Sustainability – its meaning is often as elusive as the ideal itself. As an artist, sustainability can feel like a distant goal. Artists often struggle to maintain their professional practice while balancing physical well-being, spiritual and emotional wellness and healthy relationships with family and friends. An even more confounding notion of sustainability is the tug between the wellness of people and the planet. Is sustainability even possible? How do we know it when we see it, or measure it when we think we’ve discovered it?
In 1989, Wendell Berry wrote a short essay entitled “Nature as Measure.” In this piece, Berry investigated a common theme throughout his writing – what he called the decline of farming in America and the need to restore the integrity of land. He made then, what is a still relevant case for measuring the wellness of farmland holistically instead of by simply quantifying land by what it produces:
For many years, as a nation, we have asked our land only to produce, and we have asked our farmers only to produce. We have believed that this single economic standard not only guaranteed good performance but also preserved the ultimate truth and rightness of our aims. We have bought unconditionally the economists’ line that competition and innovation would solve all problems, and that we would finally accomplish a technological end-run around biological reality and the human condition. (5)
As any reader of Wendell Berry knows, he believes that this “single economic standard” – production – has stripped the land of its well-being, food of its nutrition and farmers of their dignity. But he offers an alternative, to “replace that standard by one that is more comprehensive: the standard of nature” ( 6). Berry goes on to define what he means by “nature” and a contemporary reader will smile at the lack of the word that is now so common to us; for what he describes is what we imagine sustainability in agriculture might look like:
Farming cannot take place except in nature; therefore, if nature does not thrive, farming cannot thrive. But we know too that nature includes us. It is not a place into which we reach from some safe standpoint outside it. We are in it and are a part of it while we use it. If it does not thrive, we cannot thrive. The appropriate measure of farming then is the world’s health and our health, and this is inescapably one measure. (7)
But rather than dismiss this text as a youthful Berry, declaring a solution to a problem that existed in the past, I read this text with dismay. How can this passionate truth-telling still feel so relevant now, nearly 30 years later? How is it possible that we have not moved towards a different system when the evidence of a failing agricultural model was so convincing in 1989? And, as I sat with the careful, yet earnest meaning of his words, I discovered another truth embedded in the text, one that felt close, and worrying.
If what Berry says is true of land – that to measure it by a “single economic standard” – its productivity – is to fundamentally “abuse” the privilege of using the land, then what am I to think of the standard expected from artists? Is it not the expectation of all artists to produce? The reality of his words, when applied to my own kind of cultivation – that of spirit, mind and material – sent shock waves through my sense of purpose as an artist. We produce words, images, sounds, objects. We make theatrical productions, dance productions, musical productions. We produce films, we produce books and comics. We are cultural producers. An artist that doesn’t make, is not an artist. Similar to farming (think of the produce section of any grocery store), the idea of production is so firmly implanted in our vocabulary about art making, that I wondered if there was actually any other means for thinking about what I do. Is it even possible to conceive of an alternative way of art making without the frame of production/productivity? I know no examples of artists who reached professional success without a curriculum vitae filled with pages of things produced. But surely, there are artists out there who do amazing work, following their passions, without placating to the demands of productivity by the system in which they are working? Perhaps there are, but many of the artists I know who consider themselves “outsiders” to the art world and its economic systems, support themselves through some other means beside their creative endeavors – or someone else supports them, and this skirts the issue of sustainability altogether. So is it even possible to be a professional artist and live a sustainable life? If I couldn’t imagine an alternative, it seemed possible that what I expected of myself – to create art in a system that places value on quantity and quality of culture produced – was the very reason that sustainability seemed so distant. And what of the work? How can art continue to thrive in such a system?
But naturally, I discovered that just as Berry provided an answer to the same confounding problem in agriculture, there is some comfort to be found for artists there, too. What would happen if I simply replaced a few of his words with ones relevant to art in order to reflect an artist’s version of the solution to the production problem? What if Berry’s text read instead, “Art cannot take place except by an artist; therefore, if the artist does not thrive, art making cannot thrive…. The appropriate measure of art making then, is the world’s health and our health, and that is inescapably one measure.”
While Berry was addressing the agricultural system specifically, what he points to in reality, is a sustainable world where all parts are considered as “inescapably one measure.” The wellness of our bodies must not suffer because of our professional endeavors, and our wellness is connected to the wellness of the planet. Artwork, or farming, or teaching or medicine cannot be perceived as beautiful, or interesting or helpful if basic needs are not met. In fact, if art making or any human endeavor, follows the path of industrialized agriculture, we can only assume that it, too, will lose its flavor and nutrition. So, my first priority, before I consider the works I produce, must be the wellness of my body, spirit and relationships. When that becomes the priority, I have to trust that the art will follow and it will be of a superior quality and depth of meaning. The question, of course, is how to do this when it directly pushes up against the angry tide of the demands of production?
I don’t have a clear answer for the farmers and artists out there seeking a more sustainable life, except to say that through my experiments with shifting my mentality away from the work I produce and towards what I call “creative wellness,” I have found a freedom in my creative process that feels new and refreshing, and surprising, even delightful results in my studio. I’ll also leave you with one more thought from Wendell Berry’s 1989 essay. In his conclusion, he likens an effective system – one that takes into consideration the wellbeing of all its parts – to the call and response of a conversation. In a respectful conversation, farmers would ask of the land and the land will have a reply. A dialogue, he rightly points out, is a two-way system, which is a far cry from the singular demand of economic productivity. He says of this conversational system,
In a conversation, you always expect a reply. And if you honor the other party to the conversation, if you honor the otherness of the other party, you understand that you must not expect always to receive a reply that you foresee or a reply that you will like. A conversation is immitigably two-sided and always to some degree mysterious; it requires faith. (8)
Faith – the most mysterious of all human urges – is the necessary ingredient to moving towards sustainable systems. However, this kind of faith, a faith in what feels like the impossible, requires imagination. And the conversation – the complex dialogue we have to foster in a divided world – will fail without the ability to navigate nuance and complexity.
So perhaps what we are really talking about is that mysterious territory between reality and imagination – the intangible and immeasurable parts of the human condition that artists dwell upon. Conversation, rightly described by Berry, does not always follow the expected path. Who better to consult, then those who travel the highways of human spontaneity and expression? Artists write, paint, compose, sculpt and dance the conversations that cannot be spoken in any other way. They tread between the now and the future with a dexterity that will become increasingly essential to the survival of our planet and our way of life. Artists, simply put, are prophets of the faith that is required for systemic social change. Berry says, “The use of nature as measure proposes an atonement between ourselves and our world, between economy and ecology, between the domestic and the wild” (7). Without artists negotiating this atonement, I believe that a vision of sustainability will remain only that – a vision.
Berry, Wendell. Bringing it to the table : on farming and food. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009.