During the last week of 2017, The Guardian reported dramatic increases in plastic production capacity and investment, despite various international agreements that purport to diminish the plastic pollution that inevitably finds itself into the world’s oceans, already under tremendous stress.
Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, stated: “We could be locking in decades of expanded plastics production at precisely the time the world is realising we should use far less of it. Around 99% of the feedstock for plastics is fossil fuels, so we are looking at the same companies, like Exxon and Shell, that have helped create the climate crisis. There is a deep and pervasive relationship between oil and gas companies and plastics.”
Greenpeace senior ocean campaigns director Louise Edge adds: “We are already producing more disposable plastic than we can deal with, more in the last decade than in the entire twentieth century, and millions of tonnes of it are ending up in our oceans.”
With this mind, we turn to artist-beachcomber Sheila Rogers and her powerful 2014 exhibit Oceans of Plastic.
We recall words from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, posing a question that cuts through the senseless blither of human monomania like a razor blade through a jellyfish:
We begin our 2018 navigations with Wendell Berry’s Manifesto from the Mad Farmer Liberation Front, first published in 1973, and reappearing many times since for the simple reason that every word still has a loud ring of truth to it. Images are from the studio of Canadian artist Janna Watson.
A glance back at 2017, and then onwards into the fog…..
What does global climate change mean for art? What is the value of art in a world on the verge of melting?
An Orkney Island fiddler once observed: “Art must be of use.” By counterpoint, John Cage said: “Only what one person alone understands helps all of us.”
Is art an esoteric luxury? Do the dreams and visions of art still matter?
An artist lives between two worlds – the world we inhabit and the world we imagine. Like surgeons or teachers, carpenters or truck drivers, artists are both workers and citizens. As citizens, we can vote. We can write letters to our elected officials and to the editors of our newspapers. We can speak out. We can run for office. We can march in demonstrations. We can pray.
Ultimately though, the best thing artists can do is to create art: to compose, to paint, to write, to dance, to sing. Art is our first obligation to ourselves and our children, to our communities and our world. Art is our work. An essential part of that work is to see new visions and to give voice to new truths.
Art is not self-indulgence. It is not an aesthetic or an intellectual pursuit. Art is a spiritual aspiration and discipline. It is an act of faith. In the midst of the darkness that seems to be descending all around us, art is a vital testament to the best qualities of the human spirit. As it has throughout history, art expresses our belief that there will be a future for humanity. It gives voice and substance to hope. Our courage for the present and our hope for the future lie in that place in the human spirit that finds solace and renewal in art.
Art embraces beauty. But beauty is not the object of art, it’s merely a by-product. The object of art is truth. That which is true is that which is whole. In a time when human consciousness has become dangerously fragmented, art helps us recover wholeness. In a world devoted to material wealth, art connects us to the qualitative and the immaterial. In a world addicted to consumption and power, art celebrates emptiness and surrender. In a world accelerating to greater and greater speed, art reminds us of the timeless.
In the presence of war, terrorism and looming environmental disaster, artists can no longer afford the facile games of post-modernist irony. We may choose to speak directly to world events or we may work at some distance removed from them. But whatever our subject, whatever our medium, artists must commit ourselves to the discipline of art with the depth of our being. To be worthy of a life’s devotion, art must be our best gift to a troubled world.
And finally, a link to Adams’ composition, Under the Ice:
Onwards to 2018……
As plutocracy gradually transitions into the full-blown tyrannical kleptocracy which Trump both signifies and embodies, we have been reflecting on an essay by Hannah Arendt written in 1964, shortly after her witnessing of the Eichmann trial. Images are from a 2014 installation by Wilfried Gerstel.
While politicians obey their corporate masters and cheat future generations through the sale of oil, mining and other rights within public lands and national monuments, we turn to Eileen Crist and her brilliant illumination of the heavy price we pay when we think of the natural world as a “resource” to be used by humans, excerpted from a longer essay.
Images are from the exquisite portfolio “Endangered”, by master photographer Tim Flach.
This week we lament the death of William Gass, though his writings will surely bubble and boil through the thickening karst of American literary culture for many years to come. To our ears (for he is at his most vivid when read aloud), Gass ranks as one of our truly great essayists, even when writing fiction. Fearless, vexing, elusive, partisan and polyphonous; an artist giving voice to the multitudes that swim – and sometimes drown – within the self. Below, two of these voices, the first from On Being Blue (1975) :
And second, from his richly mined essay on the challenges of autobiography, dating from 1994:
Finally, a blue salute from book artist Morgan Lennox Whitehead:
As an increasingly extreme administration attempts to sneak a toxic “revenue” provision that would open the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to drilling for fossil fuels into an equally toxic tax bill, we relay the voice of Qwich’in Nation leader Bernadette Demientieff:
Second, an open letter organized by Subhankar Banerjee, Lannan Chair and Professor of Art and Ecology, University of New Mexico:
In recent years, the values embedded in a classical liberal arts education have come under sustained attack, cannibalized from within and degraded from all sides. Deep explorations of philosophy and art are considered worthless in the labor markets of the vast data mine that increasingly dominates every aspect of our economies, our behaviors and eventually our souls. In order to remain “competitive” in the global rat race, we must – or so the prevailing narrative goes – accept our fate as rats in the labyrinth of an inverted utopia, where we can no longer imagine the implications of our increasingly lethal inventions.
This toxic narrative sustains and justifies both market economies that increasingly reward a minuscule percentage of the world’s population and authoritarian political movements where even mild civic engagement is criminalized and suppressed in the name of “national security”. The stakes for a defense of the classical “arts of freedom” have never been higher; thus we were delighted to come across the lucid eloquence of Marilynne Robinson in a recent edition of the New York Review of Books. The entire essay is worthy of careful consideration from DP readers; we relay a couple of excerpts below.
In the history of the West, for all its achievements, there is also a persisting impatience with the energy and originality of the mind. It can make us very poor servants of purposes that are not our own. A Benthamite panopticon would have radically reduced the varieties of experience that help to individuate us, in theory producing happiness in factory workers by preventing their having even a glimpse of the fact that there could be more to life. Censorship, lists of prohibited books, restrictions on travel, and limits on rights of assembly all accomplish by more practicable means some part of the same exclusions, precluding the stimulus of new thought, new things to wonder about. The contemporary assault on the humanities has something of the same objective and would employ similar methods. Workers, a category that seems to subsume us all except the idlest rich, should learn what they need to learn to be competitive in the new economy. All the rest is waste and distraction.
Competitive with whom? On what terms? To what end? With anyone whose vigor and good fortune allows her to prosper, apparently. With anyone who has done a clever thing we did not think of first. And will these competitors of ours be left to enjoy the miserable advantage of low wages and compromised health? And is there any particular reason to debase human life in order to produce more, faster, without reference to the worth of the product, or to the value of the things sacrificed to its manufacture? Wouldn’t most people, given an hour or two to reflect, consider this an intolerably trivial use to be put to, for them and their children? Life is brief and fragile, after all. Then what is this new economy whose demands we must always be ready to fill? We may assume it will be driven by innovation, and by what are called market forces, which can be fads or speculation or chicanery. Oh, yes, rowdy old capitalism. Let it ply its music.
A music scribbled, we imagine, in what Carl Sandburg once called “the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints”. Then in closing, Robinson writes:
We are, as we have always been, dangerous creatures, the enemies of our own happiness. But the only help we have ever found for this, the only melioration, is in mutual reverence. God’s grace comes to us unmerited, the theologians say. But the grace we could extend to one another we consider it best to withhold in very many cases, presumptively, or in the absence of what we consider true or sufficient merit (we being more particular than God), or because few gracious acts, if they really deserve the name, would stand up to a cost-benefit analysis. This is not the consequence of a new atheism, or a systemic materialism that afflicts our age more than others. It is good old human meanness, which finds its terms and pretexts in every age. The best argument against human grandeur is the meagerness of our response to it, paradoxically enough.
Then how to recover the animating spirit of humanism? For one thing, it would help if we reclaimed, or simply borrowed, conceptual language that would allow us to acknowledge that some things are so brilliant they can only be understood as virtuosic acts of mind, thought in the pure enjoyment of itself, whether in making a poem or a scientific discovery, or just learning something it feels unaccountably good to know. There is an unworldliness in the experience, and in what it yields, that requires a larger understanding than our terse vocabularies of behavior and reward can capture. I have had students tell me that they had never heard the word “beautiful” applied to a piece of prose until they came to us at the workshop. Literature had been made a kind of data to illustrate, supposedly, some graceless theory that stood apart from it, and that would be shed in a year or two and replaced by something post- or neo- and in any case as gracelessly irrelevant to a work of language as whatever it displaced. I think this phenomenon is an effect of the utilitarian hostility to the humanities and to art, an attempt to repackage them, to give them some appearance of respectability. And yet, the beautiful persists, and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.