On a recent trip abroad, I conceded to a friend who studies art history that I don’t understand the practice of going to art galleries. I wasn’t sure at the time whether I believed that statement, but the more I said it out loud, the truer it became. I’d spent a few weeks in London, blasting through countless exhibitions, trying to convince myself that I felt whatever I was should feel about the works in it. We can view art online. We can look at them story of art on the internet. The existence of the gallery space implies, among other things, the presence of a mysterious, transcendent quality that derives from the materiality of the art and defies direct perception or labeling or quantification—it simply is is.
“Things are mysterious in a radical and irreducible way,” writes Timothy Morton in his essay All art is ecological (2018). Located at the intersection of ecology and art philosophy, Morton’s essay characterizes how the beauty and devotion we experience through art could be used to enliven the future of nonviolent coexistence between nonhumans and their environment. He explains that the experience of beauty is an entity of both oneself and not oneself, a “mind fusion” between me and a non-human thing (the work of art) that is utterly intangible.
Unlike human resources, the source of beauty from art, literature and music is inexhaustible. It doesn’t rot or pollute the earth and embodies the kind of unconditional and open future that we could cultivate for ourselves if we attuned to ecological being and thinking.
I read a thin printed volume of this essay during that trip to London in July and pored over it in many sticky tube cars. It was the same July when the country’s heat soared to its highest recorded temperatures. I’ve lived through the Sydney heatwaves and despised the grumbling that Europeans seem to be making about what we think is normal weather. But underneath, the abnormality was unshakable. Almost as unwavering as the heat, which has gathered densely like ghosts in buildings destined to contain it and tarred airplane runways that melt under the sun.
Morton’s essay is a manifesto for ecological thinking that defends the strangeness and ambiguity that characterize our contemporary times. Referring to the title of the first part of the essay “And you may find yourself in an age of massextinction”, he suggests that the common literary practice of dropping the subjunctive (“may”) in favor of the active one reflects the shaky dimensions of experience of the Anthropocene. He discards ontological certainties and future orientations—what “to do”—that characterize current advice on ecological behavior, preferring “the quality of hesitation, feelings of unreality or distorted or altered reality, feelings of the uncanny: feeling strange.”
Living in an age of mass extinction is strange in itself. Only six have occurred in Earth’s history, and we must not naturalize this anomaly through the repetition of dates and apathetic phrases like “the new normal,” as we still often do. Often the temporal dimensions of mass extinctions are so gradual compared to human experience that we don’t realize we’re going through something – not since the dawn of agriculture, in fact – until something doesn’t work: extreme weather, the conflagration of our land, pandemics, catalyzed by cross-species pathogen transmission.
But the strangeness with which we encounter this era – the progressive, radical denaturation of the conditions in which we can find us alive — is also the source of ecological thought, politics, and philosophy, argues Morton. This is where the beauty experience comes into play.
For beauty “needs to be fringed with a kind of slight disgust, something that normative aesthetic theories constantly seek to erase”. Heidegger argues that there are no such things as truth and untruth because you are always in one version of the truth, ie “truth”. “There has to be this ambiguous space between art and kitsch, beauty and disgust. A changing world, a world of love, of philosopher… Of truthfulness rather than rigidly true versus rigidly false,” writes Morton.
Of course, I’m no stranger to the beauty experience; I’m just better prepared elsewhere, for example in literature and in the environmental field. Morton suggests we can melody us in both beauty and ecological thinking; just as beauty is sewn to love and love has no reason, We can appreciate other life forms without any reason. Contemporary artists are increasingly tapping into this nexus of beauty and ecology, featured in works such as those at the 2022 Sydney Biennale.
“There’s a certain courage in letting yourself fall asleep and letting dreams come that is similar to the courage in letting art sink in,” writes Morton. Rather than providing a simple answer as to how or why I appreciate art in a gallery, I may need to tune into the ways in which art already influences me. As Morton writes, “You are already a symbiotic being entangled with other symbiotic beings… you are ecologically.”