Art and Energy: How Culture Changes

Art and Energy

Art and Energy: How Culture Changes

by Barry Lord, AAM Press 265 pp.

People’s Voice – Sept 15-30, 2014

Barry Lord’s new book Art and Energy: How Culture Changes is about the influence of changing sources of energy on aesthetic culture, as well as the influence of aesthetic culture on the pace of adapting new energy sources. While sources of energy from earlier eras are still necessarily with us (firewood, coal, wind, etc.), there is always, he says, a cutting edge source of new energy that transforms the social-economic environment and the resulting cultural values.

Hearth & Forge

Commenting on the Greek poet Hesiod’s description of Zeus’ rage after learning that Prometheus had given fire to human beings, Lord writes, “such a god’s-eye view of the fires of many communities gives us a glimpse of the prehistoric and ancient world’s primary cultural centre, the hearth”. Fire allowed humans to gather together in the evening to tell stories, invent songs and dances, and reinforce their values. The use of tallow lamps enabled the astonishing cave paintings found in Africa, Spain and Southern France, painted by artists some 30 millenia ago.

The kiln was a further application of fire, fostering the craft of pottery. Later came the forge, which introduced bronze and iron, transforming the weapons of war and the tools of agriculture, and harnessing animals for domestic use. In a vivid passage, Lord contrasts the tamed animals depicted on the walls of Egyptian tombs with the energetic animals of prehistoric cave artists.

Co-operation & Slavery

Lord asserts that co-operation in the workforce is also a source of energy, with the earliest co-operation being the division of labour between women and men. Once the advantage of co-operation was understood, collective identity followed, and the acknowledgment of individual leaders. Large-scale collective labour made it necessary to store and distribute surpluses over a wide area, making armed guards necessary, as well as taxes, marketplaces, and writing.

Slavery became a vital source of energy in the ancient world. Total control of agricultural labour gave economic and military advantages to slave society elites. This mode of production made standing armies possible, as well as a leisure class that engaged in philosophy and literature, and invested its surplus in ambitious works of architecture, and monuments that served to proclaim and maintain its dominance. Slave artisans were disciplined to provide exquisite pieces of jewelry, furniture, bronze, ceramics and glass.

Wind Power

In the period of European civilization known as the “Renaissance” cultural change was powered by technological developments in sailing. New methods of rigging made it possible to harness wind energy to explore the globe and exploit other peoples and resources. Human energy was organized for the exchange of surplus, an activity that required the invention of an abstraction: the international exchange rate.

Lengthy trading expeditions were risky and expensive affairs (as Shakespeare dramatized in The Merchant of Venice). To spread the risk, joint stock companies were formed, followed soon after by stock exchanges. The age of sail coincided with the growth of competition between merchant empires. Artists began to celebrate heroic individuals and wealthy patrons, rather than religious themes. A new individualism emerged in the arts with the rise of genres like portraiture (Rembrandt), and the novel (Cervantes, Defoe).

Coal: The Culture of Production

The decline of the age of sail was precipitated by an energy crisis in Europe. By the 18th century, many countries were experiencing deforestation. The solution to the crisis was found in the “underground forest”. Coal emerged as the cutting edge energy. It reorganized workplaces and concentrated a growing population into cities. Coal stoked the industrial revolution, fueling steam engines, cotton mills, and railroads. It made overnight postal service and daily newspapers possible, and global mass markets for cultural works, like the phenomenally popular novels of Dickens and Hugo.

Some artists, like the poet Baudelaire, responded to the new mass culture by embracing alienation. Others, like the painter Van Gogh, gave a new dignity to industrial and agricultural labourers. More radical new ways of seeing were pioneered by Turner and the impressionist painters, with their interpretations of the steam and smoke of the industrial environment.

Electric Transformations

In Lord’s scheme of energy transitions, electricity is an anomaly. It is an application, rather than a source of energy. Electricity brought about qualitative change. The culture of production was transformed by power grids and circuits. Electrical appliances changed the nature of housework and the role of women, and the phonograph, cinema, and radio transformed social and cultural awareness.

During the age of coal the industrial proletariat became aware of itself as a class and launched its epic struggle for workers rights. However, it is arguably the coming of electricity in the late 19th century that inspired mass socialist and communist parties and the world’s first socialist revolution. Lenin famously said that “communism will be the Soviets plus electricity.” But while working class organizations grew rapidly in this era, artists too, felt that they could change the world.

Electricity inspired international modernism, a movement for the transformation of art and society that included the architecture and design of the Russian constructivists, the Bahaus school, the cubism of Picasso, the epic theatre of Brecht, the abstract music of Schoenberg, surrealism and the anti-art of Dada, the revolutionary muralists of Mexico, and the cinema of Chaplin. It was an age that favored innovation over imitation.

Oil & Gas: The Culture of Consumption

Since 1900, the internal combustion engine has driven an era of oil and gas, transforming landscapes into highways and parking lots, and leaving behind an ever-increasing carbon footprint for subsequent generations. Ford’s offer of a Model T on easy credit to his workers dramatically enabled consumer culture. In the mid-20th century, working-class solidarity countered consumerism, but neo-liberalism, symbolized by Thatcherism in the 80’s, partly succeeded in replacing the social identity of unions with that of the individual consumer. Contemporary governments continue to promise high consumption levels, whatever the cost.

Post-modern philosophy corresponds to consumer culture, as opposed to class identity, in that it offers a “marketplace of ideas,” and eschews “grand narratives”. Artistic disciplines are characterized by a smorgasbord of alternative styles and meanings. Artists themselves are encouraged to develop their art as a brand. Ubiquitous corporate sponsorship imposes brands on cultural institutions and festivals. Large-scale international art fairs like the Venice Biennale confirm the culture of consumption and the growing wealth and power of the top-tenth of art dealers and auction houses.

Nuclear Energy: The Culture of Anxiety

Nuclear power was the first energy source to arrive as a weapon. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (as well as the application of industrial methods by Nazi Germany to exterminate Jews, Roma and other peoples) caused many artists and intellectuals to re-evaluate their ideas about the nature of humanity. Borrowing from a popular 1947 poem by W.H. Auden, Lord characterizes this phenomenon as “the culture of anxiety.” The mood was expressed after the war by absurdest writers like Camus, Ionesco and Beckett, and filmmakers like Resnais and Antonioni.

In recent decades, new causes of anxiety have emerged with fear of nuclear meltdowns and global warming. Fears actively fomented by governments in the metropolitan centres of capitalism include growing anxiety about “security” and “austerity”. Lord provides examples of the efforts of several contemporary multi-media artists to warn of the corrosive effects of this culture of anxiety.

Renewable Energy: The Culture of Stewardship

Some contemporary artists, reacting to the wasteful and environmentally destructive culture of consumption, are reflecting a “culture of scarcity.” They advocate impoverished art, made from discarded or low-cost materials. But, says Lord, this “frightens the haves and discourages the have-nots.” He names his vision of the emerging sustainable world “the culture of stewardship”. Its key values are storage, access, and sustainability.
Lord rightly celebrates electronic archives (libraries and museums) as creative cultural and media centres, but his description of digital data as “congealed energy” calls out for fuller explanation. When he writes approvingly of new museums designed by architects with sustainability in mind (living green roofs, geothermal wells), and art galleries that offer immersive experiences, one might well ask, who is this for? Where are the visions of sustainability for the 99%?

While he argues that digitization has weakened the collective identities that formerly supported transformative causes, he nevertheless concludes on an optimistic note, predicting that the time will come when the culture of consumption will be a distant memory. But we can’t build a sustainable future on hope alone. Where is the human agency to bring about these changes?

These criticisms aside, Art and Energy is thought-provoking and highly readable book.

Barry Lord and his partner Gail Dexter Lord are international museum consultants. Together they’ve published a series of widely-used manuals for museums, as well as an important contribution to cultural theory: Artists, Patrons, and the Public: Why Culture Changes (2010).

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