Helplessness, grief, agency: a personal note ~ theatre notes

Monday, November 01, 2010

Helplessness, grief, agency: a personal note

This weekend, I spent two days at the Malthouse Theatre talking about the climate crisis. It was part of an event called Tipping Point Australia, a series of three forums in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. As it says on the website, the forums are "for invited international and Australian artists, scientists and others to explore ways in which we can adapt to and mitigate functionally, culturally and socially the effects of climate change.” Melbourne was the first.

The nexus between artistic practice and social or political commitment represents a vexed and often anguished question. I've been wrestling with the questions around artistic practice and social conscience for years, always discovering different means of failure. In a lecture for the International Federation for the Teaching of English in 2003, I speculated on the politics of representation, and the refusal of commodification versus the entrapments of ideological utilitarianism; at other times, I've wondered how an expression of hope might be about clear-sightedness rather than self-delusion or denial. Again and again, I've concluded that art itself is an act, an awakening of larger and enabling possibilities that in turn generate forms of agency.

This is not a particularly comforting conclusion, since it suggests that art achieves nothing in itself. In the face of climate change, is art anything more than more hot air, more toxic emissions? Given the systemic nature of the environmental crisis, its mind-numbing scale and complexity, what can be done? Is it actually possible to combat the processes now in motion - the grinding self-perpetuating machine of corporate global capitalism - in order to make any difference to those disastrously multiplying predictors?

I went to Tipping Point with two major questions. One is purely personal: it haunts my practice, and recently has silenced my poetry. Is the only act that honestly remains for art, given the scale of the catastrophe we face, a lament? What use is that? I’ve been writing elegies for the natural world since I was ten years old: and if that is all I can do, then it’s difficult to see the point. The second is: given that it’s quite clear that we can’t trust even a democratic system to deliver a government that will resist the corporate drive towards destruction, are there other ways of taking action, of changing social habits and ideas and fears before the planet is irrevocably wrecked, to the point where it no longer supports mammals like us?

They are complex questions, and I came away with the beginnings of complex responses. I talked to systems designers who said effecting change is all about being able to see the levers. I talked to a man who, using the best scientific advice he could access, took two years to design a zero-emissions blueprint for Australian industry, and I talked about reclaiming public language. I heard about Julia's Bicycle, the British collective of scientists and artists who are working tirelessly - and are succeeding - in reducing the footprints of the arts industry: replacing plastic CD covers, for instance, with cardboard, which reduces emissions by a staggering 97 per cent, or mapping the environmental impacts of theatre and concerts in order to find out how to reduce them. I heard Tim Jarvis speak about the work he is doing to create change in corporate and government practices. I heard a lot about how adapting our behaviour to a waste-free, carbon-free future is an opportunity, and how that is much more than a slogan.

There's no way I can summarise every aspect of this weekend: it was fascinating, inspiring, absorbing, exciting and, most of all, encouraging. Perhaps typically, none of the bad news – the scientific evidence of irreversible and disastrous crisis, or the legislative or corporate failures and blindnesses – came as a surprise. What was surprising was the sense of hopefulness I encountered. It’s not uninformed hopefulness, it’s not blind optimism. There is no single solution to an environmental catastrophe like the one now unfolding before us: but that doesn’t mean that we can do nothing, or that we can make no difference.

When I came home, I found myself thinking about Vaclav Havel’s book Living In Truth, written when there was still a Soviet Union. In an essay called Politics and Conscience, he speaks about a childhood memory of seeing smokestacks pouring their filth into the sky on his way to school, and of how this image, even without any adult understanding, seemed to him expressive of a terrible wrongness.

"The chimney 'soiling the heavens' is not just a technologically corrigible flaw of design, or a tax paid for a better consumerist tomorrow, but a symbol of a civilisation that has renounced the absolute, which ignores the natural world and disdains its imperatives. So, too, the totalitarian systems [of the Soviet Union] warn of something far more serious than Western rationalism is willing to admit. They are, most of all, a convex mirror of the evitable consequences of rationalism, a grotesquely magnified image of its own deep tendencies....

"These regimes are the avant garde of a global crisis of this civilisation.... They are one of the possible futurological studies of the Western world, not in the sense that one day they will attack and conquer it, but in a far deeper sense - that they illustrate graphically to what the 'eschatology of the impersonal', as Bělohradský calls it, can lead. It is the total rule of a bloated, anonymously bureaucratic power, a power grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction which can rationalise anything without ever having to brush against the truth."

“The truth”, says Havel, meaning a human truth. “We must not be ashamed that we are capable of love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy and tolerance, ” he says later. “Just the opposite: we must set these fundamental dimensions of our humanity free from their ‘private’ exile and accept them as the only genuine starting point of meaningful human community.”

There is always hope. If sometimes we feel that hope is delusory, it is not simply because the graphs tracking "business as usual" all point to doom. It is because hope implies agency, and agency is what is refused in so many aspects of contemporary life, and is lost in the splintering of our disenfranchised communities. Fear and grief can be paralysing: we shovel our anxiety into the back of our minds, so we don’t have to look at them. It's hardly surprising that our biggest health issue world wide is mental illness.

Which brings me to another thing that surprised me this weekend: the grief I feel for the natural world. When I came home, I remembered the first time I felt it: on a visit to England in the early '70s, when I was ten years old. There were some woods which, when we had lived nearby as even smaller children, we had often visited. We picked primroses in the spring or gathered pine-cones and chestnut cases in winter, to be painted silver and gold for our Christmas tree. But when we went back to see them, the woods were being chopped down. I remember watching the men in the tractors looping chains about the corpses of those beautiful trees, and dragging them away through the mud, and I remember that the sight was like a knife in my heart.

At around that time, I read a poem which was in a book that was on a shelf in the room where I was staying in my grandmother's house. It's irrevocably linked to that experience of loss, of grievously wrecked beauty. I never forgot its quick, painful music, although it must have been a decade before I read it again and gave it a name - Gerard Manley Hopkins's Binsey Poplars.

I guess that was a formative experience. Although environmental destruction has formed the dominant imagery in my poems for two decades now, although I am perfectly aware of how deeply worried I am by what we are doing to the planet, destroying entire eco-systems, species, environments, and with them entire constellations of cultural knowledge and language, I had pushed that grief to the back of my mind. My question about lament didn’t take into account that there is, in fact, little space for lamenting in our world.

Perhaps seeing that grief reflected in the eyes of others permitted me to know it as more than a background shadow to everything I do. And that is a liberating thing: background shadow manifests as paralysing depression, the helplessness we all feel as citizens. I remembered that there is a place for lament: and I also remembered that it is not the only thing that art can do. It is sometimes important to be reminded of things you already know. I am comforted by those thoughts, even as I'm daunted by what needs to be done and by the uncertainty that attends it.

My last book, Theatre, contains a poem called Beasts, which was first published in Pretext, the literary magazine that comes out of the University of East Anglia, in about 2005. For Tipping Point, we were asked to bring an object along that expressed our feeling about climate crisis, and I brought that poem. It is, of course, a lament, but I principally brought it with me because it says my sense of individual helplessness in the face of the systemic nature of the crisis. It's a poem which emerges from that "eschatology of the impersonal" which, as Havel presciently pointed out in the 1980s, is as powerfully expressed in the rationalism of western corporate economies as it was in Soviet ideology. It is the reality I experience and resist in that expression: but I want to write towards other possibilities, other actions.

I can begin to see a map. Many maps, made by many people, which imagine other kinds of futures than the destruction we're creating. In order to change anything, you have to be able to imagine a future first.


The beasts are retreating. They are sliding
into the dusk, into the supple light of vanishing trees,
into the glue of dreams. All their strangeness
wavers behind wire, between the four sides of a screen,
odourless and deathless. The beasts stare out of
bleached pages, enclosed at last, and the zoos
are silent, except when parrots and keepers
conduct their weird orchestrations.
Panic flicks in those slotted eyes but the sadness
is only ours. Police hunt corpses in rubbish dumps,
a pregnant mother and child. Beneath the surface,
submarine cries burst the ears of whales.
Coral is leached to stone by the stripped sunlight
and houses crouch by the shore, awaiting the wave
prophets see in the distance. In forests
that glow at night, there are boars and wolves
whose futures mutate daily. There is much that is unknown
as always and even more that now will never
be understood. The cedar forests of Lebanon
are tinder dry and bears starve on the wet tundra.
In the depths of night there may be a phone call
we dare not answer or a cry in the street
which makes the hair rise on the back of our necks.
They will not come back, something is happening
at the edge of our eyes, behind the reflections,
and billboards shout in the silence, delivering words
that in a more innocent age we thought were ours.


frances said...

One of the big things that bothered me with the arts in Australia was (is) the obsession with 'international', which largely meant going away overseas to Europe or Asia for residencies or tours, or having constant international traffic (of self or in collaboration with others) as a mark of success.

For me, having spent much of the first seven years after I graduated living in airports and out of suitcases, it became increasingly troubling for me to do this (even now, with it being a mere €40 return flight from Berlin to Brussels compared with around €120 one-way by train).

I'm still getting asked to go across half way around the world and two hemispheres to make art, but really can't justify it anymore. Yet when I say, "it's not so good for the planet", I mostly get met with change-of-conversation or somehow what I can only think of as a conscious decision to willfully ignore this.

It's a bit like eating meat. We know what goes on and are ashamed of it, yet we pretend we're somehow different, not part of the problem.

(Happy to know that cardboard CD sleeves are so much better – I have an inherent dislike of anything wrapped in plastic.)

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Frances - there was a lively discussion around that very topic, the redefining of "success" away from international recognition: skype internationalism, maybe; virtual touring, exporting the structure/idea of a work rather than the company (sounded like a "play" to me), and so on. Which maybe someone else can talk about (the structure meant that there were dozens of discussions and we all attended different ones). What gives me slight wobbles is the reason why internationalism is an issue here, and why no doubt you're in Berlin; our tendency towards petty parochialism, as reflected in our politics, so much of our cultural discussion, etc etc. Yet, truth be told, I am parochial - I love Melbourne. We need - and have in some cases - a more generous sense of locality.

Hero Fukutu said...

We've come a long way since Shelley said "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. While artists can generally see the problems and rail against them the legislators are people like Murdoch and John Howard and Brumby, people who have a vested interest in growth (hence the Labor ad currently about families). All the best intentions in the world (and by all means do them) are (to quote Paul Erhlich) like putting a firecracker in front of a dinosaur racing to the edge of a cliff, when you look at the two drivers of environmental damage, population and capitalism.

Whilst original art does not have a necessary voice in this country, or a popular presence, its messages will not be heeded and will be largely lost on those who already believe.

Harlan Ellison once wrote a story called Silent in Gehenna about this, about my continued construction of, as you say, lament. His character could not stop ranting against injustice, even though he realised it was futile.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Hero - As far as I'm concerned, that's the point where you begin. Certainly the place where I begin.

Anonymous said...

Fear not you globetrotting artistic Australians, the sheer difference in environmental policy in any of those two you mention (Britain and Germany), means you could seriously do nothing but fly full time back and forth and still be having more of a positive impact than if you stayed here and didn't move.

Whether it is the quality of housing construction or appliances on offer for purchase - of which in Australia our most efficient are not even at the bottom in Europe - you are in fact helping by being there and living in the places where the environment (and the cash that comes from it) actually matter.

Let alone the fact that by making that decision to make art, or creatively express yourself, and thus excuse that same self from the status quo of life here in middle Australia (some shit job, to pay some shit mortgage, to live in some shit house and have a shit life where there is nothing to live for, not even a lament as there is no time and that applies especially for the sprog you've spat out who you barely know who get driven to school and eat shit food and call their teachers shit names and then expect to be a fukking genius and have everything including ENORMOUS FAT FUKN AMOUNTS OF DEBT).

You actually matter overseas, because you don't have to do what the rest of everyone is told they should be doing.

You don't need to drive a car. You don't need to explain yourself when you describe your career.

Lets face it, the sooner we use up all the resources the sooner we'll have to change the world. So go forth and turn up the gas folks, leave the tap on, burn every frikn light in the joint it's time for a frikn party.

You can do that so so much better in Berlin ya?

PS: and use FSC certified timber products for your sets :)

Tristan Sinclair said...

Despair around the hopelessness of art is what motivated me to study design instead (Although seeking to articulate a clear distinction between the two is a bit useless.)

I don't despair about art any more though. Mostly because I accepted even if art isn't what I wish or want it to be, it is inevitable, eternal even. Can you imagine life without art? Of course not, if you can imagine then art, inevitably, exists. The source of all life, the reason conscious life emerged from inert matter is the same as the human drive to practice and appreciate art (IMO). Perhaps art does not often have the literal, tangible effects on the world we would hope for, that would give us a clear cause and effect to go 'ahh! it's all worth while after all!', but life without art is entirely impossible.

Incidentally, I spent a quiet evening not long ago amassing a collection of some of my favourite photos of all time. I labeled the folder 'humanity'. In some of these images I think we can see how powerful and life changing art can be- Kevin Carter's Pulitzer Prize winning image of a starving child in Sudan, Galen Rowen's 'Earth Rise', 'Napalm Girl' by Eddie Adams. These are photos that have had a huge effect on the way we all view the world, particularly they have been essential in humanity developing an (essential) sense of global compassion for mankind and our planet.

I find myself drawing a strange parallel between the fashion industry (that I study and work in) and Australia. Both are somewhat behind the times in the sustainable living movement, which gives cause for embarrassment and frustration. But also excites me as (and perhaps it is my youth talking) I find the need for drastic change invigorating.

I also think, in Australia, we can see grassroots changes in attitudes that will eventually filter up to policy: the new rent-bikes around the city, the bike subculture that is flourishing in general, the growing popularity of shopping destinations such as the Ceres Market in Brunswick, the Greens winning the seat of Melbourne. Small changes are happening.

I've got massively side-tracked here, I really wanted to say I think what is left for art is more than lamenting; it is celebrating, recognizing, remembering, imagining, everything it always was and will be. In an increasingly sophisticated and global world the individual is left feeling powerless (which we, in fact, are far from.) Art is always a reflection of ourselves so it suffers from the same anxiety (but, as we are not powerless, art too is not stunted- it just fears it is).

Eric Sykes said...

;-) love, Eric.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks all. Keep talking.

Alison Croggon said...

Also, my personal counter-argument to all that feeling of helplessness around art and language is to look at how powerful it's been for The Dark Side...

Anonymous said...

I liked your poem, but it's a bit indulgent. In the interest of saving trees and writing better poetry, I offer this edit:


The beasts are retreating. They are sliding
into the dusk, into the supple light of vanishing trees,
into the glue of dreams. All their strangeness
wavers behind wire, between the four sides of a screen,
odourless and deathless. The beasts stare out of
bleached pages, enclosed at last, and the zoos
are silent.
They will not come back, something is happening
at the edge of our eyes, behind the reflections,
and billboards shout in the silence, delivering words
that in a more innocent age we thought were ours.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Anon, for your kind suggestions. Well, it's certainly shorter; but for my taste, it loses quite a lot more than it gains. I do think a poem is more about the beautiful journey than it is about getting efficiently from A to B. All the same, I appreciate the thought.

Anonymous said...

I agree about the beautiful journey, but efficiency when you're talking about the evanescence of the natural world is part of what makes this elegy beautiful to me.

Capitalism's lack of efficiency, its needless profusions and inbuilt redundancies, are among the reasons the beasts are disappearing, no? Best not to emulate it in verse on the subject, or perhaps you intended to?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - I don't especially like arguing about my own work, but hey. That poem is finally unfinished, which means I'm glad if you like it, and sorry if you don't, but as far as I'm concerned it's doing exactly what it wants to do. And that everything in it is there on purpose.

To address your larger point: I see what you're saying, but I think you are mistaken. "Lack of efficiency, needless profusion and inbuilt redundancies" are much more characteristics of the natural world. "Efficiency" is an aim of capitalism, meaning everything drives to a single end - making money. Which in fact drives its so-called inefficiencies - eg, there wouldn't be the dreadful leakages in oil pipes in Nigeria if it didn't profit the oil companies to ignore the environment there. They are efficiently doing one thing - profitably extracting oil from the ground. The expenses include environment and community and, which is not immaterial for human beings, beauty. But they don't fit on the bottom line, so can be collateral damage.

But look at the natural world. Tube worms in deep sea rifts are glorious red, when there is no light to see them. Animals like octupi reproduce in their hundreds of thousands, when two or three survive. How exactly are the dance of the egrets, the feathers of the Birds of Paradise, the behaviours of a bower bird, "efficient"? What is an appendix, but a redundancy in our morphology? Nature is full of excess. I can't remember who it was who said that natural selection is an inefficient mechanism, given the amount of wastage it generates, but it was some biologist. It's human beings who want things to be "efficient".

Anonymous said...

Yes nature and human behaviour are inefficient and full of excess. There's something beautiful and sinister about both. Is that what you're trying to show though?

Poetry doesn't really stand outside these economies, but it's a personal thing. To me, the beginning and end of the poem are strong, the middle not so much. I arrived at the edit by reading the poem aloud and retained what insisted itself.

I'm not spoiling for a fight, just giving some feedback and trying to stimulate some thought. As for the poem being "finally unfinished", I'm not sure anything about poetry is ever final, though if anything is, it's incompleteness.

May your muse soon return, anyway.

Eileen said...

Poignantly expressed Alison, this piece moved me deeply.

It seems so often the case that before one can begin to lament the command to celebrate rings out .

And sorry to digress….But Ehrlich, Hero?. He may have softened his neo-Malthusian views from earlier days but flirts way too close to neo-fascism for my liking-the man himself has some associations of the darkest kind. We all know who it is that is supposedly over-populating and it isn’t us, right? The privileging of the population explosion as a major cause of the planets degradation is singularly the best and most convenient defense capitalism has. In the guise of so much commonsense it obscures the reality that its not consumption which drives the political economy but production, based on the pursuit of profit by a dominant class. A neat ideological switch. Kind of like the way that keeping busy recycling our waste , riding our bicycles and , dare I say, electing Greens allows us to believe that something’s being done while at the point of production nothing changes ….
If there is a rational basis for concern about population at all then it’s clearly demonstrated that the way to affect change is to raise people out of poverty and educate the women. The population has been growing but the rate of increase has been on the decline for decades. I think it’s a diversion.

Alison Croggon said...

There's something beautiful and sinister about both. Is that what you're trying to show though?

Er... yes.

I hasten to say that I took your response in good part: I meant it when I thanked you for your interest in the poem. I simply don't agree. The only thing I might take issue with is your assumption that I haven't thought about the poem.

Thanks, Eileen. Hugely important point about the population explosion. One thing that haunts me is the environmental cost of warfare, which not only is massively destructive - what price the DU contamination in Iraq? - but which swallows huge resources that could be much better used elsewhere. Thinking say of Kapuschinski's point about the barbed wire that surrounded the borders of the Soviet Union, which ensured massive domestic shortages of things like household utensils...

I think one of the sources of hope I took away from this weekend was the possibilities of local and specific intervention. For example, the work Julia's Bicycle is doing, which not only has practical force, but which provides industrial models for dealing with production. Nobody is saying that the situation is not critical and the challenges are not huge.

Anonymous said...

Taking response in good part....
Salutations and admiration for how very graciously you took the response to the poem, and for the poetic nature of your reply. I enjoyed it almost as much as the poem itself.

Jana said...

Raising my head from my thesis for a second (which is about art and geographical matters - and climate change is one), I can tell you, with some certainty, my preliminary conclusion: art is most useful in this occasion as a communication vehicle for both complex ideas and complex information. (This has nothing to do with design. Design does other things.) The more knowledgeable artists we have, the better off we are. Mind you, not well-meaning. Knowledgeable.

Some good points have been made in this thread, and some of them have unfortunately been undermined by other statements made by their authors. It is indeed true that environmental efficiency of everything produced in Australia, cardinally housing (but also, for example, public transport), is so low that no reduction in international travel will make us global leaders in sustainable living. It's also true that overpopulation is essentially an argument which shifts the blame onto the underdeveloped world, and is to some extent highly unethical. As for bikeshare systems, the question is to what extent they replace cars, and to what extent walking.

But these are such complex issues, and so little is gained from lamenting...! One of the biggest contributions to positive change that I would credit you with, Alison, has been opening up this blog as a space of discussion, and then spreading this space to other media - newspapers, television, books, lectures. The more space there is for calm, intelligent and open discussion, the more space there is for communicating complex issues. If more people made the same effort, we'd have much better media in this country.

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks, Jana. While we're exchanging compliments, may I say how much that depends on the good grace with which others take up the invitation. I've always been encouraged by your enthusiasm and good faith.

I wholly agree, little is gained by lamenting. But I think I've realised that much is lost by the lack of it. And yes, artists should do what artists do best: open possibilities, encourage, make, imagine. These are not small things, although others would sometimes have it so.

Tristan Sinclair said...

Interesting points, Jana.

"This has nothing to do with design. Design does other things"... I am a bit unsure about this insistent divide. I would argue if art is being used as a tool to communicate complex ideas and information it is a form of design, which could be (foolishly) reduced to art with an applied intention and market... although this is a bit beside the point either way.

My understanding of the cycling is it is in place of public transport more than walking, or is used in conjunction with public transport to replace the car. Point taken though.

Eileen, "at the point of production nothing changes" what do you mean? Ethical production in most industries is on the rise- organic foods are far more commonplace, in fashion companies like Nike have had to respond (rather immediately and drastically) to consumer demands for more ethical clothing/shoes. Perhaps things change slowly, and for every example of a step in the right direction there is a counter point, but that there is change is undeniable.

I also think that whilst there are problems that voting green, riding our bikes, etc may not fix that that does not negate or diminish the value in striving to live sustainable and ethically as an individual. If only through leading by example and raising awareness, you are doing something worth while... it may not be the grand gesture or ultimate solution that would satisfy the ego (hence the lamenting), but trying to make a difference can (and does) happen at every level, it is about a collective effort, not the individual.

Alison Croggon said...

It is about a collective effort, not the individual.

It absolutely is, Tristan. What's difficult is seeing how those individual efforts add up to anything, even if collectively it does. The accusation that the measures taken are only a matter of middle class conscience-soothing is an easy evasion of our individual responsibilities. And yes, there is change. Too slow, and not enough, but it is happening. If only we could solve all our problems with a single grand gesture! But I don't think that has ever been the case.

Tristan Sinclair said...

"The accusation that the measures taken are only a matter of middle class conscience-soothing is an easy evasion of our individual responsibilities." (I haven't figured out the clever italics, sorry.)

Perhaps I am too sensitive to it, but I find this attitude all too common and very disheartening.

Anyway, I've enjoyed this conversation. It adds some welcome diversity to your blog, Alison. Perhaps you could consider posting arts/poetry/social commentary more often? Blogs often work best when they are a little personal or confessional (something I expect you may agree with me on, as your reviews often are preceded by some friendly chatter about your life) and it was nice to hear you openly and comfortably voice your concerns and reservations about this stuff.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Tristan. Wider commentaries have always been part of TN, as has personal statement, although I'm not sure I've posted poetry before: there are other outlets for that, and I'm not sure it belongs here. Clearly Ms TN in all her guises is a series of masks, even here; but, as in performance, masks are a way of exploring transformation and paradox, that is, of discovering truths...

Eileen said...

I don’t really see lamenting as a matter of gain or otherwise…. ? Kind of like saying “there’s nothing to be gained in mourning the loss of your loved one”. Doesn’t make sense to me. Lamenting is a life process that capitalism has little use for and we seem to be living in a time which expressly denies loss, death and pain except when packaged in glib or sentimental forms (or glorified because it’s a consequence of war,say) . In Ireland, where I come from, the lament is traditionally part of a death ritual led, composed and performed by women, a kind of oral poetry which marks the transition and leads a community through the upheaval death causes. The lamenter was often “mad” for the duration of the ritual and she could safely challenge authority, mourn and sometimes ridicule the dead and keen for them . Remnants of the tradition remain mostly in the Gaeltochs but also in song, in poetry and in theatre. Many, many cultures have an equivalent catharsis and it goes much deeper than being an ego-satisfier I think Tristan.The planet isn’t dead yet but large tracts of it and it’s species are and so for me not lamenting that is what appears odd .
Tristan, in no way did I mean to deride the myriad of things people do to live in a more sustainable way and I never said anything about them being middle-class conscience salving Alison-the class I referred to was the owning class. In my experience the majority of people do make the adjustments it is within their power to-the problem is they don’t have a lot of that. What concerns me is the discourse about the environment being framed predominantly by calls to green one’s individual back yard because that can and does take the heat off the real polluters. It's a political tactic as much as anything else. It’s not a “grand gesture” to build a movement that focuses on dismantling the coal industry (for starters). As you no doubt know Australia is the single biggest exporter of coal in the world and stopping it would contribute to the reduction of global carbon emissions at a level that all individual lifestyle efforts put together could not possibly do. It’s proportion and perspective I’m getting at, not either/or.
As for ethical products-I think you miss my point ; it doesn’t matter what the products are it’s production itself I’m talking about. But that’s a whole other thing. I don’t share your optimism about the abundance of these products nor the ethics involved in their production, but I do have enthusiasm for initiatives like the 50 mile food rule. I don’t really want to get into a debate about whether it’s too late or not, like you I’ll keep plugging away.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Eileen - I have no desire to minimise those realities. Maybe it's a case of negative capabilities here. The small is as necessary as the big, and it shouldn't self-cancel.

TimT said...

"For poetry makes nothing happen" - and thank God for that.

Tristan Sinclair said...

Hey Eileen, I do understand your points, and I agree it's not a case of right or wrong- just similar ideas with a different emphasis. I guess I focus on what we can do on a small scale in the hopes people then build up the courage to begin to act and think larger, actually it's not just a hope; I've witnessed this evolution take place.

The point I am trying to make is exactly that it *isn't* a grand gesture to build a movement it is a series of changes in ideas and behaviors (that at the time often seem futile) that generate a snowball effect of change, unless you seek a revolution...

I'll just add that organic food, for one, isn't just a product, it is a method of production too. It isn't an ultimate solution but is a part of a shift in values in production methods. I think my use of the word ethical may have confused my point- I didn't just mean ethical consideration of workers, but materials, production methods, distribution, waste disposal etc. I didn't say there was an abundance of these products, I said that their presence is on the rise. If you make an effort, as an individual, to seek them out then those companies flourish and grow bigger and have more capacity to make 'grand' changes etc, enter snowball.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi TimT - my favourite poetry quote in that line is WCW's - "It's hard to get the new from poems / But men die miserably every day / for the lack of what is found there." Which is maybe more to the point in this discussion. In Memoriam WB Yeats is one of my favourite poems ever, but I'm not sure that line is well understood - or at least, it's most often used to justify an artistic alienation, an apparent apoliticism that is not, at all, apolitical, that I don't think Auden himself subscribed to, or certainly not at that time in his life. To say that art is political is not to subscribe to the trammels of social realism or other hardline ideologies: it's to recognise that, in its own course, art has powerful agencies.

Tristan, Eileen - on the weekend, a futurologist told me that she thought it would be much simpler to think about if we focused in the immediate present on the question of energy production. Given oil shock, it sounds like a sensible idea. And Tim Jarvis is among those lobbying for some simple legislative changes that would make a difference. Eg, if green energy were opt-out instead of, as at present, opt-in, it would make something like 70 per cent difference (don't quote me, I'm speaking from memory) on public take-up, and thus would change the economies of scale radically in the right direction. Legislation really does matter, and we need to support the people who are campaigning in these areas. But first of all, we need to be aware of what they are doing, and why. That's hard to find out about unless you specifically look, which is a reflection of the poverty-stricken public debate around this question.

Alison Croggon said...

Er - make that "It's hard to get the news from poems". Though I guess "new" kind of works, in a way.

Helen Lowe said...

Fascinating post, Alison.

It is hard not be despondent, especially when one sees such widespread climate change denial, and in the world's largest economy in particular. (Not exempting Australia & NZ either though.) But I often think that the biggest inhibitor to change is ignorance of those levers you mention, not just the effective changes we can make as individuals, but the practical changes that orgnaisations can implement that are not necessarily complex and expensive. Getting more info out there around 'practical action' would be good. Even if each individual makes little difference, collectively it all adds up--and could help build a societal behaviour shift, to help survive the future we've brought on ourselves, if not to escape it.

TimT said...

I like

the instruments agree
the day of his death was a dark and cold day.

I'm happy for artists to engage in politics, write about it, paint about it, etc, but I don't think they make much difference. And I'm grateful for that - the world would be a pretty frightening place if the collection of fascists and communists and anti-semite artists that were in Europe/the US/ at the time of World War II actually had succeeded in their political aims.

TimT said...

One of Auden's few dull moments occurs in his 'Hymn to the United Nations'.

Why, Wystan, why?

Born Dancin' said...

Telling artists they don't make a difference is a good way of preventing artists from making a difference.

Telling artists they're making a difference is also a good way of preventing artists from making a difference.

TimT said...

Born Dancin', my other favourite  quote about the subject of artists and politics is found in a book by John Cage, with a title like '100 ways to change the world'.

"You'll just make matters worse".

Alison Croggon said...

TimT - You mean, aside from the collection of fascists and communists and anti-semite non-artists that were in Europe/the US?

Like I keep saying, the relationship between art and political commitment is complex. It keeps getting imagined as simple, which is why you end up with instrumental assumptions and bad agitprop.

Yeah, sometimes it's better not to act. I've read my Bhagavad Gita too. I'd just prefer not to follow those alarming lines, if at all possible.

JB, you mean you just don't tell artists anything?

Alison Croggon said...

Oh, and thanks Helen - nice to see you there.

TimT said...

"You mean, aside from the collection of fascists and communists and anti-semite non-artists that were in Europe/the US? "


That would mean ignoring the works of Auden, Pound, Eliot, the surrealists, and many many others!

But Auden’s case is interesting, no? The writer who in the early 30s was head of a movement and wanted his poetry to ‘make action urgent and its nature clear’, by the end of the decade was much more cynical – ‘as the clever hopes expire/of a low dishonest decade’, etc.

Alison Croggon said...

TimT, I'm not sure what you mean. It wasn't the artists who succeeded in their fascist/communist/anti-semitic aims in the 20C - it was the politiciana, bureaucrats, aparachiks, corporations, and the populations and constituencies who supported them... I mean, they did succeed in changing the world, and many did succeed in their political aims. How else were there Kolyma or Tuol Sleng or Dachau? How else are we in the pass where we are now? Or am I missing something?

And it was most often artists, attracted by idealism, who recoiled against those kinds of rationalisms, Auden included (I don't think his disillusion is very hard to understand, and if you read any history you feel it anyway).

TimT said...

Well yes, that would be what I would argue - the artists don't make political change: politicians and those who enforced their power - armies, police etc - did.

Possibly we have reached a point at which we are talking at cross purposes? I was a little confused about your comment 'You mean, aside from the collection of fascists and communists... etc'; maybe I have misinterpreted it. I took it as an ironic response to my earlier arguments that a) artists should be free to express political ideas in their art and b) there were a lot of ratbags amongst the high modernist/late modernist artists, with an implication that I contradicted myself...

My specific references to Auden are mostly throwaway because I find his poetry superb and like talking about him, with only tangential relationship to the discussion!

Born Dancin' said...

"JB, you mean you just don't tell artists anything?"

Ha! I meant quite the opposite, but if you're referring to my own practice that's a distinct possibility.

Alison Croggon said...

I was confused too. The denial of human agency seems weird when so much has been so radically changed by our species, and especially by ideas and language.

The political thing isn't so clear either when you look at poets like Vladimir Mayakovsky or Pablo Neruda: who is to say they made no difference, when they were so wildly popular and influential as poets of revolution? Artists live in the world, like everyone else, and (if they are lucky) are citizens. In a way, that's quite a simple equation, and maybe artists should just be unembarrassed about it.