Harrison’s 2010 thesis, published in four parts by Furtherfield, addresses the ethical implications of continuing to choose the ‘career’ of artist in the 21st Century and presents her manifesto for how best to move forward. (Word count: 8,284)


From September 2008 – June 2010, Ellie Harrison undertook a Leverhulme Scholarship on the Master of Fine Art programme at Glasgow School of Art.

The thesis published below forms one of the major outcomes of her research during this period and builds on two earlier essays How Can We Continue Making Art? – which questions whether there is a place for art in world which is fast approaching environmental catastrophe, and Altermoderism: The Age of Stupid – which uses Nicolas Bourriaud’s Altermodern exhibition at Tate Britain in 2009 as a paradigm for exploring the art world institution’s lack of acknowledgement and action over climate change.

Trajectories: How to Reconcile the Careerist Mentality with Our Impending Doom addresses the ethical implications of continuing to choose the career of artist in the twenty-first century. It is a manifesto of sorts, written from the personal perspective of a young UK-based artist looking to identify worthwhile reasons for continuing down this ‘self-interested’ path, given that the future we are likely to face as a result of climate change, is so different from how we dreamt our careers might pan out whilst growing up under Thatcher and New Labour. It explores how we should aim to evolve our roles as artists, in light of this, and what form a new ‘reconciled practice’ might take.

Global Warming Projection

Global Warming Projection

This graph shows the projected average global temperature increase over the forthcoming century if we remain on our current trajectory of economic growth and population increase (peaking at 9 billion in 2050), but also incorporate new efficient technologies, a convergent world income and a balanced emphasis on energy sources. This is known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s ‘scenario A1B’ (IPCC 2001).

The graph is extracted from the official AVOID response to the United Nations Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen in December 2009 published on 26 March 2010. AVOID is a United Kingdom governmental research programme led by the Met Office with the aim of averting dangerous climate change (AVOID 2010).

Introduction: Setting the Scene

Looking back, 1979 now emerges as a pivotal year in the recent history of our species. On 6 October this year the US central bank, the Federal Reserve, increased interest rates by 20 points (Fisher 2009, p.33). This act, which on paper appears of little significance, opened the gates to a whole new breed of free-market capitalism which, as a result of reduced regulation, would spread its way all over the globe. It signified the switch between Fordism and post-Fordism as the predominant economic system of production; from the ‘disciplinary societies’ of late modernism characterised by Foucault, to the ‘Control societies’ which constitute our present reality (Deleuze 1990). It was the beginning of a carefully choreographed and intricately planned neoliberal project, which would serve the “restoration or reconstitution of naked class power” (Harvey 2007, p.119) to an economic elite; radically transforming the way in which all our lives would operate in its wake. Our attitudes towards work, politics, society; our relationships to one another, even the internal structuring of our own minds, would never be the same again.

It is no coincidence that it was on 4 May 1979 that Margaret Thatcher came to power in the United Kingdom; she was, of course, instrumental in overseeing this ‘revolution’. What is coincidental however is that it was also in 1979, on 11 March to be precise, that my own life began its trajectory. The rapidly changing society into which I was born would not only prove fundamental in shaping the artist I would become, but it would also prove key in determining the ‘mentality’ with which I would come to visualise my future: to plan my career.

The Careerist Mentality

‘Thatcher’s children’ as my generation are known, were indoctrinated to believe that the world owed us a living (Blackburn 2009). “Success”, she said, was “a mixture of having a flair for the thing that you are doing; knowing that it is not enough, that you have got to have hard work and a certain sense of purpose”. It was simply a question of making the right career choice. If we aimed for the top, we had just as much chance of getting there as anyone else. All we had to do was look out for number one. The secret, she taught us, was to have a strategy – to “plan your work for today and every day, then work your plan” (M. Thatcher n.d.); to think about what we wanted our lives to be like in the future and then to work flat-out towards that ‘goal’.

In hindsight, it now seems inevitable that my life took the course it did. Entering art school for the first time in 1997 – the year the seminal Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts took place – we could see ‘success’ being played out before our very eyes. A group of Young British Artists (YBAs), just one generation older, were now ‘living the dream’. As 18-year-old students, we were now able to visualise the paths we wanted our own lives to take and to see exactly where we aimed to find our fortune. Like most of my art school peers, I was from an “above average social background” – raised in suburbia by a middle class family of teachers. And, as Hans Abbing notes, this added “social capital” gave me the “flair, self-assurance, and… sense of audacity” (Abbing 2002, p.95) which now seemed so essential to commodify and sell myself – to keep going, regardless of failure and rejection, with eyes firmly fixed on the prize.

My career trajectory led me blinkered along a familiar path – a BA (Hons) degree in Fine Art from Nottingham Trent University; a Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College (where nearly all my YBA role models had been before me). It was as though every incremental step took me ever closer towards my ‘goal’: towards ‘success’. Finally, I won a scholarship to study on the Master of Fine Art (MFA) programme at The Glasgow School of Art; yet another prestigious art school to add to my expanding curriculum vitae. What I hadn’t banked on, however, was that on the very same day I was heading north up the M1 to Glasgow to begin this new stage in my life, the global economic order was fast collapsing around us into its own new distinct epoch, taking with it the belief systems which had been carefully constructed around it over the past 29 years.

On 15 September 2008 the investment bank Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. filed for the biggest bankruptcy in US history with more than $600 billion of debt (Mamudi 2008). Over the course of the next year a slew of bailouts took place all over the world to prevent other banks going under. The neoliberal project had, “in every sense, been discredited” (Fisher 2009, p.78). The ideology on which, knowingly or not, my own life’s trajectory had been modelled was now on the ‘scrapheap’. And, as Mark Fisher suggests, a bleak, empty and relentless state known as ‘capitalist realism’ – in which nobody could believe, but equally nobody could stop – crept in from every corner to fill the void.

Society, it seemed, had reached a hiatus; a ground zero amid a sea of “ideological rubble” (Fisher 2009, p.78). Lots of suggestions emerged about what had gone wrong, lots of questions about where we should go next. From the privilege of my funded MFA place, I was able to enter into my own period of self-reflection about the path I had so blindly been following. Was the vision I upheld of my life in the future essentially a delusion, based on a now defunct model of ‘success’ from the past? Was I suffering from the “self-deceit” (Abbing 2002, p.114) Hans Abbing diagnoses to be prevalent in young artists, coupled with the complete “disavowal” (Fisher 2009, p.13) of the negative side-effects of my complicity in the system of capital? With a sudden and overwhelming urgency it felt essential that I question how I could begin to reconcile my career choice and the entrepreneurial methodology (Abbing 2002, p.96) with which I was pursuing it, with the harsh realities that both science, and now science fiction, are predicting the future actually holds in store…

Our Impending Doom

Films such as The Road (Hillcoat 2009) offer us a very different picture of the forthcoming century. In this barely hospitable, yet eerily recognisable version of our present world there is no Turner Prize, no Frieze magazine to be reviewed in; no canon to become part of. In fact, there is no scope for the non-essential; no room for aesthetics; no space for art at all. Whereas it now appears clear that the trajectory I had planned for my life since art school is constituted by fantasy, the trajectory which befalls the lives of the protagonists of this particular post-apocalyptic vision is in part based on what the current overwhelming scientific evidence points towards.

The United Nations Climate Change Summit which took place in Copenhagen in December 2009 offered what many scientists and campaigners referred to as our ‘last chance’ of averting global catastrophe within the coming century. Prior to the talks the 10:10 Campaign’s ‘call to arms’ statement outlined what sort of trans-governmental worldwide commitment it would be necessary to achieve:

“The best deal currently on the table is that from the EU, which calls for a 30% reduction [in greenhouse gas emissions] by 2020 (compared to 1990 levels). If this deal were to be accepted (which is a very big if, given that Japan argues for 8%, Australia for 5% and America for between 0%-6%) and if the emission cuts were then carried out (which is an even bigger if), this would give us about a 50/50 chance of not hitting the dreaded two degrees. Two degrees is where we trigger runaway climate change [emphasis added]: two leads to three, three to four, four to five, five to six… by which time it’s about over for life on Earth.” (Armstrong 2009b)

Given that Copenhagen was by all accounts a complete failure and that, in fact, not even the least significant of the ‘deals’ presented was agreed upon and signed off, the balance now appears to be swaying decisively towards the latter of these two potential trajectories. We find ourselves “trapped inside a runaway narrative, headed for the worst kind of encounter with reality” (Kingsnorth & Hine 2009, p.11). Unless it is fully acknowledged and hastily acted upon in consensus across the globe, climate change “threatens to render all human projects irrelevant” (Kingsnorth & Hine 2009, p.6). It appears that it is not just the future of our careers we should be worried about but now, more likely, the fundamental ability of our species to survive on the planet.

The concern of this essay is to uncover exactly how we could have arrived at a situation where these two distinct visions of our future can so wildly diverge – to explore the factors which have allowed our careerism to persist, in light of advice to the contrary. The aim is to illuminate the significance of this ‘now or never’ moment in the history of our species as an opportunity for radical change, and to develop a ‘plan of action’ and a ‘new moral code’ which may help us, as artists, determine what role we can and should play in the reality of the twenty-first century.

A Rude Awakening

What is curious about the neoliberal project kick-started in the year of my birth, is that, from the politics of the preceding decade, it appeared history could have taken a very different course. 1972 marked the publication of The Limits to Growth – a study commissioned by the humanitarian think-tank the Club of Rome to estimate the planet’s reserves of natural resources, “including topsoil, fresh water, minerals, forests and oceans” – questioning for the first time what might be the consequences of “another 100 years of exponential growth” (M. Fowkes & R. Fowkes 2009, p.670). The findings of the study were so significant that they are cited by Maja and Reuben Fowkes as a revelation for the future of humanity on a par with Copernicus’s discovery of Heliocentrism: putting our lives on planet earth sharply into perspective. Essentially the report gave us all the information we needed to know: that the way of life modernity had accustomed us to, was not sustainable. The whole system on which our modern liberal democracies were structured was supported by a myth of continual and infinite progress (Kingsnorth & Hine 2009, p.3) and a universal belief that the future will always be better than the past – that it is always within our capable hands to control our destinies.

Rather than take heed of this advice and look for alternative ways of structuring our societies, what actually began towards the end of the seventies, continuing right up to the present day, was the opposite: a complete and utter acceleration of our production and consumption. Post- The Limits to Growth our lives were allowed to continue in a fashion now no longer based on scientific facts, but on fantasy:

“What this… illustrates is the fantasy structure on which capitalist realism depends: a presupposition that resources are infinite, that the earth itself is merely a husk which capital can at a certain point slough off like a used skin, and that any problem can be solved by the market… The relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidental nor accidental: capital’s ‘need of a constantly expanding market’, its ‘growth fetish’, mean that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.” (Fisher 2009, p.18-9)

We were allowed to continue because we repressed this truth. Our ‘denial’ was constituted by what Freud described as our inability to hear the things which did not fit easily with the way we envisaged ourselves in the world (Kingsnorth & Hine 2009, p.9). We simply blocked out any hint of a hitch or obstacle to our career trajectories and carried-on regardless. Neoliberalism achieved this ‘state of mind’ purposefully – by pacifying us with the things we thought we wanted, that would make us happy, whilst removing the possibility for resistance. The “drive towards atomistic individualisation” (Fisher 2009, p.37) captured in Margaret Thatcher’s dictum “There is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women” (M. Thatcher n.d.), plunged us further into our internal solipsistic worlds; from where it became almost impossible to fully empathise with others, to acknowledge the wider consequences of our actions, to see beyond the fantasy – to believe that ‘an alternative’ might be possible. We lost our political ‘agency’ as our liberal democracies became governments-as-administration (Žižek 2009b); appealing to our burgeoning “individual ideals” (Strawson 2008) – to “short-termism” (Brown 2009) – rather than the bigger picture and a realistic long-term plan.

In his recent book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Slavoj Žižek describes the strategies the neoliberal policy makers employed to continue to maintain this state of denial well into the twenty-first century, explaining how the negative side effects of the bursting of the dotcom bubble in 2000 had been countered by a push on cheap loans to stimulate the housing market. This had simply allowed the US to “continue dreaming” (Žižek 2009a, p.20) for that little bit longer; essentially just prolonging the global crisis until a later date: until now.

Now or Never

“It’s useless to wait – for a breakthrough, for the revolution, the nuclear apocalypse or a social movement. To go on waiting is madness. The catastrophe is not coming, it is here. We are already situated within the collapse of civilisation.” (The Invisible Committee 2009, p.96)

The significance of this point in history cannot be underestimated. The hiatus caused by this latest epic crisis of capital should have given all of us opportunity for self-reflection. The connections between capitalism and environmental catastrophe have once again been starkly illuminated and so too has our own complicity in, and responsibility for, both. As the many climate scientists and campaigners have been telling us, we now only have one decade left – until 2020 – to stabilise and begin to reduce our rapidly increasing greenhouse gas emissions or we will be unable to avoid hitting the “dreaded two degrees” (Armstrong 2009b) – the tipping point at which we trigger runaway climate change and a rapid irreversible and uncontrollable descent into a new world of which the visions of The Road are not too much of an exaggeration.

Even mainstream politicians hungry for votes are forced to admit that “the age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity” (Cameron 2009). It does seem “useless to wait” (The Invisible Committee 2009, p.96). Now provides the opportunity to radically rethink the way we live, not just in practical terms, but in the way our minds perceive of ourselves in the future; of what we are working ‘towards’. We need to reverse our very ontological foundations so that we become capable of comprehending the opposite of progress – of approaching life in a world where deflation becomes the norm and where rationing is “inevitable” (Fisher 2009, p.80).

As artists – the producers of the non-essential – this rethink seems all the more vital and all the more urgent. It is now our ‘responsibility’ to redefine our roles within this new world, within the “collapse of civilisation” (The Invisible Committee 2009, p.96). As we approach the inevitable challenges of the forthcoming century we can no longer be immune to ethics – we must begin to question what practical function our work can have. And, if we decide that we can still persist in our roles as artists, then we must begin to generate new ways of finding “intrinsic motivation” when our traditional motivational structures of striving towards ‘goals’ such as “recognition and fame” (Abbing 2002, p.82); of creating a ‘legacy’ for ourselves in the future, no longer seem viable.

It is typical in periods of crisis (and opportunity) such as this to look to the past for guidance. Retrospective critique (as used to ‘set the scene’ for this essay) helps us to understand the causes of our current predicament in terms of a greater historical trajectory, to help us make sense of our own lives biographically. The real challenge, however, is in developing the suggestions, ideas and solutions that are essential to help us move on. The proceeding sections of this essay turn to two manifestos from 2009 which attempt just this: Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century by Rasheed Araeen and Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto. The intention is to draw together their recurring ideas in order to formulate a ‘plan of action’ which may constitute our ‘new moral code’, and then to examine how some of these ideas are already being put into practice, not just by some artists, but by other more radical elements of society.

Atomised Art World

In September 2009, the international journal of “critical perspectives on contemporary art and culture” Third Text dedicated an entire issue to contemplating a vision of the future of art, in which Araeen’s manifesto is published. In the preface, Araeen and his co-editor Richard Appignanesi give their own diagnosis of the predicament of artists “now as we face a legacy of failures in modern history that endangers the future prospects of humanity” (Araeen & Appignanesi 2009, p.500). Their suggestion is that we have reached a cynical and solipsistic impasse which it is essential to overcome:

“… the very concept of art will have to liberate itself from the two historical limits of containment and legitimisation. One is containment in the artist’s own narcissist ego; the other is art’s dependence for its legitimisation as art on the institutions that facilitate and promote art only as reified commodities placed in museum and marketplace showcases.” (Araeen & Appignanesi 2009, p.500)

Ego and individualism have always gone hand-in-hand with the relatively autonomous role the artist has historically enjoyed within society, however, it appears that these characteristics have only been exacerbated in recent years. Neoliberal ideology has led to a “convergence of artistic and entrepreneurial values” (J. Thatcher 2009, p.5) – flexible, creative and autonomous modes of operating have been co-opted by the business world, just as ‘the careerist mentality’ has been inherited by artists. Recent mainstream television programmes such as School of Saatchi (Priddle 2009) and Goldsmiths: But is it Art? (Kerr 2010), which pit artists’ egos and entrepreneurial skills against one another, show the extent to which these attitudes have become the norm.

The super-competitive environment of the ‘atomised art world’ engenders a survival instinct in artists which causes us, knowingly or not, to make our sole objective the expansion of our curricula vitae. The emphasis is on the development of a “narrative” – on forming a “brand identity” (Prince 2010, p.10), because this presents itself as the most efficient means to the desired ends of “recognition and fame” (Abbing 2002, p.82). Trapped in a perpetual attempt to impress art world institutions, artists inevitably end up feeding them with the art that they think they want rather than stopping to question exactly what they are producing and why.

In a pre-neoliberal world, choosing the role of artist was seen as an alternative to the mainstream: a point of resistance, a political statement even (Walker 2002) – art offered a potential strategy of “opposition to capitalism” (J. Thatcher 2009, p.6). Now as a small component part in this means / end cycle – art – simply acts an instrument to serve the “career ambitions of self-centred artists” – its “significant critical and social function” (Araeen 2009, p.680) disabled in the process. But, at this particular point in our history, art’s power in “subverting the dominant hegemony” (Mouffe 2007) – in creating an ‘alternative knowledge’ – may be its only redeemable function.

Free Our Minds

Araeen’s call for art to be liberated from “containment and legitimisation” (Araeen & Appignanesi 2009, p.500) foresees the unprecedented power he believes our ideas could have if completely detached from capitalism:

“It is in fact artistic imagination, not art objects, which, once freed from the self-destructive narcissist ego, can enter this life and not only offer it salvation but put it on the path to a better future.” (Araeen 2009, p.683)

He goes as far as to suggest that artists should “abandon their studios” and “stop making objects” (Araeen 2009, p.684). He urges us to reconfigure our roles to such an extent that our creative skills are put to use in conceptualising real-life practical projects, such as creating solar-powered desalination plants, which simultaneously address the two imminent global challenges of energy and freshwater shortages. Art should renounce its “freedom from function which constitutes its autonomy” (Prince 2009, p.7), leave the world of the ‘non-essential’ and begin to offer us with ‘practical solutions’ to real life problems.

Outside the Bubble

Whereas Araeen’s manifesto (inline with the desperate pleas of environmental campaigns such as 10:10) gives a sense that something can be done to avert ‘our impending doom’. There is, however, another concurrent school of thought which encourages us to embrace our fate. Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto was published in 2009 by writers Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, as a vision of the future of literature in the new form of “uncivilised art” (Kingsnorth & Hine 2009, p.13). It takes the pessimism of beliefs such as those of James Lovelock: that humans are too stupid to prevent climate change (Hickman 2010, p.12) and challenges us to invert these to become a positive creative force:

“We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.” (Kingsnorth & Hine 2009, p.19)

The key is in developing a sense of objectivity about the systems in which we are enmeshed. We are invited to “stand outside the human bubble”, to “tug our attention away from ourselves and to turn it outwards; to uncentre our minds”: essentially to put “civilisation – and us – into perspective” (Kingsnorth & Hine 2009, p.13).

Once we are able to shift our attitude from that of hubris to that of humility, it becomes easier to accept that resources are indeed finite; civilisations do collapse and that species, including our own, become extinct. With this finitude as a certainty, the petty squabbling of the art world and the insignificance of the ‘goals’ we have been striving towards become evident. We can be liberated from our career plans; from the careful crafting of our own personal legacies and can refocus our attentions on the immediacy of the present (Bey 1994), for it is perhaps here where we should learn to find meaning and happiness.

Plan of Action

Drawing together the diagnoses which recur throughout the literature of the moment, such as Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Fisher 2009), First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (Žižek 2009a) and The Coming Insurrection (The Invisible Committee 2009) alongside the key suggestions, ideas and solutions from these two manifestos, our ‘plan of action’ begins to materialise.

In the spirit of Pascal’s famous ‘wager’ (Hájek 2008) the plan aims to cover all bases: our active and / or passive responses to the situation. Encouraging the belief that we might still be able to use our roles as artists to incite the radical change to our societal structure (in the art world and globally) needed to avert climate catastrophe, whilst simultaneously developing philosophies for coping with our lives – finding meaning and happiness – should our active response fail.

The seven points below offer a set of guidelines for rethinking our lives, which should act as the starting points for redefining our roles as artists and thinking about how it might be possible to reconcile ‘the careerist mentality’ into which we have been inculcated with the possibility of ‘our impending doom’:

1. stand back and view the world objectively
The main focus of Uncivilisation and our greatest existential priority is to enable ourselves to grasp perspective, not only of the relative insignificance of our individual career plans within the wider world, but more pertinently of the fragility of our entire species within the greater timescales of the universe. Once this mind shift is achieved it becomes easier to distil what is actually important in our lives – happiness and our two unending desires for survival and meaning (Kingsnorth & Hine 2009, p.2). Only then will the remaining six points become easier to implement.

2. offer an external critique of the system
In our new ‘state of mind’ it becomes easier to see the systems in which we have been blindly functioning. From beyond the grasp of the dominant hegemony we can offer a vital ‘external critique’. As Chantal Mouffe suggests, our duty as artists then becomes to challenge the “given symbolic order” and the “existing consensus” (Mouffe 2007) – to revivify the belief that ‘an alternative’ is possible.

3. develop ways of working outside institutions
Our criticisms should extend to the hegemony of the art world, severing our dependence on “legitimisation” (Araeen & Appignanesi 2009, p.500). We must have the courage of conviction in our ideas to find ways of operating outside of art world institutions, especially the marketplace. We require what Mark Fisher describes as a “positive disengagement” – a protest of sorts – which should take the form of “collective activity” (Fisher 2006) to help us break out of our entrepreneurial solitude…

4. escape solipsism; work with and not against peers
As individual artists, working alone, we typify the global trend towards what Adam Curtis calls the “empire of the self” (Curtis 2002), in which anxiety and paranoia are rife. For Araeen, it is this “extreme self-centred individualism of art today” which is “a disturbing symptom of its detachment from our collective humanity” (Araeen 2009, p.679). And so, we must prioritise “collective activity” (Fisher 2006), learning to work in co-operation rather than competition with our friends. Peer support will relieve our paranoia and allow our capacities for empathy to be resuscitated.

5. reject ego and embrace anonymity
Collaboration will enable us to surrender our egos to the collective force; liberating our ideas from their “containment” (Araeen & Appignanesi 2009, p.500). We should “flee visibility” and embrace the new powerful, but faceless forms of resistance being pioneered by The Invisible Committee – encouraging us to turn our “anonymity… to our advantage” (The Invisible Committee 2009, p.112-3).

6. create free ideas, not objects for sale
Our role as artists should be to focus on the creation of ideas, not the production of objects. The rejection of commodity is an important part of our ‘disengagement’ from the marketplace. Our ideas should not remain private property and should be gifted to the ‘creative commons’ for the ‘public good’ (Blackburn 2009). As Hakim Bey suggests in his book Immediatism, “The more imagination is liberated and shared, the more useful the medium” (Bey 1994, p.36).

7. abandon the trajectory;
find motivation in immediacy, not legacy

We must cease to think of our art as a means to an end; a way of getting somewhere – into a book, a magazine, an exhibition etc, as it is pointless to base our motivations on a future which will, very likely, not be able to function as the present does. We should abandon the very notion of a career trajectory and learn to focus our attentions on the reality of now. Without an overpowering emphasis on the future our anxieties will begin to dissolve and we will be able to unearth the absolute state of happiness that exists in the “continuous present” (Crisp 1996, p.54). We must remain alert and not complacent, notice and appreciate the things which are actually good and, as Kurt Vonnegut suggests, continually remind ourselves “if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is” (Vonnegut 2003).

The ‘plan of action’ forms the basis of a new ideology, which acts as a counterpoint to neoliberalism – advocating our extrication from the system of capital that is the “ultimate cause” (Fisher 2009, p.70) of our environmental crisis. Heavy on words such as ‘abandon’, ‘reject’, ‘stand back’ and ‘disengage’ it calls us to make radical changes. It demands that we overcome our “path dependency” (Abbing 2002, p.96) by shifting our goals away from the fantasy status of the ‘successful’ artist. It all makes our new role seem far less glamorous than our dreams may have envisaged – insisting that we renounce our vanity, abandon our egos, move towards collectivism and anonymity; in short, commit “career suicide” (Sharp 2010, p.52).

But would it really be so beneficial to scrap everything and start again – to admit that our lives up until this point had been “lost causes” (Žižek 2009b)? The emphasis of this essay is on the possibility of reconciliation. Therefore, it aims to explore what positive characteristics of ‘the careerist mentality’ that has driven us to take this individualistic path, we might be able to “salvage” (Williams 2009) and, in doing so, reconfigure to become a positive force that can help us put the plan into action all the more effectively: to take the necessary risks and make a stand for the ‘right’ ethical choice.

New Moral Code

Counter to Kant’s belief that the fields of ethical decision making (part of ‘practical reason’) and aesthetic decision making (part of ‘judgement’) be kept separate (Guyer 2004), it appears that the gravity of the situation we face means that these two spheres must begin to coincide. Indeed, in his final book Chaosmosis: An Ethico Aesthetic Paradigm, Félix Guattari argues for the culminating phase of art to be one in which it has an integral relationship with ethics (Guattari 2006). And so, the ethical implications of the ‘plan of action’ become difficult to ignore. Its focus on ‘tugging our attention away’ from our obsession with our own lives to reconnect with our “collective humanity” (Araeen 2009, p.679) is clearly a moral proposition, soliciting a shift from prudent self-interest towards more altruistic behaviour.

The conflict that emerges between the self-interest of ‘the careerist mentality’ and the apparently selfless altruism called for by several points of the ‘plan of action’ has long been the concern of moral philosophy. The recurring question being whether they can ever coexist or be reconciled. In her essay Altruism Versus Self-Interest: Sometimes a False Dichotomy, Neera Kapur Badhwar argues that in certain cases, where individuals display particular characteristics, reconciliation of these traditional polarities is possible (Badhwar 1993).

Badhwar’s essay is based on the analysis of extreme instances of altruism (in this case the behaviour of those who rescued / harboured Jews from the Nazis in the Second World War). What is interesting, and indeed relevant, is the way in which she demonstrates how these definitive acts of altruism are able to coexist with self-interested motivations. Her argument is based on an extension of the categories of self-interested motivation from “feeling virtuous, becoming famous, gaining wealth” (Badhwar 1993, p.101) – equate these to the artist’s extrinsic motivations “money, recognition, fame” (Abbing 2002, p.82) – to include “integrity and self-affirmation” (Badhwar 1993, p.101) – read the artist’s intrinsic motivations of “inner gratification or private satisfaction” (Abbing 2002, p.82). Even though she acknowledges that these altruistic acts were carried out with an “awareness of the risk, in the absence of expectations of material, social, or psychological rewards [and with] the spontaneity of their choice to help” (Badhwar 1993, p.96), she demonstrates that it was precisely because these individuals took the risk that they were able to satisfy the:

“fundamental human interest, the interest in shaping the world in light of one’s own values and affirming one’s identity.” (Badhwar 1993, p.107)

Furthermore, she unearths another peculiarity at the heart of the dichotomy of individualism / collectivism (Triandis 1995) which also becomes key to the possibility of reconciliation. The individuals that she studied were compelled to carry out these altruistic acts because they were able to perceive of themselves as part of the “collective humanity” (which Araeen demands we reconnect with) and so had a more developed capacity for empathy. But, moreover, that it was something inherent in their individualism that gave them the “confidence in the value of their mission, and their own capacities for carrying it out” (Badhwar 1993, p.100): to stand away from the crowd and to stand up for what they believed to be right.

Following Badhwar’s argument, it becomes possible to identify the first of the characteristics of ‘the careerist mentality’ we should aim to salvage. For it is our “flair, self-assurance, and… sense of audacity” (Abbing 2002, p.95) which we shall have to depend on in order to take the risk necessary to make a stand against the mainstream.

Clandestine Insurgence

What might it look like if we took the risk? What might we end up with if we followed the points in the ‘plan of action’ to the word? It is possible that rather than resulting in a radical new type of art practice, what would actually take place is a shift away from art and into the field of activism.

The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA) was formed in 2003, to mark the official state visit of George W Bush to London at the onset of the Iraq war. It aimed to bring together “the ancient practice of clowning and the more recent practice of nonviolent direct action” (CIRCA 2003) – staging a series of strategic protests as part of an ongoing offensive against the evils of ‘war’ and ‘capitalism’. Before the protests at the G8 Summit at Gleneagles in 2005, the Rebel Clown Army embarked on a national recruitment tour of the United Kingdom. Anyone and everyone was invited to join, the only stipulation being that Basic Rebel Clown Training (BRCT) was first undertaken.

Much like the ‘plan of action’, the BRCT process focuses on the individual’s emancipation – on “transformation” and “personal liberation” from the dominant hegemony (CIRCA 2003). This internal reprogramming enables clownbatants, as they are known, to shut off their previous assumptions about hierarchical power structures and to step back and see the world with fresh eyes. From this new perspective the absurdity of a situation in which a line of protesters face-up against a line of police, becomes apparent. Beyond the signifiers of each others’ uniforms, Rancière’s notion of the omnipresence of equality becomes evident (Rancière 2007) and play and humour then perhaps do seem the natural human responses. Against the forward planning tactics of a traditional army (and indeed the career-minded artist) CIRCA’s emphasis is on spontaneity: “because the key to insurgency is brilliant improvisation, not perfect blueprints” (CIRCA 2003).

In a uniform which combines camo and greasepaint, clownbatants (as Point 5. suggests) ‘reject ego and embrace anonymity’ and so their inhibitions and embarrassment become irrelevant. So much more becomes possible without the worry of how they are perceived, of how others will judge them. Their individual subjectivities come together as a collective force of resistance. Their creativity exists in a space beyond the system of capital and they are utilising it to actively fight back.

The founders of the Rebel Clown Army were so aware of the importance of creativity in the process of resistance and of the potential for an evolution between art and activism, that they later set up the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (Lab of ii) as “a space to bring artists and activists together” (Harvie et al. 2005, p.249). The idea was to enable situations where they could work together and transfer skills – cultivating confidence in their “creative capacity as [a] fundamental tool for social change” (Lab of ii 2005). Functioning across the public realm, art world institutions and sites of traditional protest, the Lab of ii manages to successfully infiltrate and subvert different aspects of the hegemony. Most recently at Tate Modern in London, where under the banner of Disobedience Makes History – a two-day workshop on “art-activism” – they deliberately disobeyed the curator’s orders, encouraging participants to aim public attacks relating to the climate crises directly at the museum’s sponsors BP (Jordan 2010, p.35).

Alternative Knowledge

Returning to Badhwar’s essay, it is important to note the impulsive and / or compulsive nature of the acts of altruism that she studied – “the spontaneity of their choice to help” (Badhwar 1993, p.96). She observes that:

“Those who acted spontaneously, then, acted with a sense that they had no alternative but to help, and that, under the circumstances, helping was nothing special… [Their actions were] a spontaneous manifestation of “deep-seated dispositions which form one’s central identity” or character.” (Badhwar 1993, p.97)

Of course, impulsion and / or compulsion are not the sorts of qualities which can be taught or learnt. As is suggested, you really have to believe in what you are doing in order to act instinctively – in a way which is not premeditated or over-deterministic. In this sense you cannot simply follow a ‘plan’ to be altruistic as this is in its essence self-defeating. It is, however, possible to develop one’s “character” or “identity”, so that we do begin to notice when things are wrong or unjust and we really do feel compelled to act to change them. This is done through periods of self-reflection but also, more importantly, by acquiring knowledge.

Oliver Ressler uses his research-based practice as a way of not only acquiring knowledge for himself, but of disseminating it to others – via video, installation and public realm contexts. His 2008 film What Would It Mean To Win? in collaboration with Zanny Begg focuses on the counter-globalisation protests at the G8 Summit in Heiligendamm in Germany in 2007. The documentary sections of which probe members of resistance movements to consider just what form society might take if they were to ‘win’ what they have been fighting for. His creation of a bank of knowledge about social alternatives is extended in Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies – a documentary, installation and billboard project which presents ideas and proposals for alternative economic and societal models, which all use the rejection of the system of capital as a starting point (Ressler 2007). The research from this project was published as a book in 2007.

Ressler’s book can be seen as a companion to that of art collective Superflex who in 2006 initiated and published Self-organisation / Counter-economic Strategies. As a “toolbox of ideas”, the book puts forward a series of proposals for self-organised models of social and economic systems that also aim to offer an alternative to capitalism (Bradley et al. 2006). Both books aim to spark debate about the negative effects of our current social order and (as Point 2. suggests) ‘to revivify the belief that ‘an alternative’ is possible’.

What is interesting is that the more we learn about the connections between capitalism and environmental catastrophe – the more self-reflection we undertake – the more ‘responsibility’ we inherit. In his famous essay exploring the moral differences between active and passive action Killing and Starving to Death, James Rachels illuminates this notion:

“There is a curious sense, then, in which moral reflection can transform decent people into indecent ones: for if a person thinks things through and realises that he is, morally speaking [in the wrong]… his continued indifference is more blameworthy than before.” (Rachels 2006, p.73)

And so the self-reflexive artist enters into a spiral. The more knowledge that they research and acquire – the more their conscience is likely to compel them to act. The question then becomes whether art is the most efficient way of effecting real change.

Practical Solutions

According to Artur Żmijewski, his recent work Democracies – a series of documentary clips depicting different protest movements from around the world – is not art. “Art”, according to Żmijewski, “is too weak to present political demand” (Prince 2009, p.6). Artists have in the past reached a similar conclusion – turning to existing political systems as a more direct means of effecting change. In 1980 Joseph Beuys was instrumental in setting up the Green Party in Germany, running as its candidate for the European Parliament, and, in 1988 Maria Thereza Alves co-founded the Green Party in Brazil. In a recent lecture Alves points out that it becomes the role of the artist to “judge in each situation whether art or politics provides a better solution” (Alves 2010).

As well as proposing theoretical solutions in book form, Superflex have also attempted to find practical solutions to real life problems in Africa. Although falling under the umbrella of their artistic practice, these projects seem more akin to the sort of thing you might expect to see being pioneered by a charity or a development agency. In 1996-7 they worked with engineers to develop the Supergas system, which is capable of turning compostable waste in the form of human / animal dung into “sufficient gas for the cooking and lighting needs of an African family”, thereby allowing them to “achieve self-sufficiency in energy” (Superflex 1997). The realisation of the Supergas system seems to epitomise the marriage between creative thinking and functionality which Araeen calls for by presenting the example of the desalination plant. What is interesting about this project, and indeed Beuys’ and Alves’ involvement in Green politics, is how it shifts our perception of the role of the artist when viewed as an important component part of a wider practice…

Multi-Pronged Approach

It has been suggested that the most successful campaigning bodies, such as Greenpeace, function “through multi-pronged channels of official, semi-official and illicit activity to negotiate specific ends” (Perry 2010, p.8). They operate under several different ‘hats’ – as a registered charity for raising funds (sometimes even stooping so low as to employ the cynical marketing strategies of the ‘charity-mugger’ on the street) and, at once, as a band of renegade activists aboard the Rainbow Warrior causing real disruption to cruel and exploitative practices and playing tactical media games. They demonstrate a “positive disengagement” (Fisher 2006) from the mainstream, coupled with a savvy co-option of the system, where it clearly presents itself as a more productive solution.

It is possible that the new model for a ‘reconciled artistic practice’ could take a similar form, where the artist (or preferably the collective of artists) balances a variety of activities across different fields. Described as “a group of freelance artist-designer-activists committed to social and economic change” (Myers 2007), Superflex do not ‘abandon’ the art world altogether and, in addition to the projects described above, they continue to work on commissions for its major institutions. For example, in 2009 they made a series of short films The Financial Crisis (Session I-V) for the art market’s number one annual trade fair – Frieze. Like the Lab of ii and following in a long lineage of institutional critique, Superflex appear to understand the benefits of being able to use the system by infiltrating it, criticising and beginning to change it from within.

It now seems evident that our success at adapting to this multi-pronged mode of operation, which straddles real political action, activism and art world insider jobs, depends on our flexibility in approaching different tasks – our ability to wear these different ‘hats’ with conviction and our adeptness at switching between roles. So here it becomes possible to identify the second of the characteristics of neoliberalism which we might aim to salvage. For it is “the very hallmarks of management in a post-Fordist, Control society” – our ‘flexibility’, ‘nomadism’ and ‘spontaneity’” (Fisher 2009, p.28) which we must now begin utilise, as well as our ability to cope with and adapt to change. Both very useful skills to have as the temperatures begin to rise and the food stocks begin to run low.

The final characteristic particular to the career-minded artist, which we must aim to reconfigure as central to our new roles in the twenty-first century, is our work-ethic, which results from our comparatively high levels of intrinsic motivation (Abbing 2002, p.82). The acceleration of work rates is something which has developed across the board under neoliberalism to the extent that we are now “bound” to our work in an “anxious embrace”…

“Managers, scientists, lobbyists, researchers, programmers, developers, consultants and engineers, literally never stop working. Even their sex lives serve to augment productivity.” (The Invisible Committee 2009, p.47)

However, it is the artist’s ability and willingness to work twenty-four-seven often in situations completely removed from wage-labour relations, that makes us ‘exceptional’ (Abbing 2002) and offers the potential, even, to act as a paradigm for a general approach to work in a world beyond capital. For it is this position of “radical autonomy” which presents the opportunity for “real education of our socialised senses and human potentials that releases development in all directions” (Ray 2009, p.546). We continue, over the course of our lives, to relentlessly acquire knowledge, self-reflect and develop, adapt, evolve and act – not for money, but because something inside us – something inherent in our ‘character’ – compels us to. If we could only succeed in “freeing” a small fraction of this exceptional motivation “from the self-destructive narcissist ego” (Araeen 2009, p.683) and releasing it in a more selfless and functional direction, it could still be a hugely positive force for change.

A Reconciled Practice

Following Aristotle’s classic assertion that moral excellence is found in a person’s rational capacity to choose the mean between extremes (Mautner 2005, p.43), the introduction to the Cambridge reader on Altruism, in which Badhwar’s essay is published, suggests that:

“The most challenging task of a moral theory is to strike a balance between the weight we give to our own interest and the weight we give to those of others. A theory that directs us to give too much to others is as deficient as one that directs us to give too little.” (Paul et al. 1993, p.ix)

And, so it seems that ‘a reconciled practice’ will also, to a certain extent, be about compromise. It will be about attempting to ‘strike a balance’ between the time we invest in each of the various facets of our activity – direct political action or more conventional art world activity – and about how we best use our judgement as to when to focus on one thing over another. If we can achieve this equilibrium in our ‘multi-pronged approach’ to practice, and indeed in our lives in general, then this is perhaps also where we will find our “private satisfaction” (Abbing 2002, p.82): our happiness.

Our Fully Functional Role

In a recent interview Rancière reminds us “that there are certain situations where only reality can be taken into account – there is no room for fiction” (Charlesworth 2010, p.75). What this suggests is that perhaps the balance between the ‘selfish’ and ‘selfless’ activity which artists undertake will only really begin to shift when we are directly confronted with the realities of climate change. As James Lovelock suggests it may well take until the point of real global disaster – such as an event on the scale of the Pine Island glacier breaking off into the ocean causing tsunamis and an immediate and permanent sea rise of two metres (Hickman 2010, p.12) – until we are, through absolute necessity, able to totally reconfigure our motivations. Perhaps only when we do come face-to-face with this “worst kind of encounter with reality” (Kingsnorth & Hine 2009, p.11) will we, as artists, be able to assume our fully functional role in society.

When Franny Armstrong, founder of the 10:10 Campaign, says “if you’re not fighting climate change or improving the world, then you’re wasting your life” (Armstrong 2009a, p.8), she is essentially reinforcing the ‘wager’ set out in our ‘plan of action’. However the future pans out, do you really want to look back on this pivotal moment in the history of our species and say ‘I did nothing’, ‘I did not make a stand’, or do you want to be able to say the opposite and to retain what should be our most commanding of all human motivations – our integrity.