Aesthetics of Development


Aesthetics of Development –Chapter Twelve

Dr. JOHN CLAMMER (United Nations University, Professor )

The subject of the ethics of development is, if not yet mainstream in development studies, at least an accepted part of the field (Goulet 1995). The same cannot however be said of what should perhaps be its partner in the humanizing of development theory, policy and practice – notably development aesthetics. In fact the subject as yet hardly exists and such attempts that have been made to introduce the idea seem to largely equate aesthetics with the cultivation of the self (Quales van Ufford and Giri 2003:23). Here I will propose however that aesthetic considerations are central to development issues and that the introduction of this perspective, with aesthetics being understood in a broader sense, can have a profound impact on the whole way in which “development” is understood.

We know in fact that the visual plays an essential role in cultural identities, and indeed many of the controversies in critical cultural and cross-cultural studies are precisely about the issue of representation (Said 1985, 1993). Significantly in the older “basic needs” approach to development popularized in the 1980s by such thinkers as Johan Galtung and Carlos Mallmann (Dube 1984) the issue of beauty inevitably appeared in the guise of the necessity of at least a relatively attractive environment and of a satisfactory relationship to nature, the latter now reemphasized in the emergent field of eco-psychology. In fact any cultural approach to development should quickly realize that any adequate model of human Being in the world necessarily involves aesthetics – its connections with emotions and the erotics of culture, the identification of spaces of identity and intimacy, the importance of memory and nostalgia, and the stories that people constantly tell about their environment, sense of belonging, loneliness, exile, suffering, fantasy and their utopian visions. All of these factors illustrate the primacy of the imagination in human culture and also suggest that beauty is as much a category of development as are concepts such as ‘efficiency’ or ‘productivity’. Visual violence is as much violence as its more obvious physical counterparts and has equally deleterious effects. Michel Maffesoli has argued that ethics and aesthetics are intimately connected (Maffesoli 1990) and we will argue here that both are fundamentally linked to any adequate idea of a wholistic or integral sense of development.

Development studies, as it has emerged as an academic field of study as well as a kind of policy science, is highly textual and pays little attention to the visual, sensory, sensual or erotic aspects of the specific aspects of life-in-the-world that it purports to analyze and understand. In fact the existential fullness of life as much involves these elements as it does the economic. Development studies exists in an almost wholly unexplored relationship with the visual and the sensory. In this essay I will try to briefly explore some of the interfaces between them and to demonstrate how a deeper appreciation of these linkages transforms the concept of development itself, in ways that I will argue are more humane, ecologically responsible, poetic, spiritual and holistic than what has hitherto passed as the subject matter of development studies and development theory.

Development, long having been the imposition on the relatively powerless of the techniques and world views of the powerful, has always been concerned, albeit at an unconscious level, with the construction and representation of the “Other” – the subjects of development. And as it has undertaken this transformation of economic, political, technological and institutional fields, so it has also transformed the visual, musical and sensory fields too and by doing so has modified subjectivities in ways that are still hardly understood. While the subject of representation has baulked large in Western social science at least since Edward Said’s classic Orientalism (Said 1985), very little research exists as to the effects of this on its subjects. While in the field of religious studies substantial attention has been paid to conversion and its profound effects on the culture, social networks and psyches of the converts (e.g. Viswanathan 1998, Clammer 2009b) little parallel work has been carried out on the aesthetic transformations that accompany development, but are, I would argue, equally profound. While in visual anthropology film and photography have been used to record cultures, the same techniques have been little applied to the documentation of social change. While some socially conscious photographers such as Tina Modotti have used photography to record poverty, war, famine and underdevelopment, little of this material has been assimilated into development studies. And while whole art forms exist depicting the encounter with development and modernity on the part of indigenous cultures (e.g. Sabapathy 1996), this whole zone of culture is left to art historians and rarely if ever in my experience is employed as actual material in the study of development. Yet the visual (to take just one form of artistic expression) looms large in socio-cultural and economic change. For example as consumption culture spreads, everyday aesthetics becomes increasingly tied in with the objects of consumption and is expressed too in architecture and design. One has only to compare the visual and architectural qualities – the buildings, shops, streets, malls and markets – of the capitalist city with those of cities in the developing world and one can see so clearly that as an “underdeveloped” city evolves and grows richer it takes on (often an ersatz version of) the architecture and consumption spaces of its developed counterparts (Bangalore for example, or Shanghai with its plethora of skyscrapers decorated with every possible architectural excess of turrets, spires, Greek columns, marble porticos and flashing lights). Development and aesthetics are consequently connected in at least two major ways – the empirical links between modernization and aesthetic transformation usually in the direction of commodity aesthetics, and at a conceptual level in which the whole notion of the good life is intimately tied up with an increase in and access to beauty. The aggressive ugliness of most cities in the developing world (and many in the developed) well illustrates the former; the yearning for a higher quality of cultural life, including the visual, signals the profound need for beauty for psychic health and the tragic uncoupling of “development” and an actual increase in the quality of the visual and sensory environment in which humans are forced to live out their lives.

Vision and Justice/Visual Justice: or, Why Should Beauty Be Only the Province of the Rich?

The concept of environmental justice has drawn attention to the fact that it is usually minorities who get stuck with the worst environments and are forced to live in unhealthy conditions, adjacent to or even literally on top of trash dumps, while the rich can move to leafy suburbs, protect themselves with technology (air conditioning, water filters, safe food) and move if necessary to safer environments. Here I would like to introduce the idea of visual justice, a parallel concept that indicates that it is minorities who are most likely to be forced to live in ugly, tiring and aesthetically fragmented neighborhoods, while the rich can buy beauty both in their external environments and also buy art to beautify their interior ones. A number of individual artists and art movements have recognized this unacceptable dichotomy and have attempted to remedy it by a number of means – the Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera through the production of public art, and movements such as that of the German Bauhaus through overcoming the distinction between arts and crafts and attempting to produce high quality and aesthetically pleasing housing and everyday artifacts accessible to the proletariat of that time. The whole contemporary notion of public art in fact carries into the present the same inspiration (Miles 2000).

This I suggest points beyond a concept of development as simply economic or even social to a broader project of the evolution of a social aesthetics – a critical aesthetics concerned as much with the aesthetic critique of society and culture as it has traditionally been with simply works of art themselves. This is a project very different from what are sometimes termed “social theories of art” – that is to say sociological attempts to explain art in terms of the conventional sociological categories of class, race, gender, occupational background, and so on. Here we are concerned with the much more global project of not simply (difficult as it is in actual practice) of situating particular works of art, or particular artists, in their social milieu, but of an aesthetic critique of society itself. Such a critique has a number of components – a concern with visual justice (the right for all to have access to and to inhabit aesthetically pleasing environments, housing and work and leisure spaces regardless of social status, ethnicity, gender or religion); to not only the notion of development as freedom or external emancipation, but as internal also – to the possibility of psychic, emotional and spiritual growth and transformation along autonomous lines, to the broad enhancement of life and its quality and to the acquiring of the mechanisms for the transformation of oppressive structures, institutions, environments and patterns of dependency by non-political or extra-political means; and to the enhancing of the role of the imagination in social transformation as the imagination is perhaps the most significant human faculty since where reason is limited, imagination is essentially unbounded.

Such an approach has a large number of implications. One amongst these is that social research itself becomes more creative and allows the social scientist legitimate access to areas of human life, emotion and culture that have hitherto been primarily the province of the artist, the poet or possibly the psychiatrist. Another is that it points us beyond an understandable but conceptually limited preoccupation with politics and power (Clammer 2005) and suggests the possibility of “revolution by enlightenment” by way of refreshing and non-economic forms of human liberation and fulfillment which also have the potential to relink humans with the natural environments from which civilization so-called has become dangerously and self-destructively estranged. Indeed, if as many have suggested, the form of our industrial, environment destroying, consumerist civilization is itself the central problem, then the question must arise of how we can conceive of different and less dysfunctional forms. The category of the aesthetic then reemerges as far from a luxury item at the very edges of serious socio-political engagement, but rather as the primary means of recolonizing our life worlds, of restoring, revitalizing and reinventing culture, and of discovering new forms of expression, empowerment and autonomy: of redefining in short, the good life.

Part of the problem here is a theoretical one – the lack of communication between development studies and cultural studies. The marginalization of the visual and the sensory in development studies has paradoxically occurred at the very moment when the visual has become important in cultural studies. But such limitations (at least on the part of development studies) are largely self-imposed, when there are in fact potential new avenues of inquiry, possible fresh reworkings of conventional methodologies and new uses to which the valuable insights of parallel fields can be put, but which have not yet been explored or exploited. The key question in the context of this essay is how to incorporate the aesthetic dimension in an authentic and integral way into the concerns of development studies and to adequately demonstrate the centrality of the aesthetic to the cultural dimensions of development and to the cultural critique which should be an important dimension of development seen as a holistic discipline. For the aesthetic is not only that which immediately presents itself to the senses, but equally invokes and enshrines memory and the recognition of sites of happiness and suffering, embodies emotions, nostalgia and modes of representation of the past and their projection into the present and the future. The recovery of some sense of the “fullness” of the aesthetic dimension of human life and our life in nature is an important part of the attempt to reconstruct an appropriate philosophical anthropology for our time, and equally to recover a sense of the fullness of culture, not as a denuded and abstract concept, but as the cradle and expression of human being-in-the –world.

We can illustrate this by building on some remarks of RaimonPanikkar to the effect that rationality does not exhaust being. Panikkar’s point had been that reason is not the only instrument for the human investigation of reality as demonstrated by the power of art, myths, mysticism and the role of play in human cultures, reflecting amongst other things, in Panikkar’s words, that “Man is not the whole of reality”, a deeply ecological view that refuses to reduce the human to the socio-political (Panikkar 1993). In a world saturated with information and also what passes as “knowledge”, wisdom is often lost, whereas what really needs to be explored is the relationship between art and knowledge – alternative ways of knowing one of which is embodied in poetry. Art in this view both creates the world and changes the world – it has a formative as well as a reflective aspect and that in some Indian traditions the “Fifth Veda” (the Vedas, themselves deeply poetic documents, having become the essential scriptures of Hinduism) – i.e. art – was created for those not permitted to learn the four orthodox Vedas by virtue of their gender or caste status. An important implication of this is the suggestion that, despite its technological prowess, our civilization is actually in process of shrinking – in language diversity, biodiversity, ethnic diversity and also in terms of our conception of knowledge which now excludes as the insights expressed in the medium of poetry. Whereas songs and poetry are now read mainly as “texts” they are in fact the distillation of wisdom and of forms of perception that often or usually fall outside of the boundaries of conventional “knowledge”.

This perspective on the arts opens up a number of avenues for exploration largely closed off by aesthetics itself, sociology and development studies while providing a basis for an alternative form of critical theory rooted in a new mode of cultural criticism. In such a model art proves to be the boundary crossing mechanism between the usually separated spheres of the “spiritual” and the “material” and does so in a way that goes well beyond the Marxist formulation of base and superstructure or its Weberian reversal, both of which assume and posit a particular causal epistemology. The critical dimension comes from not only revealing the violence in a great deal of contemporary visual culture and its own complicity in the system of capitalist commodification and the marketization of art, but also in revealing the extent to which the poor in particular are not only denied access to real beauty, but are doubly denied by only having access to ersatz versions – Bollywood, Hollywood and the virtual “reality” of the video game. This in turn points to a very significant and little discussed question – that of culture after capitalism, or if you prefer, culture after development.

The Education of Desire

It is an endlessly repeated mantra that if the currently developing world (including the two giants, India and China) were to attain a standard of living comparable to the contemporary USA or Japan, that we would require at least two and a half Earth-sized and Earth endowed planets to sustain the vehicles, pollution, urbanization and resource depletion resulting from this “development”. But even such potential scenario is not in fact sustainable given the current dominant model of development, since in a relatively short time even those one and a half extra Earths will be reduced to the same state of ecological disaster, endemic violence, corruption and level of social inequalities of the present one, which is in fact of course the only one we have. The consequences of this are very hard indeed for many people to think through or to contemplate. Baring the very real possibility of environmental catastrophe bringing an end to the present world-system, the only possible outcomes are a drastic scaling down of living standards in the already “developed” world and a corresponding and very painful realization on the part of the developing that the attainment of the industrial civilization and its living standards currently found in a small number of “advanced” economies is impossible within the ecological constraints of the planet. The violence, resource competition (fueling the next generation of wars over access to oil, water, food and living space) and social upheavals consequent upon this realization can only be realistically avoided by one alternative scenario – notably development without greed, or what we might term the education of desire.

Consumerism itself is of course socially sanctioned desire, conferring on those able to access it status and security. And it is consumerism that supports and extends the industrial resource depleting economic system that is the main threat to the environmental integrity of the planet (Kovel 2002.). To move away from such a system implies an alternative set of desires focused on a very different relationship to the world than that primarily mediated by the possession or manipulation of things. As Gloria Orenstein puts it succinctly in her essay on “Artists as Healers” “It is imperative that we go about the task of creating an alternative society that is interconnected with nature now”. (Orenstein 1990: 287). Underlying this objective are I think a number of important ideas including that throughout human history, new creative capacities not previously known before have emerged over and over again. These are in practice associated with the great religious innovators (Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Zarathustra and company), major philosophical thinkers (Lao Tze, Confucius Socrates et al) and artists of various stripes (Homer, the unknown architects and craftsmen of the great Gothic cathedrals, down through the roll call of luminaries and the illuminated to have fundamentally changed human modes of perception and of engaging the world. In a sense all of these have pointed to ways of making the ecosystem and people’s lives fuller, more enriched, responsible and meaningful, towards spiritual richness rather than material abundance and the infinite possibilities hidden in our everyday lives. This is deeply important as culture is the site on which our identities are formed and contested: the content and quality of culture is consequently crucial to the overall quality of human life. Yet it is often this culture itself which proves to be inhumane, imposing arbitrary or cruel modes of conduct, dress or livelihood and status on women, children, outsiders, members of religious minorities, the ethnically different or even its own privileged members. For many, their culture is an ordeal to be endured, rather than a source of liberation and fulfillment, as not a few of us have experienced in our own lives.

It is for this reason that the question of representation is so central to contemporary cultural studies. Edward Said has of course classically pointed out and analysed the ways in which representations of the Orient in literature and art in particular were fundamentally formative of Western and colonial attitudes to the Others that they encountered in their voyaging and colonial expansion, including the exoticising, eroticizing and infantalising of the inhabitants of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond, a tradition of scholarship that now has many followers and imitators (e.g. Thomas 1994). This issue remains central to any critical social aesthetics. As the art and culture critic Craig Owens suggests, the critique of representation is vital because representation so often means, in fact, subjugation, and the recognition of this points not just to the politically motivated goal of “consciousness raising”, but also to the mobilization of the spectator who needs to recognize that there is no one narrative of culture, but a plurality of aesthetics and the role of comparative aesthetics is to reveal the existence of a whole set of possible or alternative aesthetic systems (a recognition that as he notes can activate the realization of the intrinsic value of “outsider” art and indigenous artistic forms and traditions. Representational systems are apparatuses of power, and the role of a critical aesthetics is to reveal the structure of these systems and so to deconstruct them, while also revealing the existence of alternative systems of representation/aesthetics that signal quite different ontological assumptions (Clammer, Poirier and Schwimmer 2004). Art for Owens is not an alternative to reality (the Freudian model), but a recognition of reality, a mode of apprehending and representing it, of revealing, creating awareness, of defamiliarization. This furthermore is not simply a project projected onto the Other, but applies equally to the observer: “Perhaps it is this project of learning how to represent ourselves – how to speak to, rather than for or about, others – that the possibility of a ‘global’ culture resides” (Owens 1994: 326). This resonates very well with the observation of John Berger that art need not only represent the nostalgia of a class in decline (the aristocracy or bourgeoisie) but rather that “If the new language of images was used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate…Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents” (Berger 1972: 33).

The cultivation of aesthetic appreciation is in principle one means of not simply practicing self-cultivation, but a way of seeing the world such that its own depth and beauty (and the necessity of enhancing and protecting those qualities) become central to the individual’s project of being-in-the-world. Awareness (and an awareness of the fragility of the environment) rather than the possession of things then becomes the dominant mode of cultural practice. This relates to but is rather different from debates within critical art studies that attempt to relate art less to “self expression” and more to its potential political, social and environmental context and takes it out of museums and galleries into everyday practice. In conversations with a range of contemporary artists, aestheticians and social activists, the art critic Suzi Gablik discovered the common chord that the site of aesthetic experience was perceived as shifting out of galleries into the broader world, that that art should not be defined as a professionalized or specialized category of objects or activities “but is a living process centered around daily life and vital human concerns” (Gablik 2000: 32) and that it is modern aesthetics that is the anomaly. Art itself in this view, is a natural and universal cultural practice and the human propensity for aesthetic expression has been distorted both by systems of education and specialization which relegate it to a largely fringe activity in daily life, and by wider societal trends which have allowed the economic, the managerial and the technical to fill the field of vital human endeavours. As a consequence art, like religion, has been driven to the edges of significant everyday practice and even regarded as retreats from the “real” world, when both should in fact be at the center. Given the fact that to a great extent we live by images, the corruption and trivialization of so many of those images in the mass media is a major factor in civilizational decline. Beauty is fundamental to life, and certainly to the good life, and is not the province simply of the “arts”, but is central to cultural well being and to human appreciation of nature. Discussing her interview with the psychologist James Hillman, Suzi Gablik summarizes his (and hers) basic philosophy as follows:

“Beauty in its sensate presence, is, for Hillman, absolutely fundamental

to life; it is not a cultural accessory, or some thing that belongs to the

exclusive province of the arts. Beauty is the inherent radiance of the

world, and its repression, he feels, is the most significant factor in our

culture, because its loss is what keeps us from caring for nature. ‘Nature today

is on dialysis’, he says, ‘slowly expiring, kept alive only by advanced

technology’. When all is said and done, it is only love for the world, and a

desire for rich, sensory contact with the beauty of its sounds and smells and

textures that will save us. A truly aesthetic response, in Hillman’s view,

could affect issues of civilization that most concern us today which have

remained largely intractable to psychological resolution. Like Satish

Kumar, Hillman feels that beauty has been sequestered into the ghetto of

beautiful objects by museums, by the ministry of culture, and by a

professional cadre of artists. Indeed, he claims, we must cleave beauty

altogether away from art, art history, art objects, art appreciation, because

they posit beauty into an instance of it, when in fact, beauty is the manifest

anima mundi, the very sensibility of the cosmos” (Gablik 2000: 179-180).

This then is a different perspective than the idea of art being in the service of something (social issues in particular). It is a much broader claim that art itself is simply a particular cultural practice that applies certain culturally accepted techniques to produce certain types of artifacts (such as paintings or sculptures) to be exhibited or appreciated in particular kinds of settings. Such art may be self-expressive or socially concerned, but in both cases it applies to a particular mode of cultural production. The point however, is that the category of the beautiful far exceeds the limitations of art, so defined. It in fact refers to what used to be called in development discourse a “basic need”, an aesthetic orientation to the world more often violated than respected in development practice, urban planning and growth-oriented strategies. Changing desires in sustainable directions is hardly possible if this fundamental quality of human being-in-the-world is not given center place.

Imagination and the Erotics of Development

If the subject of the aesthetics of development is rarely admitted into the dominant discourse, the issue of the erotics of development is even less so. Yet art is largely about the sensuous – depicting it, rendering it into a form that stimulates the imagination, and a great deal of that imagination is, in the broadest sense, erotic. Most images of the good life are not only concerned with the fullest play of the senses (all of them, not only the visual), but also recognize that spirituality need not be ethereal, but can be rooted, earthy, bodily. Even when “human needs” are discussed as part of development discourse, such sensuous capacities are never mentioned or prioritized, but if they exist at all are assimilated into broad abstract categories such as the need for leisure or exposure to nature. In fact “development” itself is a highly impoverished concept if it is only concerned with the exterior political and economic aspects of life, as it usually is. Yet in fact any sense of a life of fullness and satisfaction must include the expression of emotional needs, of bodily freedom and the ranging of the imagination. Sexuality is a major component of this wider sense of freedom and on the one hand art itself is closely connected to sexuality in many of its manifestations, while on the other sexuality does not exhaust the category of the erotic which can encompass a far wider range of expressions of the primary contact between the body and nature (including other animals) which is the source of some of the deepest feelings of well-being and health available to human beings. The shallowness of much development thinking and practice derives not from its materialism per se, but from the shallowness of that materialism itself. A truly material existence involves intimate connections with environment in all its manifestations – air, light, fragrance, and the means by which we experience it and participate in it – touch, taste, smell, vision. Contemporary society too often tells us what these sensations should be, which are legitimate and which are not and encourages us by numerous mechanisms to give up our sensuous autonomy for the codified, even in cultures that still claim a close connection to the natural (Clammer 2000). But as Susan Griffin puts it “If sexual desire, sensitivity to touch, taste, smell, love of color, movement, passionate emotion, all that which is the estate of those on earth, is consigned to others, it is also relinquished. What is lost is nothing else than the eros at the heart of existence” (Griffin 1995: 51-2). In the process of “development” how much of the eros of indigenous cultures has been lost for ever, what range of feelings and sensitivities to the earth extinguished? In the overly cognitive models of Western anthropology indigenous knowledge has been given pride of place, without the recognition that in fact such “knowledge” is not merely technique, but in actuality encompasses modes of feeling, of relating, of alternative modes of being in the world. Globalization not only reduces the economic and cultural diversity of the world (and biodiversity too), but also its emotional and erotic diversity, signaled by language loss which is one of its causes, leading to a psychic deprivation of the highest order. The recovery or recolonization of this realm presents itself as a primary task for what might be called the poetics of development.

It is in radical environmentalism as well as in art that this truth has been recognized, in particular in the former’s critique of the technological domination of humanity and nature that has been one of the major outcomes of “development”: “Technology totalizes existence along one axis, the axis of utility, and all the other rich, poetic, wild ways in which a human being is able to encounter the world are excluded” (Manes 1990: 226). It also excludes or channels in particular ways (the computer game for instance) the full range of the human imagination. As the great Sufi poet Rumi rightly said “The world of phantasy is broader than the world of concepts. For all concepts are born in phantasy. The world of phantasy likewise is narrow in relation to the world out of which phantasy comes into being” (Arberry 1994:202). The imagination then is perhaps the primary human faculty (and not reason as is so commonly supposed) and it is through imagination that desire is formed and educated, and it is through it that the fullest life is achieved. As Henry James aptly put it, “I call that man rich who can satisfy the requirements of his imagination”. Art in its various forms is one of the main ways in which this opening to/of the imagination takes place, and the deprivation of the aesthetic dimension is as much a form of poverty as material want. As the writer Pico Iyer has put it “It is not easy to explain that poverty can take many forms, and that poverty of horizon can seem as paralyzing as the other kinds” (Iyer 2004:189). Aesthetic deprivation, ignored as a factor or imposed actively by the ugliness of much development practice, is as much a violation of human rights as the deprivation of physical liberty, and conversely the presence of aesthetic qualities in the environment is a source of fundamental satisfactions. As the novelist and dramatist Albert Camus expressed it reflecting on his own humble, North African origins, “Originally brought up surrounded by beauty which was my only wealth, I had begun in plenty” (Camus 1979:18).

This view is indeed the consensus of the majority of practicing artists and poets and sympathetic commentators on their works. Susan Murphy on drawing a parallel between religious insight and art: “To understand this better, consider how great paintings rearrange us. You don’t so much look at a great painting and figure it out as stand before it and, with a sense of the self dropping away, let it reorganize you from the centre of your being”…”It is learning to be present with the whole body rather than just the pinpoint of the intellect and the customary buzz of thought (Murphy 2004: 70, 205). The Columbian poet Eduardo Carrenza: “If poetry does not make my blood run faster, open sudden windows for me into the mysterious, help me discover the world, accompany this desolate heart in solitude and in love, in joy and in enmity, what good is poetry to me?” (Marquez 2004: 252.). Elias Canetti: “Only an image can please you totally, never a human being. The origins of angels…The inklings of poets are the forgotten adventures of God” (Canetti 1986: 2,4). Even the philosophers agree: for the political philosopher John Finnis the universal categories of all human cultures are life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness and religion Finnis 1980). The aesthetic then not only stands at the heart of human culture, but its performance leads to a relationship with the world unique in its inherent and undeconstructable authenticity.

The Art of Sustainability

The architectural historian James Wines has cogently noted that “Without art, the whole idea of sustainability fails” (Wines 2008). This comment succinctly summarizes the core of the argument presented here: that without art, development fails. It becomes in fact all of the things that its critics have charged it with – ecologically irresponsible, resource depleting, the principle generator of ugly, boring and unhealthy environments, and ultimately unsatisfying to the human spirit and its aesthetic, erotic, cosmological and utopian needs. The eclipse of utopia parallels the rise of growth oriented developmentalism, its toxic modernist architecture and its assault on nature (Jacoby 1999, Kovel 2002). Without a fertile, organic and earth rooted imagination the world becomes technocratic and sterile, and as Suzi Gablik has rightly argued, the re-enchantment of art and the re-enchantment of the world go hand-in-hand (Gablik 2002). Likewise art, as Michael Chanan has argued, is one of the principle fields of cultural experimentation, and its drive towards increasing rather than restricting our responses to the world is one of the main means of preventing the stagnation of our species, even when the experimentation seems outlandish and pointless, criticisms frequently directed at new art movements which later become assimilated into mainstream or establishment art – Impressionism, Expressionism and Cubism being exemplary instances (Chanan 1972: 146). The artist and poet then, far from being marginal to true civilization, are its essence. They are the ones, as much as the scientist, who produce exploratory languages, whether of words or images, that point to new significations and meanings. Or as Shakespeare puts it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream “…as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen Turns them into shapes, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name.”

Obviously there will continue to be argument over the definition of art, even as there is argument over the definition of development. The critic Julian Spalding however is right to note the increasing narcissism and failure to produce images of any real social consequence that characterizes so much contemporary art, is driving many people who would otherwise like to be open and appreciative of art, to essentially decide that much of what they are asked to see is rubbish (Spalding 2003). Art that resonates with people’s imagination and their primal experiences is powerful in giving access to alternative cultural resources than those purveyed by the dominant matrix: aesthetics can form the basis for a critique of instrumental reason, and while they can be so easily co-opted by those forces, imagination, fantasy, desire and the urge to produce images, can be directed to other ends than simply enhancing consumption. Art in fact has the potential for revolutionizing the image world and overcoming the atrophy of experience that is characteristic of the anomie of the industrialized world. It is not only through politics that utopia can be approached – indeed it is politics that has constantly been the betrayer of alternative futures. As the artist Joseph Beuys put it “As our ageing old order muddles its way towards death, it is only by radically widening our conceptual understanding to embrace art, that we will be able to receive the powerful inspiration of art. And it is only such inspiration of creative art that can serve as evolutionary midwife to aid the birth of a new society. Such a society, celebrating liberty, equality and fraternity, would itself be a great work of art, and every person in it a deeply fulfilled artist” (Beuys 1977). Such a vision to become reality places great responsibility on art, and it then becomes incumbent on actual artistic production to fulfill this mandate. It is also a statement that comes from a highly secularized social location. With the rise of new forms of spirituality in the contemporary world and the alliance of some of these with art, and many with an expanding ecological consciousness, any number of fresh syntheses and advances will undoubtedly propose themselves and point to alternative conceptions of society, culture and community that are now just beginning to appear.

The Aesthetics of Imperfection

Discussion of art in relation to development may for many have an idealistic ring about it. While that is understandable especially given the social irrelevance of much contemporary art, the whole thrust of this essay has been to show that in fact the aesthetic dimension of life is to be counted amongst the most basic of “human needs” and that ant fulfilling “post-development” culture would be one in which creative faculties were given the fullest rein. The aridity of much current development practice derives from its ignoring of this crucial dimension of human existence, and one could argue too that its lack of serious concern with the environment is equally derived from this deprivation of any sense of beauty as an essential component of a rounded lifestyle.

But to say this is not to argue for some kind of perfectionism. In practice the world is a complex and messy place, always in the process of change and transformation and never in full equilibrium. Commenting on a line by the poet Wallace Stevens that “The imperfect is our paradise” (Stevens 1954:194), David Morris suggests that “Suppose that the earth – what Dante emerging from hell called the ‘shining world’ (chiaro mondo) – is the only paradise we will know. Suppose that paradise is here and now, not in some future or perfect state: the world and all its people with their glaring deficiencies. We might then be called upon to begin working towards an aesthetics and an ethics of imperfection. The aim would be to base our values not in the quest for perfection but in an appreciation of the imperfect” (Morris 1998:162). In the light of suffering, itself a universal characteristic of life in the world, the need to give voice to this suffering falls as much on the arts as on religion, pastoral care or science. The objective is not then the attainment of utopia with all its attendant problems and the dystopias that the pursuit of perfection has so frequently engendered, but rather that “We might then come to recognize in our inevitable imperfections – signs of the only paradise on earth that we will ever know – both the evidence of a shared humanity that makes an ongoing ethical claim upon us and the occasion for seeking to create a culture in which human life could be, as Karl Popper put it in his postwar critique of utopian thinking, thinking inseparable from Nazi fantasies of eugenics, ‘a little less terrible and a little less unjust’” (Morris 1998: 163). The embodied life carries with it the existential realities of illness, ageing, accident and death, the very existential dimensions of existence rarely if ever touched upon in conventional development thinking. As the sociologist Ian Craib has noted, disappointment – the non-realization in everyday life of desires and ambitions, is an essential not a contingent part of the tragic-comedy of everyday human life (Craib 1994). No where is this more the case than in “development” – in the pursuit of material goals that recede as they are approached, or which prove to generate even more and unexpected problems than it solves. It is precisely in this context that the capacities of the imagination are most needed, not as escapism (although that is a very undervalued and all too frequently maligned genuine need), but as a way of conceiving of alternatives and conferring meaning on existing suffering and disappointment.

In his literary biography of the great Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, Peter Bien sums up his subject’s life project as follows:

Both art and religion, far from being escapes from life, bring us into a more

meaningful contact with reality than we achieve via quotidian experience.

This is especially true of tragic art, which teaches us to understand

suffering and death; but it is also true of comedy, which celebrates human

foolishness. To the degree to which art, whether tragic or comic, escapes

subservience to everyday reality, to that same degree will it succeed in

returning us more meaningfully to that same reality, because it will have

concerned itself with the meaning of being rather than of things. Far from

avoiding a confrontation with the problem of value, it will have placed

itself in a position where value can be truly discovered and formulated. In

other words, it will have refuted nihilism The very ‘playing with the world’

commonly scorned as irresponsible aestheticism is precisely what strengthens

our capacity to act in the world instead of merely making a picture or spectacle

of it, because it teaches us to live in the truth” (Bien 1989: 231).

In speaking of the issues involved in the construction, experience and representation of pain, Veena Das supports this view by noting that “Some realities need to be fictionalized before they can be apprehended. This is apparent in the weight of the distinction between the three registers of the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary in the work of Lacan, and in Castoriadis’s formulation of the necessity of working on the register of the imaginary for the conceptualization of society itself [Castoriadis 1987]. I shall allow myself three scenes, or phantasms, that provide a theoretical scaffolding to the issues that I address. In these three scenes I call upon the words of the philosopher Wittgenstein, the poet-novelist-essayist Tagore, and the short story writer Sadat Hasan Manto, as persons who responded to the call of the world in the register of the imaginary” (Das 1997: 69).

Perhaps enough said. The aesthetic is not merely a mode of representation, but also a mode of knowledge and of action. As Pablo Picasso well expressed his view of the social commitment of the artist during his politically active period after the painting of Guernica: “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only his eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre at every level of his heart if he’s a poet, or even if he is a boxer, just his muscles? On the contrary, he’s at the same time a political being, constantly alive to heartrending, fiery or happy events, to which he responds in every way. How would it be possible to feel no interest in other people and by virtue of an irony of indifference to detach yourself from the life which they so copiously bring to you? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war for attack and defence against the enemy.” (Picasso 1945/Read 1997: 160.) Remembering too that art movements are also social movements, we can give the last word to Picasso’s contemporary, the poet, writer and leader of the Surrealist movement Andre Breton who in the 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism stated in a comment that resonates well with contemporary conceptions of “development as freedom” – “Only the word freedom still exalts me. Among the many disgraces we inherit, we should do well to recognize that the greatest freedom of spirit is left to us. We ought not to misuse it. To reduce the imagination to slavery, even when it might lead to what one crudely calls happiness, is to evade whatever one finds, in the depths of the self, of supreme justice. Imagination alone tells me what can be, and this is enough to lift for a little the terrible interdict – enough also to allow me to abandon myself to this freedom without fear of self-deception”.

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