The Geological Present: A Critique of the Aesthetic Anthropocene
This thesis is a response to an emergent discourse on the relationship between the visual arts and the Anthropocene. The latter—the stratigraphic designation for a new geological epoch—has accrued a popularity within the contemporary art-world that is rarely afforded to a concept from the earth sciences. The uptake in Anthropocene-themed exhibitions, publications, and think-pieces reflects the concept’s promise of an art-making and art-critical methodology that may foster a revised relationship to nature in the age of climate change. Despite the new-found fashionability of the term, this relationship between art and the Anthropocene has neither been comprehensively demonstrated, nor disproved. Consequently, the purpose of this thesis is to undertake this necessary interrogation. Firstly, this is an engagement with the competing philosophies and intentions that have attached themselves to the Anthropocene label as it progressed from a straightforward geological statement, into a profound suite of assertions regarding the relationship of humanity to our planet. The influence of the posthumanist ecological philosopher, Timothy Morton, is a particular focus for understanding what the aesthetic theory of the Anthropocene consists of. Taken together, this theory is a promise of a new relationship with the natural world through the jettisoning of Romantic fantasies of nature in favour of an engagement with a sub-discursive, material world. Secondly, this theory is read against ecologically conscious contemporary art works. The practices of Pierre Huyghe, Simon Starling, and Conor Clarke speak to the same concerns as the aesthetic Anthropocene. Reading these works through the lens offered by the stratigraphic concept investigates and tests the capability of the aesthetic Anthropocene for delivering its promises of an art without nature, and a new engagement with our environments. Ultimately, the innovations of the aesthetic Anthropocene are novel, plentiful, but unconvincing. As a theory, it is beset by flaws and contradictions which undermine its applicability and critical potential. Consequently, ecologically conscious art does little to reflect the aims and aspirations of the aesthetic Anthropocene, rendering it an unhelpful tool for understanding the geological present.