books design growth

Book review: Art Against Empire, by Samuel Alexander

Samuel Alexander is a prolific writer on post-growth issues, with a particular focus on simpler living.  Having looked at economics, democracy, and historical perspectives in previous books, this one takes a rather different approach and investigates aesthetics.  Art Against Empire: Towards an aesthetics of degrowth is part essay, part coffee table art book, and was developed in collaboration with a range of artists and designers.

The aesthetics of degrowth might sound like a highly academic exercise, but Alexander argues that art often has a role in political change. “To be effective the degrowth movement must seek to change not only the way we think about the world, but also the way we feel, perceive, judge, create, and in the end, exist in the world.” Art can change the way we feel about things, opening up the imagination, changing the narrative that people and cultures tell themselves. It’s all very well plotting out policies for a post-growth future, but we’ll never get to those without changing what we want, what we aspire to and hope for. And that’s where art comes in.

To quote Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher who has inspired Alexander’s work here: “art cannot change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world.”

With a plea for the degrowth movement to talk more to the heart as well as the head, the book rounds out its opening essay and moves onto showing us what that might look like. There are paintings and photos, collages and cartoons, interspersed with poetry, commentary and snippets of fiction. A lot of these are online already, gathered as part of the Dark Cellars Project.

The collection of artwork here is a mixed bag. At their best, they are poignant and thought provoking. I like the soulful illustrations by Pawel Kuczynski, one of the few artists I’ve mentioned on the blog before, or the Albanian artist Agim Sulaj. Photographer James Porto blurs the lines between fiction and reality with his striking photomontages.

On the other hand, there are a lot of visual tropes here that were well worn out by Adbusters in their turn of the century heyday. There are zombie consumers, people stuffing their faces with burgers in front of the television. Barcodes and corporate logos abound.

In between, the diverse collection of art addresses shopping, work, democracy, big data, social media, climate change, soil, the ethics of meat eating and all sorts besides. Sometimes the images stand alone, sometimes there are lyrical observations on them. Together they have something of a cumulative effect, especially towards the end where the book turns towards prefiguring an alternative.

Once you’ve read the opening arguments, Art Against Empire is a book best dipped in and out of. Browse a couple of pages. See what you find. Think about it. See what it inspires.

“Uncivilising ourselves from our destructive civilisation and building something new is the great, undefined creative challenge we face in coming years and decades – which is a challenge both of opposition and renewal” writes Alexander. “Together we must write a new future, a task that has already begun as individuals and communities begin to build the new world within the shell of the old.”

  • Hive isn’t stocking Art Against Empire, so ironically all I’ve got for you is Amazon links. Empire indeed. Here’s the UK and the US.


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