Content of Nothing :: Part 6 :: On Hope

This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland

Featured Image: Judy Spark: Untitled, digital print (500 x 309mm approximately) 2010

[In the previous post, Samantha Clark had been talking about the ethical import of wonder in the work of Ronald Hepburn, Suzi Gablick and Jane Bennett.]

Judy Spark: I want to believe in this link between wonder and ‘ethical generosity’ and even love and that there may only be a ‘short step’ from here to ‘humility’ but I feel compelled to take up the cynic’s position again. I’m not convinced. It’s not that I think that this is not possible exactly, but rather that it will be a long road. The human capacity for wonder is one that is shared by the artist, philosopher and scientist alike, indeed all of us have this latent disposition whether or not it is ever developed. But if it was going to lead naturally to an ethical relationship to the wider world, then I think that it would have done so by now. Sometimes it has pre-empted great scientific discovery, but equally, it can lead us to dismantle and separate things in an effort to learn how they work. It does not necessarily, for instance, always lead to an appreciation of the interconnected dependency of things. I feel inspired by Hepburn and Gablick, though I’m not so familiar with Bennett, but I don’t think that they back up their claims with anything concrete, how could they? How exactly does one move from a position of wonder to one of love and ethical awareness? But if this progression is at the moment unclear, perhaps this is ok. I think that the reason I make art and write is in order to encourage this tuning to wonder and the hopes for its potential, that maybe at some point, the pathway between these things will become clearer.

Samantha Clark: Yes, I think you are right to be cynical. Wonder linked to ignorance is a dangerous combination. People flock to see the orcas performing at Seaworld, and experience genuine wonder at the power and beauty of these creatures and their willingness to engage with humans, but they are ignorant of the suffering that this captivity causes the very creatures they admire so much. People wonder at the bare landscape of the Highlands with no idea that they are looking at an ecological disaster area, a man-made wet desert. A little bit of ‘dismantling to see how it works’ doesn’t need to dispel wonder, but can actually create a more educated awareness. Wonder doesn’t depend on a state of naivety. Kant, in his Critique of Judgement, noticed a difference between astonishment (Verwunderung) which fades once the novelty wears off, and a steady, contemplative wonderment (Bewunderung) which does not depend on novelty, and may even grow deeper with familiarity and understanding. The contemplative wonderment he described maintains the questioning and questing aspect of wonder, and yet rests attentively in the wonderful object (Kant, 1997: 273).

A recent document put together by the organisation Common Cause seems to propose some means by which this transition from ‘wonder’ to ethical and environmental awareness might be made. Their focus is on addressing the values we hold in order to create a shift to a more socially and environmentally just society, suggesting that the arts’ ‘capacity to trigger reflection, generate empathy, create dialogue and foster new ideas and relationships offers a powerful and democratic way of expressing, sharing and shaping values.’ (Common Cause, 2013: 4). In the core paper of this document, the psychologist Tim Kasser suggests that our values can be described as either broadly extrinsic, such as financial success, image, popularity (which depend on rewards or other’s opinions and promote competitive and selfish behaviour), or intrinsic, such as self-acceptance, community, affiliation (which promote more empathic and co-operative ways of behaving). He argues that we all have all of these values in us, but that they increase in importance to us the more they are stimulated, and that, broadly speaking, consumer societies emphasise and so promote the development of extrinsic values. These are shown to make us more dependent on external sources of happiness, such as status, entertainment and consumerism. This has far reaching effects. ‘People who prioritise extrinsic values have been shown to care less about the environment and other species, whereas a focus on intrinsic values promotes more ecologically sustainable attitudes and behaviours’ (11). Kasser builds an argument that pursuit of the arts (either as active participant or viewer) is important as it may deepen public commitment to values that promote environmental and social concern. I think there is some truth to this, though with certain caveats. Engaging with art as a high-end luxury commodity and status symbol clearly stimulates extrinsic values. So we need to be circumspect about what kind of art, and what kind of engagement we are talking about. But it seems pretty clear that it is emotions, not factual arguments, that shape our decisions, and that art can have some role to play here.

Ellie Harrison hits the nail on the head in her contribution to the same publication – arguing that to emphasise ‘art’ and ‘culture’ per se gives them a falsely elevated status and is misleading. ‘What we all need regardless of our occupation, is not arts and culture per se, but simply time and space beyond the realms of the market, where we can each access knowledge, critically reflect and feel empowered to change our lives for the better’ (21). She’s right, but art can be one way of opening up some space and time. I think that wonder, when it crops up in the mundane, maybe hearing migrating geese honking as they go flying over the supermarket car park, momentarily opens up a space of this kind. Engaging with art or writing which invites us to share that experience with the writer or the artist ‘primes’ us to be receptive to it when it crops up in life. I think it helps us to open up a little crack in the midst of the day, a ‘space between,’ a momentary breather from the demands of making our way in a market economy devoted to heedless economic growth. Anything that makes us stop and remember to be grateful, even in a small way, makes a contribution. Gratitude is very subversive in a consumer culture that primes us to be in a constant state of wanting. Kasser again: ‘One set of studies showed that very brief and very subtle reminders of the extrinsic value of money lead people to behave less helpfully and generously moments later’ (9). And another study, ‘that focused particularly on people for whom material possessions and social status were quite important found that thinking for a few minutes about the intrinsic values of affiliation and being broadminded caused these individuals to express stronger care for the environment’ 10). So inviting others to share a moment of wonder or reflection or gratitude through the art we make is maybe part of this drip feed, just tickling those extrinsic values one more time.

You mentioned hope, and hopefulness is a real issue these days, its something I seem to come up against again and again – in the context of ‘eco-art’ especially. Reading Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Hope in the Dark’ helped me to think about this – that ‘results’ or ‘outcomes’ of creative work are nonlinear and unpredictable, so hanging on to some idea of what you’d like to happen as a result of your creative work is pointless. If you want direct results then direct action is a better bet. As artists we’re working at the level of metaphor, getting in ‘under the bonnet’ of thought as it were – shift the metaphors and you contribute towards shifting thought. But it’s not something didactic, or fact-based. It’s more like lending your own small weight to the other side of the scales, towards tipping things back, rebalancing, in a Taoist kind of way. And if Kasser is right, and even such a subtle cue can unconsciously affect someone’s values and behaviour, then perhaps that’s cause for hope.

References:

Kant, I. (trans. Pluhar, W) (1997) Critique of Judgement, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing

Common Cause and Mission Models Money (2103),  The Art of Life: Understanding How Participation in Arts and Culture Can Affect Our Values  http://valuesandframes.org  [Online:  Accessed 12-11- 2013]

Solnit, R (2005) Hope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power, Edinburgh: Canongate

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.

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