Sustainable Ecolomics in Current Agriart


Ronald Graziani, Ph.D
School of Art and Design, East Carolina University

“While all thought [is] subject to nature, nature [is] not subject to our systems”
Robert Smithson

Leaving aside for the moment, the kind of entropic bind that came along with the artist’s comment above, he was on firm enough ground in saying that our institutional systems in being constituted with games of representation have a profound disjuncture with the earth’s processes. Take a certain rectangular shape of paper. It can function as a cultural arbitrator in economic exchanges, but not because of its paperness (it can burn because of its paperness). It can function as money because of its institutionally granted abilities to represent such an exchange. And we all assume it has that kind of institutional status. Nonetheless, this very real disjuncture between phenomenal facts and institutional facts has its pitfalls. For example, it has allowed many to believe that culture is not part of the earth’s processes—a sense of nature as that which is untouched by man. Or there is the belief that fine art objects are separate from artifacts—as if esthetics is not a cultural feel.

For the last two centuries this later fine art habit has seen the art object, and its frameworks (the art historian, the art museum and the studio) dispatched to various autonomous spheres, replete with para-religious rituals and values. And on up to the present, there has been an enormous strain in western art talk about visual art in non-social, implicitly metaphysical terms. Yet having said this, in being an institutional fact itself, esthetics (or acts of artistic representation) shouldn’t require an autonomous thrill of recognition just because the fine art idea says so. And, in fact, there has been an ongoing challenge to the fine art status. There has been a shift (if you will allow me) from making a kind of art object that anticipates the art museum space and the protocols of the fine art idea, to a cultural activity no longer participating in such a blinkered sense of any relationship—let alone art.

Beholding art objects will hopefully continue to call forth or interpellate viewers as if being held by the tides and flows of a particular life made objective—that is, made into objects. Yet in concert with this, current practice includes cultural activity that regards all visual art as a human, institutionally grounded, socially driven construct. More and more, artists have been developing a personal feel for esthetics in social terms, an art engaged to the social process. Refusing the a-esthetic versions practiced in the fine art idea, many artists are now pursuing esthetics within the logic of a social enactment. What this kind of practice has changed more than anything else is a sense of what makes any artwork meaningful is somehow already about what makes the social meaningful. Which in turn, continues to implicate the art that still wants the fine art idea deciding the institutional (f)acts of esthetics.

This has led many to revisit an important question: How does the social even work? But it should be stated before attempting the deed that there is no way one can keep separate the urge to understand how society works from the desire to direct its developing movement. Yet for that very same reason, this can enable the creation of esthetic projects that bring a democracy in line with social advance. And have others inspired by these projects. The ethical wager is to keep open the right to debate politically ambivalent issues, and still be part of what are genuinely joyous yet difficult cultural matters.

No doubt, to understand how the social works an accurate assessment of economic conditions and relations of production must be accounted for and as human inventions intent on sustaining the social process. In other words, what almost every kid on the playground knows is this; any mode of production must have an ability to reproduce itself hard wired into its mode of production—that is if the kid’s version of play wants to be doing it tomorrow. Our capitalist versions of economic production are no exception. And any irreducible sense of how it works must not only include its conditions and relations of production, but that must already mean an ability to reproduce itself and in a double sense. That is, a private enterprise’s own internal conditions and relations matter. But the many social conditions and relations that exist external to any enterprise also matter. Without this later component as a support mechanism, any economic process doesn’t make a lot of social sense.

What has changed in the current context is a growing sense that our capitalist ability to reproduce itself socially is out-stripping the earth’s ability to reproduce itself in ways that can sustain our capitalist ways. This later ecological discourse began to surface when the internal logic of modern capital began running into nature’s trump cards. As an aside, Capital has had a perennial conflict with labor relations too, and labor’s voice has had a corrective impact on Capital. But that voice always seemed to be lacking any trump cards. The various public discourses on sustainable life, or sustainable development, or sustainable profit are the cultural indicators that the long-standing institutional logic of Capital is being forced to take off its blinders. Slowly (and I mean slowly) this ecological discourse has been pushing capitalist economics into a kind of ecolomic hybrid. The same goes for our modern institutional habits of esthetic experience. And maybe I should again add something about labor’s current role in all this too—something like, with the environmental justice movement beginning to absorb the ecology movement, (and with current art being de-moored from long standing institutional protocols) labor seems to have found some powerful partners. Nonetheless, with institutional protocols grounding representational acts, the crucial issue is going to be how we, through our cultural relations, enact a different sense of how “nature [is] not subject to our systems.” And of course, this no longer means anything remotely suggesting that the earth’s processes cannot be (in any profound way) affected by our political economy.

Lets try that again. With culture’s material manifestation of the social, a good case has been made that in discursive fact, the place to look for how society reproduces itself is not in terms of its myriad representational acts but in terms of the latter’s cultural status. Let me restate this and in terms of the social reproducibility issue; status (how cultural representations are stage-crafted) is the other crucial element in a two compound adhesive cultural act. In other words, the conflation of institutional acts of representation and the status accorded them (or what the social theorist Bourdieu would have called fields of capital) is the catalytic glue to the specifics of any social sustainability. More to this essay’s point, Bourdieu’s categorical designations— symbolic capital, cultural capital, political capital, or economic capital—have productively led many into the characteristics of this glue. His further categorizations into subfields—for example, cultural capital includes objectified forms, embodied forms, or institutionalized forms—only enhance this ability. In short, the objects of representation we make in reckoning with the world matter in matters-of-production. But it is the various kinds of capital status that the social process is enlivened with that also matter in matters-of-reproducibility. Well as long as one doesn’t forget to include Foucault’s sense of discourse as the rules that permit, that order, that even allows status to occur. This latter disciplinary sense of knowledge is also useful for resisting the ‘historical a priori’ in Bourdieu’s way of playing out the status of scientific knowledge or his distrust of the general public. While things will get complicated, this seems a good enough place to start understanding how the social works.

All this also seems an appropriate place for art historical inquiry, for visual culture is still a place for a variety of onsite inspections of this kind. But in methodological terms, the question becomes: how does one assess the art that wants some kind of relationship with the social? And the follow up question being, are the current conceptual tools of art history up to the analytical task? I think they can be and have been. It requires a move away from the fine art conceptual tools of the art historian. And replaced with socio-historical methods able to articulate the shift in art that has been going on for some time now. What would hopefully result are art-historical narratives capable of assessing the connection between certain contemporary art practices and their relation with a variety of institutional acts currently re-presenting or standing in for Capital. And this wouldn’t require any draconian implosion of art history. For status is a catalytic force in the social process, and for that reason it is a crucial focus in current esthetic analysis. Let’s face it; the fine art idea is all status. And in terms of its effectiveness, one can only admire the firm adhesive quality in its ideological acts. Nonetheless, such a shift will mean art historians can no longer stop short of the social, let alone start short of the social.

Stylistic production or analysis would, in turn, simply be a different beast. Instead of the internal logic of the color and design protocols of fine art (and as if color & design for color & design sake) artists are concerned with handling the complex logic of the social in esthetic terms. And stylistic analysis would mean an art historical narrative that included an assessment of art in relation to the logic and style of the civic the art is engaged in. This also should include how the social logic of status has been impacted. What would be called for are different methodological tools, still attuned to ‘representational’ issues, but now also in tune with how an art adapts a social structure. It would mean art historical methods that are based on a current hierarchical social fields or social interactions. An intuitive grasp of these fields has already become part of the articulturalists’ stylistic toolbox. But it would also enable art historians to categorize and recognize these kinds of distinctions in art—and in order to admire or challenge the art’s compositional choices and inflections in socially grounded ways. Whether it is the art that is responsibly partnering up with the shift to sustainability, or re-enactments of the status quo in denial, or somewhere in between. This can be what is recognized as the very heart of an esthetic experience. But hearts being what they are, this is no simple tale. If we as participants feel we are the problem we are trying to work through, or to the contrary, desire to preserve certain values, then one’s ability to appreciate how an art object reproduces social relations or changes them will matter in those terms. Here is another way to say the same thing. It is an institutional fact that the fine art status is an ideological act; that there has been another incompatible esthetic framework developing for the last half century; that the primary cultural site of that contestation has been the institutional logic (and politics) of representation itself. And all this continues to change.

Now lets jump-start the essay and with the agriART show at George Mason University this last summer, the topic. What seems to characterize all the show’s projects is the ability to imagine the significance of artistic creation and/or esthetic pleasure as an activity in exchange with other types of embodied political ecolomies. They all work directly through pre-existing organizations, and in terms of valuing their chosen institutional mode(s) as enabling the human condition. This in turn can lead to a preliminary yet useful question like: How does the esthetic field operate in supporting existing social relations or (at times) act as an agent of change in social relations? Add a sense of all art as necessarily part of a complex global ecosystem, and the institutional (f)act of esthetic representation takes on a different and more relational sense of social responsibility. Stylistic analysis could then glissade across this theoretical rupture to include the likes of symbolic and or cultural capital. And here again Smithson will be paraphrased if only to insist on the fact that with the earth’s limited resources and our ever-increasing depletion of them on a global level, it is unfortunately the case that more and more artists are necessarily by default working on entropic sites—and off of Smithson’s entropic visions. As Smithson only said in part, without a sense of ‘art’s relationship with land, labor, and class’ esthetics become ‘metaphyisical.’ To say this differently, with institutional facts understood as culture in the service of the social, any representational relationship with a metaphysical is on ideological grounds.

In conjunction with this, and for several decades now, the challenge has also seen the discourse shift from reactionary visions (i.e. deconstructing the political economy in the fine art idea) to more proactive ways of artworks enacting an actual relationship with the logic of the social. Early on, many of these esthetic moves were like football passes thrown without knowing the pattern the receiver was running. And even though one can win with only a ground game, the more one knows about the social patterns of the likes of economic or wage capital, the more one could appreciate what esthetics can mean in this kind of engagement. And it seems worth restating this: this now includes even the art that wants the fine art idea deciding the institutional facts of esthetics. And when it comes to one’s encounter with the kind of art that produces socially grounded meaning it still seems worth mentioning this too. Those who seek art as a refuge from the civic dance can be quite indignant toward that other kind of participant who believes the esthetic fault lines that structure any artistic difference need to be socially grounded for its impact to be felt.

But even if status is the active adhesive agent in the social process, what would be the point of having a way of life, if the institutional framework for enabling that way of life also included ways that work against the earth’s ability to sustain that way of life? I am tempted to ask and in a rather self-righteous way; how would that even work? But way too many of us have been acting for a long time as if that kind of blinkered version was convincing. What now seems to be a growing critical attitude is the idea that our economic modes of production should begin to account for the earth’s natural processes. But for this change to have lasting power what will be needed are appropriate institutional forms of stagecraft convincing enough to interpellate these emerging approaches as ethical ontologies. This will require a change in how both the representational and status catalysts interact as discursive partners aimed at truly sustainable ways of life, and in ways that accommodate other sustainable life styles. The same could be said for a sustainable esthetics.

That too sounds reasonable enough. But as this complex web of social, political and environmental interconnectedness has been taking place on the world stage, the ongoing global political economy of nomadic capitalism has been developing. And with the nation-state no longer able to be the political framework for global capitalism, the market is constantly attempting to take the place of the state as the arbitrator of social processes. In response, there has been a vast number of NGOs that have filled the lacuna, taking upon themselves the role of maintaining some sort of social equity among the protagonists. But this is only a stopgap. Fortunately—and by this I don’t mean for those who have been on the wrong end of the current free market meltdown—it seems a lot more people understand now, to their credit, that there can be no solution without government. Some of these proposals have, in turn, asked for a re-call of Capital’s mystical faith in the invisible hand of the market (which has had way to many fingers in the earthen jar.) Perhaps what is now needed is for the nation-state itself to become mobile—to become portable (for example, as a political shareholder in global economic pursuits.) On the home front, many of the ongoing campaigns for a National Sustainability Strategy do claim that to steer the right course – we need sustainability as our compass and a strategy to get us where we want to go. But to use different agents for change requires inventing them—and one needs an inventory to invent with. And the logic of our social inventory has lots of problems. So where does one turn?

There are many kinds of practices that one can draw from. For example, in contrast to Plato’s trust in a philosopher king (and his inventory), the current President has expressed a belief that a collaborative steering of the ships of state means the responsibilities of a president, or politicians must somehow include all concerned and informed citizens. Decisions guided by a framework balancing social, economic and environmental priorities and engaging those affected by these decisions, not simply those profiting most from them. Something more equitable, democratic and sustainable—in other words an ecological justice. Well this kind of collaborative vision has surfaced in the past. In the 1960s, with the polity of capital in a crisis of de-termination, ideological practices ruptured across a variety of civic dimensions including an ecological one. What made the internal logic of the 1964 Wilderness Act different is in how its passage included providing for direct citizen involvement in the formulation of proposals for defining wilderness designation, and how to manage what that would mean. One can also go further into our past for an economic standard worth turning to. In the 1930s, with the economics of capital in a crisis of de-termination, ideological practices also ruptured across a variety of civic dimensions—it was called the New Deal. What would a current policy be like that revisited both the economic spirit of a new deal combined with a legislative spirit of collaborating with citizen initiatives or NGOs? What would art be like in these terms?

Now for some preliminary notes on the show—
The challenge is still how to navigate a social life style permeated by economic, political, cultural fields of unsustainability that continue to influence the opinions formed by art makers and viewers. What has been called site-specific, context driven, (new public genre, relational esthetics, dialogical esthetics, etc) has been dancing around (and within) these fields for some time now – and this show is a good indication of some of the directions it has taken. In reenacting a social process, many of the projects become role models, and in ways that allow for a public to formulate a performative feel which could in turn, re-shape other social encounters.

For their part in the agriART show, the Beehive Design Collective has reconfigured the status of two elements of capitalist development – free trade. For what does this term mean when the manipulative use of other people or raw resources defines the very status of ownership and trade? In the political economy of Capital, acquiring profit, or property, or self (for example, the esthetics of finding one’s own voice) is at odds with the lack of freedom that it will necessarily mean for many. So with trade buttressed with an ability to possess, how does freedom make any ethical sense except in autonomous, or ideological terms? The stylistic feel of the Beehive’s bio-justice has something to offer here.

On the other hand, in the Edible Estates project, the status of private property and artistic merit are juxtaposed. As stated above, a sense of ownership defines our sense of self. And private property is not only based on a resolute individualism or self interest, its moral fiber is grounded in the biblical gift of human dominion over the land. Likewise, the fine art status of artistic merit enables the manipulation of material to become the vehicle of the artist’s own identity or subjectivity. The question might be, what is being sustained in this project? Or for example, the agri-practices of Ted Purves and Susanne Cockrell have focused around the status allotted various offshoots of preservationism (and taste). In an earlier project, Sonoma County Preserve, a farmer’s market enactment of fruit preserves as a life force was restaged in an art museum. And remarkably, by simply grafting a farmer’s market version of preservationism (and taste) with the museum’s institutional version of preserving art, the status of how esthetic taste is preserved in art museums took on the look of a fetish. Whether that was felt by any of the participants is another matter. Or for the current show, Ted Purves & Susanne Cockrell’s Temescal Amity Works: Big Backyard internalized a much more unpredictable sense of public involvement and their willingness to reactivate forgotten regional lifestyles—a kind of de-preservationist lifestyle.

Similar formal elements of social status are incorporated in Amy Franceschini’s Shepherding Sovereignty as well as Critical Art Ensemble’s (CAE) Molecular Invasion. While both address the cultural capital of science (and CAE stylistic moves are certainly more involved with these indicators) how both understand the public as a mode of interaction are quite different. With the logic of the public structured with an aspect of compromise, its status stands in harsh contrast to its capital counterpart of possessive individualism. And for that reason its status (as a form of cultural capital) is often suspected. Both groups challenge the notion that the free/market always works in the public interest. But CAE’s stylistic sense of their public has a more suspicious feel than does Shepherding Sovereignty. To say all this in sustainable terms, CAE’s informed sense of scientific property rights might have helped Edible Estates’ projects. Or a sense of how the public is structured into Shepherding Sovereignty might have given Molecular Invasion something more productive to work with. But then, how each project has internalized an ability to reproduce itself already decides a lot. Now to abruptly conclude; the hope is from this end that these agriart projects will play a role in informing future initiatives.

This text was produced in conjunction with AgriArt: Companion Planting for Social and Biological Systems, an exhibition curated by Mark Cooley and Ryan Griffis at George Mason University, April 21 – May 15, 2009.

Ron Graziani

Ron Graziani has written numerous articles on twentieth-century art and critical theory. His book ‘Robert Smithson: and the American Landscape’ was published at Cambridge University Press in 2004. He teaches the histories and theories of twentieth-(and twenty-first) century art at East Carolina University, North Carolina. All of his professional activity deals with esthetics or artistic form as if engaged to a political economy.