The Implications of Sustainability for Contemporary Art

This lecture was given as part of the TRAIN open lectures series at Chelsea School of Arts and provoked a lively and productive discussion with the audience.

The notion of sustainability has spread from the field of environmentalism to many other areas of human activity, including the spheres of art and culture. There is a growing understanding that radical change is required, if we are to find a way to ‘meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ For art, the implications are felt in the preference for sustainable forms, the critique of unsustainable art world structures, and the reassessment of art history from the point of view of our relationship to the natural world. It offers a challenge to the ingrained habit of producing objects and the relentless search for novelty in contemporary art.

What we are dealing with is no longer confined within the niche of earlier environmental art, which is associated with art acting as a vehicle to popularise environmental campaigns, or symbolic gestures to purify rivers through ritual, or to raise consciousness through art with a direct ecological message. In fact, the closeness to sustainability of much challenging contemporary art practice owes more to the legacy of 1970s conceptualism, and even primarily the non-market East European variety of conceptual art, than for example to Land Art. This presentation will therefore discuss the ways and extent to which a concern for sustainability has passed into the mainstream of contemporary art.

The rigid divide between autonomous art, for which the highest imaginable function is to have no function, and instrumental art, which is accused of sacrificing artistic freedom for the sake of a political message, is a direct legacy of modernism, and still informs many widely held assumptions about the nature of artistic engagement. We will consider recent theoretical reassessments of artistic autonomy that point to a degree of convergence in contemporary art between approaches formerly considered to be binary opposites. Arguably sustainability in art recognises no contradiction between autonomy and engagement, as long as the formal qualities are fulfilled, as it is precisely the autonomy of art that creates a space to consider alternatives.

The implications of sustainability for contemporary art will be examined through the work of international artists, including Adrian Paci, Heath Bunting, Beata Veszely and Ivan Ladislav Galeta. Their sustainable practice might be considered in terms of the contemporary avant garde.

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