Cultivating Art

I met Mr X in Finland in the aftermath of my fellowship in Urban Narratives of Conviviality and Inequality. When he learned that I had just spent three months in São Paulo on a project examining art and activism, he went to his office and came back with the picture accompanying this blog post.

He was the proud creator of the picture. It turns out the picture is known in Russian activist circles. It has accompanied protests in banners, and it has been reproduced by people unknown to Mr X. in different forms. The picture has a life of its own.

Putin himself has banned the picture in Russia. For Mr X, it means that the job of the picture has been accomplished. With a twinkle in his eyes, he said: “I don’t know what he is mad about, I even made him look pretty”.

Mr X doesn’t claim ownership of the picture.

The example of Mr X’s artwork speaks of the role of Art in the Anthropocene. Anthropocene is a term coined by geologists to describe the impact humans are making on Earth’s biodiversity and climate for the first time in human history. The concept is however not necessarily universally accepted. Giovanna di Chiro for example has convincingly criticised its omission that not all humans have played a role in generating climate change.

But what does art have to do with climate change?

A lot, some would say.

The visual artist André Feliciano argues that with the awareness of climate change, our relationship with time has changed. In the past, nature did not need the help of humans to stay alive. In times of the Anthropocene, for the first time, we humans play a decisive role. Nature has become a garden needing our protection.

André presents a new concept in the field of art, which he calls “the art gardener”. Like a gardener who cultivates a plant for a long time, art gardeners do not make art alone but cultivate art in the lives of others. 

The art-gardener’s art is not about the creation of an individual artwork to answer questions about that time, but it is about the nurturing of a cultural process to transform society over time.

In a book André handed to me in his studio in São Paulo he writes: “art-gardeners do not work to exhibit their individuality, but to cultivate ideas collectively”.

When art becomes part of culture, it becomes Floraissance art. André gives the example of a birthday song sung differently.

In the case of Mr X’s picture, it has become part of the counterculture in Russia, without him even intending to. The point is that the picture of Mr X has hit a nerve: it is understood by people, and it has a cultural significance.

On commenting about originality, André writes that whereas traditional artwork is original and reflects that particular moment, from the art gardener’s point of view, a work of art is a process of changing society. It only becomes original when it has produced a cultural change. For that, it needs to be reproduced by the society.

“An artist usually creates a concept of change in the world, while an art-gardener cultivates the world so that this change takes place”

Key to the process of cultivating art is incorporating an educational process so that people know how to reproduce it when they want to.

André considers there are many people nurturing art as a long-term process of societal transformation, who do not consider themselves artists. They are nurturing artivism institutes. They don’t want to be constrained by the rules of the art circuit. He writes “Much of the potential of the concepts created by the artists remain dormant and do not take shape outside the intellectual sphere. How can art germinate and become part of cultural life?”

An example that comes to my mind is the Saraus in Brazil. Another example that comes to my mind is the Red Shoes installation by Elina Chauvet in Mexico. The action involves getting permission from Elina Chauvet, taking shoes, painting them red in a workshop, and then placing them on the streets. The red shoes symbolise all the lives lost to femicide.

It was for the Red Shoes installation reproduced in Finland that I came to know Rosamaria, whom I invited to São Paulo to conduct a workshop involving the making of an installation. Rosamaria had us jointly produce an installation made of carton dolls, placed to hang at the entrance of Centre Maria Antonia, as if they were flying.

The process started to ferment. Fernanda Sotto, an artist and activist from Cholitas de Babilonia was planning to make giant cholitas dolls and she saw Rosamaria’s flying bodies workshop as inspiring.

I see both workshops held during the fellowship of Urban Narratives of Conviviality and Inequality, by Ana Kavalis and by Rosamaria Bolom, as events where art was being cultivated. Both workshops attempt to simulate another kind of relationship with the world, what André sees as key to the transformative capacity of art. Both instructed on techniques that could be reproduced by the participants if they wanted to.

Yet, whether the bodily practices from Ana’s workshop or the installation made during Rosamaria’s will be reproduced by the larger society for a process of long-term transformation is to be seen. But ultimately, whether they will or not does not matter, because art cannot be forced. It spreads when the moment is right if it spreads at all. This lesson I learned through Ania Valle, my neighbour in Vila Madalena, who also participated in the workshop to make a giant doll. 

I had met Ania at an after-work party. Ania and her husband turned out to be geniuses of art. Ania affirmed that art cannot be harnessed for a program, like those in socialist Cuba. Rather, art creeps into your life when you open the door when you finally allow yourself to be open to it. There is a tension between cultivation and being imposing.  Art also becomes poor if it is guided by a tendency to copy, rush, or forcefully make an argument.

We could of course also ask what the role of labour in all this is.[1] Here too, I would go back to André’s lessons in his magnificent mini-book. He writes that an artist’s art is a seed full of potential. Like himself, an artist can be both an artist and an art gardener. She can go around validating her art through traditional means. But at the same time, she can also cultivate it. If she is a poet publishing poetry and developing networks in the art scene to get grants, she can still attend Saraus to discuss the rights of the migrants and read her poems to the public, along with other people who do not publish poems but have brought a poem with them.

Furthermore, I propose to extend this idea to academia and how science is spread. What if we would not evaluate academics only in terms of scientific papers and conferences, but in terms of how much their ideas will be reproduced in society? Could the lessons learned be reproduced by the society through booklets, slogans, and art – and hence become part of a larger cultural change towards a society away from the Anthropocene?

The process of cultivation, for me, began before the workshops in São Paulo. In June 2023, I was working already intensely with members of the Boas Práticas project from Northeastern Brazil for a goal that could be described as some kind of cultivation. A book telling the story of community leaders using the art of digital collage came as the result of the process. Raquel Assunçao and Jocyele Marinheiro from the project came to join Rosamaria’s workshop as our special guests.

In the book, the community leaders talk of what is justness, fairness, and a good life for them. These themes were continued in the workshops in Sao Paulo that placed the body at the centre. It was not a body abstracted from social relations, but a body full of significations.

I hope you enjoy the reading!

By Jasmin Immonen

Sources cited:

Welcome to the Floraissance! by André Feliciano. Fifth version, September 2021

Di Chiro, Giovanna 2016 “Environmental Justice and the Anthropocene Meme”. In Gabrielson, Teena, et al., (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory: 362–382. Oxford University Press.

[1]I owe this reflection to Flavia Meireles.

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