I never did get to ask Russ Volckmann, the editor of the e-magazine "Integral Review," what prompted him to contact me for an interview. I knew it wasn't because he'd read my books, since he kept delaying the interview in order to have more time to read them. So I assumed that perhaps it was because my writings about art belong to a kind of "family" of new-paradigm thinkers--writers and activists whose work and philosophy I devoured when they first appeared decades ago, and systematically made use of in my own endeavor to create a new paradigm for art. Some of these core ideas were: morphic fields (Rupert Sheldrake); models of partnership (Riane Eisler); deep ecology (Thomas Berry); networks (Marilyn Ferguson, Fritzjof Capra); dialogue (David Bohm); and a bit later integralism (Ken Wilber) and transdisciplinarity (Basarab Nicolescu). Without these pioneers, I could never have done the work that I did, or forge the philosophy of art I did.
Just before the scheduled time for our telephone interview, I checked my e-mail and found the following quote, sent to me by Russ, who thought it might be an interesting jumping off point for our talk. The quote was by Joseph Beuys. Beuys is arguably the first artist to have articulated a major shift in the vital role of art in as part of a global mission to effect social and environmental change. In his day, Beuys had been the founder of the Green Party in Germany, and the author of a project to plant trees at a major international art exhibition, the 1982 Documenta in Kassel, Germany, which took five years to complete.
"Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and activities related to art to provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power," Beuys wrote. "Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along to the deathline...."
I've spent decades of my own professional life trying to widen precisely those definitions of art that Beuys was talking about. Even now, there are still many people who are more comfortable with the traditional notion of the artist as a maker of objects circulated in institutions like museums and galleries.
My own writing, in contrast, has been mostly about artists who often operate outside of these art-world contexts. Sometimes they even work outside of their own fields, creating a healthy confusion of genres and disciplines, and blurring the boundaries between art and life. Many use their creativity to address and solve serious environmental or social problems. These efforts can involve synergistic processes of teamwork, expanded networks, and community-building.
Years ago, I took Beuys' idea of art as a form of "social sculpture" and ran with it: artists, he claimed, could sculpt much more than raw materials like stone or wood or metal. They could sculpt society itself. Shaping society was, in my view, an enlightened form of sculpture. Russ's choice of Beuys as a starting point was an inevitable hit.
So why the uneasiness the minute I read it? It's was as if my mind had run into a snag. I found myself more resonant with the description "of a senile social system tottering along to the deathline" than I was with the suggestion of art as "the only evolutionary-revolutionary power" capable of dismantling the effects of that system. And I suspected this would not be what my interlocutor was waiting to hear. This conversation, I thought, could become another alligator-wrestle. Because I had just seen myself reflected, as if in a mirror. And the person I saw did not necessarily believe that the radioactive problems facing the world now, at ever-increasing exponential rates, were any longer redeemable by art--or by anything, for that matter. All the best alternative models and philosophies suddenly seemed like makeshift contraptions warding off the awful truth: that these ideas had had little impact over time on the threat of chainsaws, nuclear bombs, cars, capitalism, violence, and human greed. In fact, over time, they, too, had become institutionalized, and were now trapped within the confines of the dominant discourse.
Opportunities for change had come and gone, but without receiving much traction, because as Derrick Jensen points out in his unforgiving book, "ENDGAME: The Problem of Civilization":
"Those in charge of the world are insane.
They are killing the world."
Somebody must report back from hell. This is, after all, the Medusa whose disturbing complex none of us wants to look at, for fear we will all be turned to stone: "If only we weren't insane...if only there were even the slightest chance our culture would undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living."
Jensen thinks it's an impossible fantasy. And the shocking thing--shocking as much to me as it was to Russ--is that I may just have to agree with him. The only real path left to us now is the one of cutting through delusion: the belief that we can save the world even while we continue to destroy it.
Our interview is scheduled to appear in the December issue of Integral Review in December: http://www.integral-review.org.
To be continued.