The Ruin of Man: ‘othering’ , ecological destruction and coping with it all through painting
This text is written to accompany an exhibition of paintings by Michael Chance at Mercer Chance Gallery in London, November 2017
We are told that we’re living in the Anthropocene; a geological epoch characterised by the earth-changing dominance of mankind. Greed, destruction, competition, hierarchy — by implication — are inherent qualities of our species, and we see the results of our human success in the ruination of nature.
This concept rests on a dualism (mankind v nature) that underlies millennia of Western thought. That simplistic dualism is misleading for two reasons:
- Being dualistic, it suggests that humans are ontologically separate from nature. Often justified ‘rationally’, on the basis of our higher consciousness (which is not certain to be unique to our species) or religiously, on the basis of man being made in God’s image (an idea which seems much more likely in reverse). This separation also suggests an oppositional relationship, that leads to conflict; since the duality can’t be resolved, or dissolved (for we would lose our unique or God-like quality) and must remain, our human task is therefore to win the fight, to triumph over or transcend the limits of nature; to live alongside it while playing by our own rules.
- Being simplistic, it generalises; being separate from nature (assuming we accept that notion) is proposed as an inherent and universal aspect of being human, rather than a set of attitudes exhibited by some humans.
I disagree with the first point (1 — that such a dualism exists), because I don’t see where we can draw a line of distinction, or separation, that holds up to scrutiny. We are a part of nature, and so is our culture and our technology. If a mollusc can collect materials from its environment to construct a protective shell, or an ant colony create tunnels and chambers to organise its collective activities, can we say there is a fundamental difference between those things and a human house, a human city?
This conclusion of ‘oneness’ can lead two ways: toward a sense of responsibility and solidarity, or conversely, toward a recklessness; if humans and everything we do are part of nature, then our violent domination of the planet is a natural process too. To the latter position one might say, yes ok, it is natural, but that doesn’t make it good. There have also been non-human natural processes in the past which were catastrophically bad (but thankfully didn’t finish off life completely, allowing a new world to emerge — such as the Great Oxygenation Event).
And so we come to realise that neither man or nature can be labelled as being intrinsically good or bad.
We may find it hard to agree on what exactly ‘good’ means, but I think we can all generally agree that we’d rather live on Earth than Mars, or Venus. I’d like to suggest that the ability to sustain life — rich, diverse life across rich, diverse terrain — is really rather ‘good’.
This provides us with a kind of species-goal that I can believe in: to protect this richness and diversity, to protect the biosphere from being destroyed or dominated by any one species, especially ourselves. It is not our job to manage or cultivate such a state, just simply to not actively screw it up.
So, in response to point (1), I would say that we are inseparably a part of nature, and that such a ‘oneness’ only increases the responsibility to act in ‘good’ ways toward the rest of it.
Of course, most of us do not deliberately act ‘badly’, we are caught up in a way of life that makes it pretty impossible to be ecologically blame-free. But that doesn’t mean that we are all equally to blame.
Assuming we agree that the destruction of ecological diversity is bad, we can see how the concept of the Anthropocene — in accepting point (2) — lets the worst culprits off the hook. It excuses the actions and attitudes of some, by generalising them as common to us all. “It’s just human nature” says the greedy profit-seeker. “We are all inherently bad; humanity is a disease upon the Earth” -thinks the environmentalist in her darker moments. Both are being rather unfair to the great majority of people.
So let’s be slightly more specific. Who has played the biggest part in creating our social, economic and ecological crises? I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest this answer: Rich White Men.
They exercise power through structures of oppression which are ideological, symbolic, yet painfully real: class, racism, sexism. All three are significant and intertwined, all three are systems of separation, of othering.
All three seem to have emerged at the dawn of ‘civilisation’, that is, the formation of agrarian societies, which were larger, more complex and more cruel than their hunter-gatherer and horticultural predecessors. In that transition, we see the emergence of hieratic religious and bureaucratic power structures which encouraged the separation of mankind from nature and the stratification of human society. No longer part of the living soil and forest, worshipful of nature in the form of animistic spirits, we were told to see ourselves as sacred and superior, to prefer gods in human form and approach the world with new aims: expansion, dominance, control.
In recent years we’ve seen a resurgence of the ‘strongman’ political demagogue, and a concurrent empowering of racist, fascist and sexist ideologies. This is terrifying, and yet in a sense it gives hope; these may be the violent throes of a dying breed, the desperate aggression of a cornered and threatened predator. When you’ve only ever known privilege, the imposition of equality feels unfair, and like spoilt children, they are lashing out. Regardless of the their political affiliation they seem to share a tendency toward aggressive misogyny and sexually rooted fantasies of male dominance, which has become known as ‘toxic masculinity’. It’s been a while since the enemy has made himself so disgustingly apparent. Yet, while the immediate threat of gender and race oppression must be fought with vehemence, we must not forget that those battles take place against a larger backdrop, of the industrialised destruction of our living planet, grinding onward faster than ever.
The denial of our ‘oneness’ with all living things is more abstract, less concretely visible, partly because it is so widely taken for granted, and underlies the other more apparent systems that further subdivide one human from another (racism, sexism, classism/capitalism). To think the ‘ecological thought’ (Morton) or experience the ‘oceanic feeling’ (Freud), that is, the realisation of our interconnectedness and unity with all of nature (encompassing all matter, whether ‘alive’ or not) should lead inevitably to a deconstruction of these other systems of human separation; it is a key that can unlock all fetters.
If we want to strive toward a better world — or even just a world that might survive the next few centuries — we need to address all of these concerns with a kind of intersectional awareness. The potential collapse of society as we know it, precipitated by larger environmental collapse, does not render current advances in social justice irrelevant; it makes them even more important. Times of crisis provide fertile ground for dangerous ideologies of fear and division; if we have a robust framework of social ethics in place, we may be able to survive such a collapse with some dignity intact and prevent a slide into nightmarish scenarios of complete degeneracy or fascist authoritarianism.
Of course ‘environmentalism’ as a movement can easily become host to, or co-opted by deeply worrying ideologies; of racist population control, First-world-centrism, of reckless and typically masculine fantasies about technological progress (geo-engineering, GM crops), and the reduction of the biosphere to ‘resources’ to be balanced on a spreadsheet.
Some dangerous ideologies justify themselves through recourse to another — typically male — delusion, of ‘pure’ rationalism; the worship of logic and empiricism, and identification with Western Enlightenment era ideals (lets not forget, a time of rampant colonialism, gender oppression. nascent industrialised capitalism and environmental damage). The ‘triumph of reason’ also reinforces notions of man’s superiority and separation from nature (and the ‘othered’ generally) and denies the validity of spiritual expression.
Science is our most advanced toolkit and system of physical knowledge to date, and undoubtedly plays a leading role in mitigating or adapting to climate change. However, Scientism, as unwavering belief in technological progress, in transcending all natural limits, arrogantly sure of its own correctness, yet without moral compass and dismissive of any alternative means of thought, could be one of the most dangerous and (in mainstream discourse) least criticised forms of faith today.
These are some of the tentative conclusions that I arrive at through making paintings. That may seem odd, but for me, painting really is a way of provoking ideas by feeling around in the dark. It’s important to note that (unlike this essay) in almost every case the paintings come first and ideas second; I never set out to illustrate a concept.
The images that make up an artist’s oeuvre, or a particular body of work brought together for an exhibition, form a constellation; each one shines alone, and their point of origin may be millions of miles apart, but if we see them as a related group, and gaze at them long enough, a shape will emerge. One person might see an archer, another a bull, a teapot, or a dancing couple. The artist is primarily concerned with making each star shine in its own way, and trusts that a larger pattern will emerge in time.
Paintings, like poems, present an image that is multivalent, sufficiently ambiguous to avoid didacticism or propagandising. Images either appear from my subconscious while drawing imaginatively, or may strike me while visiting galleries, watching films and so on, but their impact is always aesthetic, emotional and uncertain, not politically determined or intentioned. Before I began to read about environmentalism, gender studies or politics, I had a feeling of fundamental ‘oneness’ which came from immersing myself in nature; the feeling came first, only later could it be intellectualised. I would hope that my paintings affect a viewer on an emotional, intuitive level first, and that they are visually interesting enough to warrant further investigation at the conceptual level.
Painting can lead us into areas of feeling and thinking that seem at first to be strange and uncomfortable, but through contemplating our own images over time, we can come to see the underlying themes and ascribe new meanings to those images.
For instance, many of these works contain images or references to Christ. As a skeptical agnostic, and being critical of institutionalised religion, the appeal of his image made me feel awkward, but its lure was undeniable. I thought that Christianity had a lot to answer for, in terms of the separation of humans from nature, the glorification of a male human figure as the image of God, and the perpetuation of gender inequality. Despite my reservations, I pulled at the thread.
Various images of the pieta, crucifixion, the deposition, entombment and resurrection seemed particularly appealing, each of course focusing the mind on suffering, death and rebirth. Some of the medieval, emaciated depictions felt somehow more masculine, angular, wooden, inflexible, whilst other later works — particularly by Michelangelo — had a voluptuous, vital and feminine character. Following these associations, I began to form my own personal metaphor out of his story, which describes the necessity of the death of a certain kind of deeply flawed masculinity, in order that a new synthesis can be reborn. This seemed to apply both personally — in terms of psychologically maturing and integrating the feminine aspect of myself — and in terms of longing for a larger societal change.
This shift toward a celebration of the feminine seemed to mirror my process of learning about painting, an activity which I’ve felt has drawn me ever closer towards mystical, poetic and emotional ways of thinking (or rather, feeling) and further away from ideas of technical mastery, objective accuracy and impressive complexity. To exhibit my work feels more and more like an act of vulnerability, not bravado.
I also realised that for a while I had been feeling a sense of guilt and shame, for all the past misdeeds of mankind, and men in particular. The more I thought about our past and present, horror upon horror, the more I felt — as a white man in an (ex)colonial wealthy nation -implicated in it all. I think it’s necessary to face this, to recognise the wrong and feel guilt, but one shouldn’t have to live with its weight bearing down every day. In this thought I realised what it meant (to me) for Jesus to ‘die for our sins’; that we should learn from all of man’s past sins, to take them all to heart, and use them to remake ourselves in a better form.
In these ways, I enabled myself to use religious imagery somewhat free of its religious context, to repurpose it and create my own meanings, which opened up a whole swathe of imagery to draw from. It also led to a greater appreciation of Christ’s story and teachings, which seemed like an enclave of Eastern thought within- yet separate from - the rest of the Bible, and Christianity as the various religious denominations have it.
These thoughts about the positive side of death also helped me to deal with my own depressive death fixation, sense of mourning for the loss of life on earth, and anxiety about the future. We are currently living through a mass extinction event, and are entering a period of climate change which will cause countless people to be killed or displaced, and affect every ecosystem on the planet. Most of us know this, but we push it away, focusing on the everyday and immediate concerns of our own lives. But some of us feel it deeply, and it won’t go away.
The future seems grimly inevitable, the problems seem huge, complex, and insurmountable, we feel disgusted, angry, but powerless. Where do we find hope, purpose, a reason to go on?
To paint these feelings is to sit with them, to accept them and eventually, come to terms with them. As with the mourning of a relative, the pain will pass, life goes on, and we are left with some memories and artefacts from their life which bring us joy, and hopefully a positive trace that they left on the world. It has been the same with many civilisations that have risen and fallen throughout history, and ours may suffer a similar fate, but hopefully some of our art, architecture and stories will survive, a thread of continuity to be an example (good or bad) and inspire whoever follows. Even after the potential breakdown of all Earth’s systems of life, something else will emerge, and who knows, it might just be better than us.
‘The Ruin of Man’: An exhibition of paintings by Michael Chance runs at Mercer Chance Gallery, 253 Hoxton St, London, from the 2nd-20th November 2017.