Culture

What kind of art comes at the end of the world?

Is it morally legitimate for those in power to seek to make “fun” of what is a mass extinction event from which they are largely insulated from?

Grimes, photo by Philip Cosores
September 11, 2019

At the beginning of Spring 2019, the artist formerly known as Grimes announced her upcoming album, Miss_Anthrop0cene — a concept album centred on anthropomorphized villain embodying climate change. The album’s lead single is “We Appreciate Power,” imagined as an anthemic bop by a post-apocalyptic AI girl group. 

Claire Boucher, formerly Grimes, now c, has gotten a lot of bad press about this album, some of it undue. I’m not interested in lionizing Boucher, but I’m also not interested in wilfully interpreting her in bad faith. As depraved as the idea of making climate change “fun” sounds, it’s clear that this was not what she meant in context. Boucher is obviously not a fan of climate change (if such a thing even exists) and if she can be said to be profiting from an aesthetics of global disaster, she’s no more guilty of this than any company with “green” or “eco-friendly” branding. 

 

 

And I can’t deny it that there’s something compelling about Boucher’s concept. Anthropomorphizing climate change — making it into a “villain” rather than a faceless spectre of inevitable civilizational collapse — is an interesting intervention in a mainstream artistic landscape that has largely responded to climate change with a philosophy of business as usual. 

 

All that said, it’s also grotesque. All art is politics, and art about climate change is especially so. If the single “We Appreciate Power” is any indication of the way this album will unfold, we’re looking down the barrel of what ought to be a political album but, strangely, isn’t. It makes no claims, critiques, or citations, at least not from the available evidence. “We Appreciate Power” lacks the kind of political lens that might even qualify it as a parody. It’s pure expression, art for its own sake, the flat surface of irony, devoid of politics.

 

What are the ethics of irony when it emanates from those at the centre of global power — the white, the wealthy, those affiliated with Silicon Valley and its numerous cannibal economies at the heart of American empire?

 

Understandably, when it dropped people didn’t know how to react. The song is catchy, and I’m enough of a fan of Boucher’s that I’m excited for the album’s eventual release. But it still rubs me the wrong way. Something about it feels inappropriate. After all, is there any moral space to engage with climate change with anything other than solemnity? Does the mass death of species demand earnestness? And in particular, what are the ethics of irony when it emanates from those at the centre of global power — the white, the wealthy, those affiliated with Silicon Valley and its numerous cannibal economies at the heart of American empire? Put simply: is it morally legitimate for those in power to seek to make “fun” of what is, functionally, a mass extinction event from which they are largely insulated, at the expense of those struggling with flooding, fires, famine, and deforestation in the Global South?

 

This orientation runs deep throughout modern art and politics. Bedour Alagraa is a scholar of political theory at Brown University whose work focuses on the concept of catastrophe, which she frames in relation to the plantation economy. Throughout much of modern history, much of the art, literature, and scholarship emanating from the European world took as given a set of political conditions that it imposed upon the rest of the planet through colonization. The coffee shops and salons that loomed large in Western European philosophical circles, for instance, relied upon networks of investment, exploitation, and enslavement that produced commodity plantations in the colonized Caribbean — economies premised upon mass forced migration, horrific abuse, and colossal social and environmental destruction. 

 

But these realities did not figure in the world of “politics” as they were understood by the literary, artistic, and scholarly classes of these colonizing countries. They simply existed as a fact of their lives, rendered as natural, inevitable, a part of the environment. Alagraa points out that understanding climate change and other crises as singular events is an extension of similar logics. We make the political simply environmental, and thus refuse to accept that they have been produced and are continuing to be produced. The world that created climate change is not the inevitable result of human activity; it was made this way, and continues to be made this way. To abstract the political causes of this conditioning condense them into the form of a singular villain serves largely to solidify these causes as backstory — if it engages with them at all.

 

“Often in discussions concerning ‘imminent disaster,’ we’re looking for one particular root cause in the hopes that we can extinguish it and move on,” said Alagraa via email. “But once you realize that the predicament of our time — that of the health and life of our planet — is woven into the fabric of social life in such a delicate way, then we realize that any possible redress has to place, at the centre of its considerations, imagining different ways of living on this planet together at the level of the social and political. Basically, our planet’s condition is not simply an eco-predicament, it is a political one.”

Boucher has the disadvantage of arriving at this game after decades of coordinated denialism campaigns designed to produce apolitical fear without awareness of cause or opportunity for action. And now, in 2019, it feels too late to save the world. It’s difficult to conceptualize a crisis of this scale, especially from within the context of North American settler colonial society. In the US and Canada, politicians and corporations have spent upwards of 30 years and billions of dollars trying to deny the undeniable. 

 

For many people, climate change is imaginable not as the result of a set of related political and economic decisions and consequences. Instead, it resides within the mind, as an object of guilt around individual consumer choices. It lives as something of a bogeyman, a bad guy that might gobble us up if we don’t switch to energy efficient light bulbs or electric cars (thank you, Tesla). In short, a villain — a singular entity, the end of the world, without discernible cause or political response. 

 

Still, Alagraa is unimpressed. To her, on top of its incongruity with the political realities of climate change and Boucher’s own position within it, the concept of Miss_Anthrop0cene reads as an indictment of the way our society engages with the social and environmental world. “By calling herself ‘Miss Anthropocene” [Boucher]’s personalizing a planetary condition,” Alagraa said. “If that is not illuminating enough of the atomized state of our current thinking and doing, then I’m not sure what is.”

 

This kind of atomization, depoliticization, and failure of imagination is part of the problem that created our current climate crisis. As Alagraa notes, the idea of an “end of the world” presupposes that our current system is in any way sustainable or moral, when it was never designed to be. Moreover, it prevents us from imagining new and better ways of living with each other and with nature. These include the kind of collaborative and respectful relationships to the land that were (and remain) common among Black and Indigenous communities — even if they seem alien to the colonizing appetites of the industrial and plantation economies. To return to and uplift these practices would require a reinvention of the way our world is currently set up. It would require a devolution of power from the white and wealthy, and a dismantling of the economic and political systems that produced the planet as we now know it. But this imaginative space is not one in which Boucher seems willing to enter, let alone engage. If anything, she seems to refuse it altogether. 

Walter Benjamin wrote in 1935 that the “logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” He argued that fascism works by providing the masses with forms of expression — an almost artistic release of violence — rather than an answer to the crises that impact us as a result of unequal property relations. Miss_Anthrop0cene feels like a harbinger of the kind of art and politics we can expect from our current moment of crisis. We ended up in this mess because of politics — namely, networks of extraction, expansion, and exploitation that have gone largely unchecked for hundreds of years. If politics got us into it, politics will need to get us out. Fascism seeks to frame politics as aesthetics. In response, we need to move in the other direction, by politicizing art.

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