Only Human? and what of autonomy?

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Thom Van Dooren quotes (p. 141) Val Plumwood saying,

When we hyperseparate ourselves from nature and reduce it conceptually, we not only lose the ability to empathise and to see the non-human sphere in ethical terms, but also get a false sense of our own character and location that includes an illusory sense of agency and autonomy. (Plumwood 2009:117)

Van Dooren is seeking to challenge the idea of human exceptionalism – that we stand above nature. He highlights aspects of the philosophical tradition particularly referencing Heidegger, though the trajectory is at least 400 years (Descartes would be another figure, but wouldn’t we need to go back to the Greeks) – Western philosophy has insistently sought the distinction between man and animal.

But for a moment I want to focus on the artistic tradition, and in particular Val Plumwood’s word ‘autonomy.’

In the modern tradition, artists’ autonomy has been linked with criticality and has authorised the artist (across artforms but for the purposes of this argument thinking through visual art) to reflect on society, whether that is Manet, Picasso, Kaprow or Jeremy Deller. In the practice of art this autonomy, this ability to reflect, comment and critique society through art is important, but in broader cultural terms we might want to question whether the artist becomes the poster child or flag bearer that has contributed to a wider idea of human autonomy?

Thinking of Van Dooren’s long history of human exceptionalism, Giorgio Vasari‘s construction of Michelangelo’s life might be a key point, in parallel with the philosophical tradition. Vasari asserts Michelangelo’s genius as being so great that he can break any rule,

So Michelangelo produced a design of incomparable richness, variety, and originality, for in everything he did he was in no need of architectural rules, either ancient or modern, being an artist with the power to invent varied and original things as beautiful as those of the past. (p.397)

That this genius could surpass nature,

To be sure, if the enmity that exists between fortune and genius, between the envy of the one and the skill of the other, had allowed this work to be completed, then art would have demonstrated that it surpassed nature in every way. (p.369)

That Michelangelo releases artists from limitations,

In this all artists are under a great and permanent obligation to Michelangelo, seeing that he broke the bonds and chains that had previously confined them to the creation of traditional forms. (p.366)

And finally that the artist is categorically exceptional,

Moreover, he [God] determined to give this artist the knowledge of true moral philosophy and the gift of poetic expression, so that everyone might admire and follow him as their perfect exemplar in life, work, and behaviour and in every endeavour, and he would be acclaimed as divine. (p.325)

Perhaps in questioning human exceptionalism, artists need to question the way their autonomy reads as part of wider dominant Western cultural assumptions? Perhaps criticality needs to be turned on autonomy and exceptionalism? There is a long history to our culture which now finds itself extinguishing so much with so little thought.

Van Dooren reframes the situation through mourning (p.144),

In this context, mourning with crows is about more than any single species, or any number of individual species, but must instead be a process of relearning our place in a shared world: the evolutionary continuities and the ecological connectivities that make our lives possible at all.

Join us on Sunday 16 November for Thom Van Dooren‘s session 12.30-14.00 James Arnott Theatre, Gilmorehill Halls, part of the Only Human Glasgow programme.

Van Dooren, Thom, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, Columbia University Press, 2014

Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Artists, Penguin 1982/1965

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