Above: Microscape Series (River Poem #2) by Taney Roniger.
At the beginning of the year I quoted from Rebecca Solnit’s recent book, Whose Story Is This?
We are building something immense together that, though invisible and immaterial, is a structure, one we reside within—or, rather, many overlapping structures…Though there are individual voices and people who got there first, these are collective projects that matter not when one person says something but when a million integrate it into how they see and act in the world.
Solnit describes how she once believed that change begins in the margins and then moves towards the center. She has since changed her mind. “It’s not the margins, the place of beginnings, or the center, the place of arrival, but the pervasiveness that matter most.”
She goes on:
The consequences of these transformations are perhaps most important where they are most subtle. They remake the world, and they do so mostly by the accretion of small gestures and statements and the embracing of new visions of what can be and should be.
Rereading these words again 10 months later, I am struck by how differently they sit with me now. Her reconsideration of change—and the emphasis on pervasiveness—lines up closely with my views these days.
Solnit has been a longstanding source of thinking guidance, remaking the world with her “small gestures and statements.” Over the last few months several others have contributed to my wisdom net as well. Daniel Schmachtenberg is one of my steadying forces for sense-making. After listening to hours of Schmachtenberger’s many conversations available online, I rely on his calm clarity in considering the long term viability of our species and our planet. In the political sphere I depend on Heather Cox Richardson. A professor of history at Boston College, she makes political news digestible with her nightly newsletter. For many of us, Letters from an American is the only way toxic political news can be dosed—in context, and laced with her wise insights.
In the field of the arts, remakers are also at work. One is Matthew Burrows, an artist based in the UK. When the pandemic closed down art galleries and art fairs last March, he became concerned about how artists would survive. He came up with the idea of a hashtag on Instagram. Called the Artist Support Pledge, the guidelines were simple: Artists offer their work for sale on their Instagram page for a standard price of 200 (be it English pounds, dollars or Euros,) then promise to buy art from another artist once they have achieved 1000 in sales. According to the New York Times a few weeks ago, Burrows’ Artist Support Pledge has now involved nearly 60,000 artists and resulted in an estimated $60 million in art sales.
Coming from a simple desire to demonstrate a “generosity of spirit” towards the artist community as a whole, Burrows has opened up an alternative channel to the existing art merchandising system that, to be honest, has not done a good job of serving most artists or their buyers.
In Burrow’s words:
On day two I realised how rapidly this was taking off and I wrote a list of things I thought this community should have. They were: an economy, a culture, a platform and a way of learning. That’s what you need in any artistic culture…
The thing with gift economies is that they don’t work on monetary value–they work on the idea of being able to pass something along. Too often we value art by how much money it’s made at auction or whether the person who’s made it is famous or not. Making art in itself is a generous act and we don’t stop to consider the value that generates. I think all artists implicitly understand this.
The success of Artist Support Pledge has also made it clear that more people are interested in art than just those few who frequent white box galleries (which can be intimidating to many) with money to burn. This exceptional example of disintermediation has so many benefits: financial support and community for artists, a pricing scheme that eliminates the discomfort around determining value, a sustainable way for artists to help each other, a method for buyers to find work they like, and an abundance of inventory. As Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop’s Stacie McCormick conjectured in her recent conversation with Burrows, the Artist Support Pledge is going to make one helluva Harvard Business School case.
What can it be? Still to be determined, but something big has shifted.
I have been influenced and expanded by another art world denizen who is also a very good friend—Taney Roniger. Artist, writer and mentor (she teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York), Taney has an uncanny ability to sense where energies and interests are moving well before others get the drift too. And she doesn’t stop at the ideating. She implements.
In 2011 she organized a symposium called Beyond Kandinsky: Revisiting the Spiritual in Art. Her description:
The year 2011 marks the centennial of the publication of Wassily Kandinsky’s classic text, ‘On the Spiritual in Art.’ Inspired by this anniversary, this project set out to explore the place of the spiritual in contemporary art and to propose a challenge to the current devaluation of the inner life that prevails within the art world in our market-driven era.
Revisiting Kandinsky’s concerns a century after his book’s publication provided us with a useful framing device through which to examine and assess the seeming chasm that has arisen between art and those values that might be considered “spiritual.”
In commemorating this anniversary, our larger purpose was to question whether, and in what ways, art might be wrest from the world of entertainment and profit, reunited with the inner life, and restored its rightful status as a uniquely valuable mode of inquiry, knowledge, and insight.
That was nearly 10 years ago. At that time, the spiritual in art was not considered appropriately hip, politically relevant or intersectional. In spite of the now legendary exhibit held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986 curated by Maurice Tuchman, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985, this topic has remained off limits and a little radioactive. (The reasons for this muting are many, but that is best left for discussion on another day.) Not surprisingly, several of Taney’s colleagues advised her against making this her symposium topic. But she was undaunted.
Looking back, it is clear that a number of shifts in approach to the spiritual dimension of art have their root system in that symposium. One was the 2014 publication of The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present, by Charlene Spretnak, a thorough and very necessary rewriting of the modern historical canon. And more recently we have witnessed the daylighting of several spiritually-inclined but previously overlooked artists, many of them women. Some of the most successful international shows over the last few years have featured works with a strong spiritual orientation and message by artists including Hilma af Klint, Georgiana Houghton, Emma Kunz, Agnes Pelton, among others. The importance of the inner life in the making of art is no longer a topic that is willfully dismissed or overlooked.
Over the last two years Taney has a new advocacy: posthumanist art. After publishing several essays (links are below) she is pulling her thinking together in a new symposium: Thingly Affinities: Rethinking Aesthetic Form for a Posthumanist Future. It runs from Friday, December 4 through Sunday, December 13.
An overview of the symposium:
While by most accounts visual art is becoming ever more discursive, prioritizing issues and ideas over the forms in which they are instantiated, a growing number of artists are expressing a renewed interest in form. Unlike the detached, purely optical formalism of the last century, however, the new sense of form is both fully embodied and emphatically worldly. Indeed, for these artists form is seen as a conduit to the larger world, a means by which we experience our fleshly connections to the rest of nature. Inspired by the current movement in the humanities known as the nonhuman turn, the emerging vision is of a wholly new approach to art – one that, in parting ways with Western art’s longstanding anthropocentrism, will embody the values of ethical posthumanism.
Bringing together artists and thinkers from a number of fields, this conference will explore the implications of posthumanist thought for this new orientation in art and how the latter might aid in our cultural advance toward a more ecologically sound future. To be held online, in writing, over the course of ten days, the dialogue will be accessible to readers in real time, and reader participation will be encouraged through moderated comments. In addition to the written dialogue, there will be three guest speaker events, recordings of which will be made available on the conference website.
I am very grateful to be a participant in this significant event, one that has import in how we constellate our future. As Solnit admonished, “We are building something immense together that, though invisible and immaterial, is a structure, one we reside within.”
The symposium is open to everyone. Links are provided below along with a recommended reading list.
MATTHEW BURROWS/ARTIST SUPPORT PLEDGE
Conversation between Matthew Burrows and Stacie McCormick (really good!)
TANEY RONIGER/THINGLY AFFINITIES
Recommended reading list for Thingly Affinities:
The Nonhuman Turn by Richard Grusin (editor)
Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett
The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram
The More Beautiful Worlds Our Hearts Know Is Possible by Charles Eisenstein
Choreographies of the Living by Carrie Rohman
The Resurgence of the Real by Charlene Spretnak
Staying with the Trouble by Donna Haraway
Humankind by Timothy Morton
Nesting: Body, Dwelling, Mind by Sarah Robinson
The Eyes of the Skin by Juhani Pallasmaa
The Universe of Things by Steven Shaviro
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Underland by Robert MacFarlane