, as it provides space for thinking outside the usual banal utilitarian flow of everyday life. This was quite interesting for me to hear. It’s not always the case that we need direct and clear transmission of messages. Sometimes we also need a space to dwell (physically and mentally) on ambiguity and doubt, where the answers are not all delivered on a platter.

Which brings us back to Ian’s complaint: that art is precisely that which is useless. But is this the same thing?

7 thoughts on “On utilitarianism

  1. The world is, of course, a complex place where there are a lot of things going on and often things which look very similar are not in fact the same. Thus re my comment that most art is useless – there is big difference between aimless play and uselessness.

    When I decry the uselessness of art I’m usually referring to those artists who claim some implied virtuosity in the idea of art for art’s sake while never analysing their own activities enough to realise they are merely support actors in a sort of potlatch in which wealthy collectors waste enormous amounts of money on useless items just to demonstrate that they can.

    This is quite distinct from artists producing objects, in any form, whose use is contemplation that may lead viewers to a different understanding of the world or simply respite from it. There is nothing useless about that.

    Any confusion between the two comes about because people so often assume that because someone uses the media that artists have often used that they are actually achieving the cultural effects that real artists achieve ie adapting our understanding of the world. In other words just because someone paints or exhibits doesn’t mean they’re an artist and much of what is traded as art is simply an equivalent to hell money that’s bought by people who don’t really like art but who like stuff that looks like art. That’s essentially useless.

    The real relevance here is that enormous museums of contemporary art are being built all over the world that are useless except as fluffers for the art market and as displays of wealth. There is a global arms race, so to speak, of museums designed by star architects who create clumsy dysfunctional spaces filled with bloated art that signifies nothing. Is that sustainable? In the grand scheme of things even waste on that scale is negligible but contemporary art museums as symbols help normalise the cult of waste and consumerism that is destroying us.

    On the other hand I don’t have a puritanical bone in my body so I’m not advocating no-fun pinched lips utilitarianism. I’m all for exuberance, play and undirected general mucking around, in fact I think that’s our greatest hope. I’m simply pointing out that we are reaching a point where we need to make choices and the world is also full of art that requires no museum at all (like street art) or that is distributed through media like the web and so is useless for displaying wealth because it can only be shared, not owned. And then there are huge areas of activity that simply don’t look like art used to look and so are either invisible or unrecognisable (like Olegas Truchanas‘ posters never looked like art at the time they were made). But they involve cultural innovations that help us adapt our world view and mostly they generate a comparatively low level of emissions while doing it. That is the sustainable stuff.

  2. Thanks Pat, I’m glad they kept the bit where I referred to Fenella’s makeup, and all those boozy lunches the ABC honchos are famous for taking!

  3. Ian, thanks again for elucidations. The fact that things can look the same and yet be different, or vice versa, is a trap for young players…

    Perhaps Walter de Maria had something of this going on when he wrote his wonderful manifesto on “meaningless work”, which is more closely aligned with what you call “aimless play” (rather than uselessness).

    The paradox surrounds the pinning-down of outcomes.

    I am sure that those better acquainted with developmental psychology would support the idea that “aimless play” is in fact extremely valuable in many ways. But we don’t (can’t?) quantify, or even really track the utility of aimless play, since it must, to a certain extent, be carried out without excessive scrutiny, or else cease to be aimless…

  4. “It’s not always the case that we need direct and clear transmission of messages. Sometimes we also need a space to dwell (physically and mentally) on ambiguity and doubt, where the answers are not all delivered on a platter.”
    These are fantastic words. It captures and builds on some thoughts that I’m tussling with. I had been trying to smoosh together the functional and the beautiful, the poetical and the rational, but you’re right. It’s OK for one to be one thing and the other to be it’s own. Sometimes the two can come together but there’s a whole spectrum of possibilities around that. It’s not about finding the supreme form but the thing that is right for you (creator, participator, receiver, curator) at this moment.

    “…contemplation that may lead viewers to a different understanding of the world or simply respite from it. There is nothing useless about that.” I really like this too, Ian. It can be too easy to get caught up in use values and neglect our/my/the need to step outside and see things differently. I’m trying to avoid the naff tendencies that my replies often seem to have – not fully successful unfortunately. Apologies too, if these responses aren’t in the proper vein of the intended discussion but the notions strike a chord.

    Hope to catch the exhibition soon!

  5. Love the de Maria link and it was way back in 1960! I’ve never seen it before. Yes we are in the same ball park there but that then reminds me of a typically ponderous quote by the great William Morris about political differences and similarities –

    “I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. ”

    That quote sums up the constant underlying thread of cultural innovation that is forever being absorbed and perverted by the status quo but also constantly renewed. It is telling that there are people in this exhibition like Truchanas who would never have been included in a contemporary art exhibition at the time they were alive and despite his activism the widespread popularity of his photography (every cheap framing shop had one in the front window) meant that it was almost regarded as kitsch in the art world.

  6. Brilliant! We adore your passion and enthusiasm for the environmental balance sheet and will endeavour to expend energy to consume your work on the weekend!

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