Art Beyond Art: Ecoaesthetics, a Manifesto for the 21st Century
by Rasheed Araeen
Third Text Publications, London, 2011
170 pp. illus. col. and b&w. Paper, $17.10
Reviewed by Rob Harle
This book is really an autobiographical account of Araeen's life but with the emphasis on his artistic development, struggles, and achievements. He writes in an engaging style that at times elicited my empathy and admiration and, at times, drove me to the point of throwing the book in the garbage bin.
Art Beyond Art has 14 chapters that describe: “the journey of an idea”, Rasheed Araeen's early years growing up mainly in Karachi, his major artistic projects, and the philosophy behind his life and work. The book is illustrated with both colour and black & white drawings, diagrams, and photos. Unfortunately, there is no Index and, more importantly, no Bibliography or Suggested Reading to support his rather dogmatic and, at times, sweeping statements. Referring to one of his artworks that is in storage in the Tate, “The fate of all artworks.” (p. 45).
The book's subtitle - Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the 21st Century rang an alarm bell for me when I first saw it; a subsequent close reading of the book proved this to be true. Global society in the 21st century is so complex that any claim to provide yet another manifesto to fix all the problems, however well intentioned, is naive in the extreme. This highlights the main problem with Araeen's philosophy — his heart seems to be absolutely in the right place, but his intellectual approach is at odds with this. The following criticism I must add is not at all intended ad hominem, because this book is so much about Araeen himself it is difficult to separate the man from his philosophy.
His heart (and art) embraces sustainability, equality for all humans, and art that is removed from the bourgeois/capitalist pedestal in elite galleries and becomes art for all people. However, he despises capitalism and what he perceives to be the total commodification of all art in the Western world — he misunderstands this because of his extreme fundamentalist attitude.
In my opinion, Araeen does not correctly understand art history, nor why humans engage in art making. I do not mean the immediate past three hundred years of Western art; I mean from the very beginning of human evolution, to cave paintings, to Aboriginal rock art, to the present day.
Everything in our society from the earth we grow our food in, to iPhones, to the water we drink, to the religions we embrace is commodified — it has monetary value — why should art be any different? Yes there is the extreme end of this situation where “art for investment” may be seen as an obscenity, but generally artists produce work to enlighten, entertain, educate, and give pleasure to other members of the society in which they live. Every exhibition I have been in over the past 40 years has been 'free' for every person in my society to attend and enjoy, and the works are generally reasonably priced and affordable to those interested.
Araeen seems to deride this art with absurd statements like, “Historically, to put it in simple terms, collaborative art practice emerged when it was realised that art had become a function of private property, it was being made only for a few people whose interest and privileges were detrimental to the interest of the whole society” (p. 83) [my emphasis]. I fail to see, for example, if a council commissions a sculpture and, then, displays this sculpture in a popular public park for all people to contemplate how it is “detrimental to the whole society,” or any individual for that matter?
This is 'pretty rich' coming from an artist who has exhibited object sculpture, one example, Zero To Infinity 1968 (p. 44) in the Tate Gallery, London and is held in their permanent collection. The Tate is one of the most prestigious bourgeois art galleries in the world!
It is a shame this book is marred by Araeen's incessant pseudo-communist raving because his artwork such as Disc Sailing or Canalevent 1970 are beautiful, gentle, engaging 'public' artworks, which without the attendant polemic would convey his ideas much better by themselves. “Art is now going around in circles — like a dog chasing its own tail — generating tremendous energy but only to maintain the dynamics of the art market which deals in precious commodities while the world is facing environmental catastrophe” (“Back Cover”). I completely agree with Araeen that art should be part of life, not separated in elitist galleries where only “the rich can come to buy,” and also be for all members of our society to enjoy, but I think he (and many others today) are asking too much of art to solve all the world's problems – this is not the primary function of art.
Art Beyond Art — Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the 21st Century, unfortunately, fails to achieve what it set out to do. I think readers will become frustrated and irritated when they expect the book to be about art and eco-art and end up with an ill-thought-out political treatise.