The Art of Making Do with Enough

Tomas Saraceno

This text originally appeared as a chapter in The New Art, a collection of essays on contemporary art published by Rachmaninoff’s London. Our account of the challenge of sustainability for contemporary art includes criticism of the ‘turbine hall effect’ on contemporary art.

Sustainability presents a far reaching challenge to society and raises important issues for contemporary art. Responding to the broad dilemma of ‘how to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ has implications for artistic practice and brings a reorientation of in our opinion most attuned contemporary art towards sustainability. According to environmental thought, the key problems to be addressed on the path to sustainable living are a capitalist model of growth, consumerism, hierarchies in society, social injustice, and the human impact on the environment and natural world. The transformation of society into a more sustainable one entails putting into practice the principles of ecology, grassroots democracy, social justice and non-violence.

The artistic engagement with sustainability draws on radical critiques of art and society and the dematerialised practices of conceptual art to offer sustainable alternatives for art and life. While in contemporary living we have a greater understanding of sustainability in our everyday choices (or the lack of them), contemporary artists increasingly take on the role of alternative knowledge producer, involved in producing, mediating, and exchanging alternative models and dealing with issues that are marginalised in mainstream culture and politics.

Sustainability in art brings awareness of a wider ecological context around the production and reception of art works. It questions the sacrosanct status of the art object as the highest civilisational value and problematises the belief that artworks are created, and should be preserved, for eternity. Just as in society there is a tendency to stop seeing nature as an endless resource, attuned artists problematise the understanding of art as commodity, and are reluctant to add to the stockpile of art objects, choosing instead to explore alternative means of expression.