Saving Eco-Art from Death by Cliché

Those of you who read the newsletter know that I’ve been subbing for Kate in the teeny greenmuseum.org office while she was away in the UK. During one of the many discussions with Mr. Sam Bower (ranging in topic from celebrity crushes to the meaning and purpose of art) he pulled up the above graphic.

It’s from the Long Now Foundation, which exists to foster and support a cultural mind-shift– to a thinking in terms of tens of thousands of years. The drawing illustrates the speeds at which aspects of our world accelerate and change, with fashion constantly changing and nature moving at a much much slower pace.

Yes, but, well, why bring it up?

I was privileged enough to watch a panel this weekend while volunteering at the 2008 Bay Area Playwrights Festival in San Francisco. It was the 7th Annual Symposium of New Ideas and included Ken Foster of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, artist Sara Kraft, agent Morgan Jenness, and other important voices.

Playwrights Foundation artistic director Amy Mueller had called together these minds to discuss the changing medium of theater. As has been recognized and discussed by folks like Arnold Aronson, new technology and media inevitably change the ways in which we perceive, process and transmit information culturally. It changes the way we tell stories. Basically, there are a whole lot of new plays coming in that defy traditional “play” structure– that build like web pages, text messages, webisodes. Powerful plays that are somewhat foreign to folks who don’t speak tech. There’s even a play in development with director Kip Fagan that takes place completely in Second Life.

There was a lot of talk of the purpose of art– to wit, “to interrupt habit.” An excellent segue into cultural shifts, no?

When the panel was opened up to questions, I brought up, of course, the environment: how relevant did these thinkers see the planet, the non-human audience, to the future of American Theatre? Since we’re already talking in epic terms here.

Ken Foster immediately said something that struck me. “Within a year after An Inconvenient Truth came out, the green thing was already cliché.” He spoke of his frustration with art that does not change perception, let alone interrupt anything. “C’mon, you’re showing me plants here,” he said.

If I were different person, now would be the time I would speak of our cultural blindness. I would talk about the Long Now Foundation, about the health of the planet being beyond cliché.

But the fact is, I’m an American trained in the Arts, and I respect Ken Foster’s work. The fact is, even at greenmuseum.org we see a lot of of art that is planet-devoted but aesthetically uninspiring and unoriginal. Thank you for making art that serves, respects and supports the planet. Now use it to interrupt my habit.

It’s Ken Foster’s job to present art for a contemporary world, to find art that provokes unapologetically. And: aesthetics have their own ecosystem, embracing everything from Warhol Soup Cans to whale songs. I love the works that barrel down on me with their newness. And: it’s good to hold space for the simpler, slower stuff.

After the symposium, several people came up to me and thanked me for bringing up the issue, passing along info about water-operas and PhD dissertations on eco-art.

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