Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Art and Mass(ive) Consumerism

Seattle artist Chris Jordan was the featured speaker at our National Assembly of State Arts Agencies final plenary session last week in Chattanooga, TN. His work documents the monumental consumerism of our society in a way that forces each of us to consider our personal impact on earth’s environment. It is troubling work because he fools you into thinking what you’re seeing is beautiful, when really it is terrifying to behold.

For example, one work, titled simply “Plastic Cups,” is a silver, gray, and white image of a post-industrial Tree of Life made up a million plastic 6 oz. cups (stacked) which is equal to the number used by airlines every six hours. One can only wonder how many of those are recycled…

Another (my personal favorite) is called “Cans Seurat” and reproduces in exquisite detail the Seurat work “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” only instead of Seurat’s pointillist technique rendered in oil paint, Jordan has rendered it in aluminum cans—106,000 of them, representing the number consumed by Americans every 30 seconds.

In his lecture, Jordan was quick to point out how easy it is to become stupefied by such staggering statistics. 1.14 million is just a number. 1.14 million folded and stacked brown paper supermarket bags, however, presented to look like a primeval forest, barren of all life--now THAT makes an impression. Then consider that what you are looking at is what is consumed in just one hour in the United States.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that as soon as I could find a calculator I found out this means we “consume” nearly 10 billion paper bags a year, a depiction of which would have required Jordan to use a canvas as tall as the UN Building but nearly three times as wide.

What keeps humans from becoming numb; what enables humans ultimately, to process such staggering statistics, is art. Or as Jordan put it (and I paraphrase since I’m quoting from memory), “Art enables us to comprehend and come to terms with ideas that, intellectually, we are otherwise unable to process.”

Put in even more political terms, the saturating effect of these statistics on our brain simply numbs it. The more numb we become, the easier it is for us to accept things like a disappearing ice shelf or a 700 billion dollar Wall Street Bail-out. According to Jordan, we have never needed the arts more than now. The arts give us time and the internal resources to reflect on and, perchance, change our self-destructive behaviors.

* * * *

One who would probably never accept this line of thought is Geoffrey Norman, a writer and founder of (a “non-partisan, nonprofit advocacy and media enterprise”) whose recent opinion piece in the Times Argus "Stop the music, already" (9/21/08) was little more than a fluff piece advocating paying for everything that eight years of Bush Administration policies have wrought by among other things, taking away funding from so-called non-essential services like the Vermont Symphony.

There are so many ways to kick this sad, tired argument in the teeth that one almost doesn’t know where to begin. So give me a couple of weeks to organize my response.

Stay tuned…