Saturday, November 04, 2006

Making art in the post-carbon world

I have often theorized that wealth and privelege don't really do anything to improve the quality of our art. The art that I'm most intimately familiar with, of course, is literature, but as far as I can tell that's a fair statement about most arts. My personal theory is that a life of both comfort and consumption retards our perceptions to a degree that alters our capacity to produce art, but I don't insist on the interpretation. What I do think is that after years and years of reading books created in the past, damned little matches it at present.

I often wonder what the poetry or fiction of the future will look like, what its art and architecture will be. It turns out that Richard Heinberg wonders the same thing in this article from his _Museletter_ series. I was intrigued by this, but I find myself dubious about some of his conclusions, particularly about his choice to look at the Arts and Crafts movement as a forerunner of what may arise. Now part of this is probably aesthetic preference - while I find Arts and Crafts movement architecture and furniture pretty enough, I find the self-conscious nostalgia of it a bit heavy handed, and if you gave me a choice between the work of craftsmen, say, from the colonial period, who achieved clean lines and high quality craftsmanship without the interminable self-congratulation of someone like Wright.

I also find the over-engineered look of Arts and Crafts style somewhat irritating, personally. It is designed to look heavy, in every sense, with its heavy geometric lines and thick shaping, it uses more material than strictly necessary. This over-engineering is a kind of ornamentation in itself, to my eye, which is no accident - it is, after all, harkening back to the overly ornamental gothic period.

Now this part of this could be summarized by "I don't like Arts and Crafts stuff nearly as much as Richard Heinberg does" and if that was the whole point, there'd be nothing to discuss - tomato, tomahto, whatever. But by focusing on the attempt of an already industrialized culture to nostalgically return to a pre-lapsarian moment before the invention of the middle class and their sensibilities, Heinberg imagines a future aesthetic that will derive from the same basic principles as the Arts and Crafts movement. But for people enduring a time of crisis and radical transition, the pre-lapsarian moment will not look like the turn of the 20th century, but today, right now, when we were rich.

And much of what we will have, for a very long time, will be the scavenged remnents of our world. That is, as we get poorer, and don't have as many things , we are likely to cling to what we have, and integrate them. Instead of recreating a new aesthetic, we are likely to, paraphrasing Eliot, shore fragments against our ruin. The post-peak aesthetic will, I suspect, derive from a reconstruction of the world with its remainders, glued together and filled with natural materials. We are likely to see a true integration of natural and artificial, industrial and organic. In American design, "shabby chic" has had its day recently - the advent, for example, of the "pre-distressed" item of furniture is a model of this. But what we are likely to find is that shabby, post-industrial, rebuilt and reintegrated becomes beautiful.

I don't say this from a position of finding this future vision especially beautiful. Like Heinberg, I'd love to believe a new craftsman aesthetic would be derived from the past. But people who are working frantically to hold together what they have don't cut from the immediate past - they cling to it with both hands. I'm not fond of industrial design, but I suspect we'll find elements of industrial production integrated in intriguing ways - faux artificials - wood painted to shine like plastic, perhaps, and sheet metal integrated with wood and fibers. If a new craftsperson aesthetic does arrive, I suspect it will come later, a backlash against the attempt to preserve the old.

My own house these days is more functional than beautiful. Certainly, there are objects I love in it, but the general aesthetic sense is chaotic. I fantasize, someday, about being able to integrate entirely my own sensibilities with my home - to be able to have only natural materials, rather than the brightly colored plastic that most children's toys come in. On the other hand, perhaps my attempts to tidy up, and integrate my own taste for the natural with the necessity and reality of the artificial is the beginnings of a new beauty. Too bad I can't see it yet.



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