What’s the point of art in the Anthropocene?


As we grapple with the worst environmental crisis of our species alongside the worst economic crisis of our lifetime, what even is the point of art?

By Joana Partyka

For tens of thousands of years – between 40,000 and 500,000, depending on who you ask – humans have been making art. From Mesopotamians to the Maya, paintings to pottery, our kind has attempted to both convey and conceive of meaning through the creation of nice things. We’ve done so through successive extinctions, rebellions, falling empires, rising temperatures. It’s thanks to art we even know this.

Art makes us feel good, and feel, and that’s good. And with the exception of a tiny slice of the animal kingdom that includes elephants, chimps and an abnormally talented Komodo dragon somewhere in America, we’re the only species who create it.

As a species, we’re also unique in something else: our propensity to trash the earth. In a mere blink of the world’s history, we’ve managed to trigger contemporaneous extinctions, rebellions, falling empires, rising temperatures – together so profound some scientists insist we’ve shifted into an entirely new epoch. The Anthropocene, they call it, because we’re the only species who created it.

That means it’s on us to undo it, and it will take everything we’ve got. But where does art fit into this? Is making and consuming art still really justified now?

In other words: as we grapple with the worst environmental crisis of our species alongside the worst economic crisis of our lifetime, what even is the point of art?

The role of art

It’s a question the Coalition seems to have embraced a little too eagerly, and a little too literally. With an eyeroll of a COVID-19 support package for the sector; malicious fee hikes targeted to humanities degrees; and the ingestion of the federal arts department into a superunit that also, incongruously, oversees regional development and infrastructure, it’s clear they have a disdain for the arts – contempt, even.

Esther Anatolitis, executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) and one of Australia’s leading advocates for the arts, has a very different take on the same question. In short: “Art creates our future.”

“Art expands our thinking … [it] asks questions, and demands that we do the same,” Anatolitis says. “Art imagines entire worlds – and then it makes them possible, situating us within their boundaries and then exploding those limits.”

It also helps form our understanding of social, environmental and political contexts, says University of Melbourne cultural policy lecturer Dr Christiaan De Beukelaer.

“The arts really allow us to make sense of the world,” he says. “They do so in a way that allows for the exploration of ideas and meaning – not just by communicating in a factual way like journalism, but by exploring what it means to be alive; what it means to be confronted with beauty or inequalities or suffering.”

The quiet agony of violently severed maternal bonds on a vibrant Sally Morgan canvas. Ai Weiwei’s 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds commenting on rapacious Western consumption of Chinese mass produced goods. A rainbow riot of balaclava-clad pussies harmonising against Putin’s Russia. Themes like capitalism and collectivism interrogated through Ursula K Le Guin’s elegant prose. Art shows us our past, urges us to examine our present, and invites us to imagine our future. And when it doesn’t – when it exists for the express purpose of itself – it shows us beauty, urges us to feel the depths of our humanity, and invites us to recognise the shared experience of existence.

Art on the spectrum

This all perhaps goes some way to explaining the political right’s sneering view of the arts – one that has manifested in the outright mutilation of the sector we see under Morrison today. The creation of art for art’s sake challenges the market ideology that underpins our political belief system, defying the neoliberal machine that fetishises economic growth at all costs. The arts are a “lifestyle choice”, as then-education minister Simon Birmingham said in 2016, disremembering the cultural sector in fact contributed more than $111 billion to the national economy that very same year.

It’s clear, then: the act of making art is in and of itself a political one, because the act of undermining it appears to be, too.

In friendlier contexts, like the public art projects rolled out under Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, art is the antithesis of a lifestyle choice: it is life. Back then, art too was undermined by conservative killjoys. But through programs that seem radical even by today’s standards, tens of thousands of artists were employed over the eight years the program ran to create hundreds of thousands of works of art, many of which still exist today.

In her 2019 book On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, Naomi Klein explains some of this art was about holding a critical mirror up to society – photographer Dorothea Lange’s celebrated depictions of life in the dustbowl, for instance – while some was purely to bring “joy and beauty to Depression-ravaged people”. All of it was about providing employment; about helping to rebuild a broken country under the stipulation that artists are entitled to employment as artists.

A creative recalibration

Just like its interbellum forebear, art has an essential place in a Green New Deal, which itself has an essential place in the Anthropocene. The pursuit of a clean and just energy transformation in tandem with a more caring society necessarily invokes the revolutionary power of art. Klein reminds us that a key reason the right’s vicious attacks on Roosevelt and his New Deal failed to erode public support is thanks to the sonority of its art. It invited the people not just to imagine their future beyond the Depression, but – to paraphrase playwright Bertolt Brecht – it handed them a hammer with which to shape it.

Art can help us reach the apathetic and the actively hostile, sounding a mayday call they can no longer stand to ignore. It can buoy our sinking spirits, giving us the energy we need to continue bailing the water quite literally rising around us. We need all hands on deck, and art is the radar that will guide us into port. 

And artists, if you’ll forgive one final sea metaphor, are the captain, because it’s in the artist’s fertile and fecund mind we will find the innovation and insight needed to turn the ship around.

Says Dr De Beukelaer: “Making sense of what the [crises’] limitations are – socially, politically, economically – but also how we deal with them individually and collectively, are part of a major challenge I think we need to be quite creative about.”

Citing an article he authored that scrutinises their impact on the environment, Dr De Beukelaer says the arts can sometimes “play a contradictory role”. But ultimately, he believes they have the potential to help draw us out of the twin economic and climate crises we currently face.

“There is a massive possibility – especially now – for the arts to come together and go ‘let’s try to make sense of this; let’s try to harness the possibility this gives and imagine another kind of future’,” he says.

Anatolitis agrees, going so far as to advocate for an arts and culture-led economic recovery in place of the mining magnate-stacked COVID-19 recovery commission. “We need [artists’] thinking, we need their inspiration and we need their boost to our economy,” she affirms.

In the challenging days that lie ahead, art is far from a peripheral nice-to-have. For those of us locked down or self-isolating, it might indeed be all we have. For all of us, it reveals – even if it won’t be immediately attainable – what we can eventually have.

“We live in capitalism; its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings,” Ursula K Le Guin said in 2014. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”

Boiled down to its concentrated essence, then, art concomitantly moves us and makes us move. Right now, we need to move faster than ever. Right now, art could not be more to the point.

Joana Partyka is the Australian Greens’ National Communications Officer, an illustrator and a ceramicist.

Hero image: Shelagh Murphy via Pexels.

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