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The Potential Role of Fine Art in the Transition Movement

by Thomas Keyes

Fine Art is always having a crisis or a revolution of some sort or another, and very few of them are of any real interest.  Every now and then society has a crisis or a revolution or just a good old war to shake things up, but in the grand scheme of things the direction very rarely changes, and anomalies, if not eliminated, remain impotent alternatives - tolerated, maybe even admired, but certainly not adopted.  What happens less often is that society and Fine Art have a crisis at the same time; this is usually interesting and has produced great art, noble visions and true attempts at revolution.  However, the Achilles heel of Fine Art has been its dependence on the civilization that gave birth to it, and the addiction to which this civilization is enslaved - energy.  No matter how noble the cause or grand the vision since the agricultural revolution and through every revolution since, society has, when the dust settled, arranged itself in forms to extract more energy from its environment, with culture tending to reflect and celebrate this perceived progress.  What has not happened before is what is happening now:  we can no longer dig ourselves out of this hole by digging faster.  There’s nowhere left to exploit and, for the first time ever, we have to account for our actions as a species on a global scale.  Everything that gave us comfort on the post-modern gravy train - technology, cheap energy, capitalism - now seems threatening and devoid of meaning.  This journey never had a destination but only now, as we near the end of the line at increasing speed, do we recognise this and begin to panic.  Whatever happens next will be more than interesting.

The Transition movement is the only serious attempt to deal with impending results of thousands of years of resource mismanagement by this and previous civilizations.  The context is new:  oil and GHG’s are recent, but there have always been those who sensed that something wasn’t quite right, and it is their shoulders that those who seek the Transition vision are standing on.


History is incredibly unfair, but then so is the process that selects it.  There is a beautiful narrative of creative practice up to the present day, but art history, like all history, is written by the winners.  From the Medici to Saatchi, religion and war to sex and consumerism, mainstream Fine Art has tended to reflect rather than lead society, hence the present crisis at the top.  If there is to be a role for Fine Art in Transition, it must take leadership and choose a new path by first re-evaluating art history.  The most notable ally we have in this respect is the Victorian art critic and social commentator John Ruskin.  In setting up The Guild of St George he attempted to preserve traditional craft skills that were being lost due to mass production and the increased division of labour.  This is the same man who discovered Turner and championed the pre-Raphaelites: he knew art when he saw it.  The artist William Morris was heavily influenced by the Guild, and went on to found the  Arts and Crafts Movement in the late 19th century.  Although both men were noble in intent and the most influential individuals expressing their ideals at the time, their efforts have, in the long run, failed to curb the pace of industrialisation.  As with all communes that separate themselves from society, those of Ruskin’s Guild lost a great deal of their potential ability to influence it as a result.  As for William Morris, by choosing to revolutionise commodity culture and artistic practice from within, he and his movement inevitably became part of, not leaders of, contemporary culture.  By harnessing the power of community, the Transition movement has created an opportunity for an emerging culture to succeed where our predecessors could not.

It is of course impossible to predict what the future of art will be, but if we assume a future in Transition, there are some aspects that we can be fairly certain about.  Society will be far more resource conscious, so art that respects its materials will be essential from both a practical and a moral position. This will naturally lead on to a greater respect for objects, which may settle the ‘art verses craft’ debate. Critics will no longer be able to so easily condescend and separate a craft maker’s relationship with their raw materials from the artist’s with paint.  Indeed, a community’s response to an artwork may gain greater weight than an academic’s lust for abstract complexity.  Protest art, whilst undoubtedly valuable, especially in environmental and social movements, doesn’t comfortably fit the Transition ethos.  A  restructuring of society will need positive reinforcement from artists, but yet must be careful not to become propagandist. Attempts at building a new society have a dark history as well.  So far in Transition, food appears to be the most appreciated component: unlike windmills it affects us on a much more primal level.  It is not unreasonable to ascribe serious cultural meaning to the future role of food production in our lives, with seasonal festivals and a new respect for the land that supports us undoubtedly influencing the art that emerges.  Whatever happens, things need to change if Fine Art hopes to have a place in a low energy future.

Mainstream Fine Art has become a mirror to a shallow media-driven concept of ourselves - over stimulated and attention-seeking with pretention masquerading as depth.  The time to ponder, reflect or even protest is over.  We want real answers and the post-modern freak show of dead sharks and sex just doesn’t cut it anymore.  However, It would be wrong to try and draw a line under Fine Art and start again. The processes, the artists and the answers that we are looking for probably already exist.  It is just as important to build a society that will recognise this and nurture artists’ potential.  The Permacultural ethos of interdependence applies to culture as much as to gardening:  by assessing art and society’s respective needs and qualities, a new balance can be struck that will help both to develop in the direction that the future requires.

Artists have been endowed with the gift of communicating experience - not to act simply as critics of a society that has lost its way, but to delve deeper into the human psyche and re-establish our symbiotic relationship with the earth.  The cultural shift which the Transition movement is primed to facilitate cannot be underestimated, but nor can the collective genius of the communities that will be employed to undertake this challenge.  No matter what happens, humanity will be rearranged into a format that is compatible with the functioning of this planet, and only through culture can this be achieved on our terms.

About the author:

Thomas Keyes lives and works on the Black Isle in the far north east of Scotland. Originally pursuing art through graffiti writing in Belfast, then through lots of stuff at Newcastle University, an increasing fear of the apocalypse led to a fascination with self sufficiency in a strategic location. Having arrived and worked the land and settled down with his partner and her children and cat he has now mellowed out a lot and spends his time doing jobs that keep him outside, being hopeful and active with Transition Black Isle, and having every intention of turning a derelict signal box into a studio space to pursue art again.

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