The Artist in the Age of Anthropocene

Archeologists divide Earth’s history in a geologic time scale into a hierarchical series of smaller blocks of time. These divisions are called ages, epochs, periods, eras and eons based on Earth’s rock layers, or strata, and the fossils found within them. Scientists guess which parts of the geological record certain fossils belong to.

We are said to live in the Anthropocene Epoch — an unofficial geologic time. The official name is Holocene— an epoch said to have started almost 12,000 years ago.

The word Anthropocene is derived from the Greek words anthropo, for “man,” and cene for “new”. The basic question that scientists are trying to answer before declaring the Anthropocene an epoch is if humans have changed the Earth system to the point that it is reflected in the rock strata.

Key milestones in the horror history of humanity are  

  1. the advent of the Industrial Revolution — which accelerated climate change.
  2. The testing and dropping of the first atomic bomb on human communities — Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

The Challenge of Art: Between Wakefulness and Slumber

Art in the Age of the Anthropocene, is tied to human relationships to objects and materials and how these impact our environment. Read more here.
The Anthropocene clearly is an epoch in which human activity harms human habitation in ways that can be compared to a person willfully destroying his or her own home. The question confronting the artist is how to use his craft to wake up humanity to this cannibal inclination, reminding everyone of the African proverb which says that the man who burns his father’s house can only inherit the ashes.

We can also begin by questioning the purpose of arts — all creative forms: music, photography, fine arts, drama, poetry, prose, etc.

Do we have the luxury of seeing art as production without utility beyond generating revenue? Can we afford to develop aesthetic or beautify bullets, bombs and weapons of mass destruction forgetting about how these burst and annihilate dreams, lives and communities?

Could art in the Anthropocene challenge, organize and present alternatives to the current decadent system into which humanity has been sucked?

Can art recover the meaning of terminologies such as “sustainability” and even “development”?

We live in an age when vast chunks of humanity know with more certainty that they do not know why we are here on earth. At a mundane scale we do not even know where most objects around us came from. For the ones we are certain are man made we still grapple with basic questions as to why the objects were made, who made them, when were they made and who can afford them.

Art for Oppression or Liberation

The Anthropocene is arguably an epoch where objects are made with inbuilt obsolescence. We live in a throwaway culture. We live in a time when Nigeria and nations around us have become cemeteries of obsolete technologies of various kinds. We are the junkyard where purchasing scraps is a high gamble as to their utility.

What role can the artist play in reminding us of our humanity, of our proud history of creativity and high aesthetic skills? With humanity racing to the precipice, can art help pull the brakes? Can art challenge the rising poverty as well as erosion of moral bars?

Can art help stop the barbarism of genocide, Ecocide, apartheid and bare-faced war crimes?  How about rising green, blue and carbon colonialism via false climate solutions. 

Can art be the fulcrum of revolt against exploitative socio-economic relations? Can art boldly demand fundamental system change? What would that change look like?

Art as a Tool for Communicating Change

For us, one of the urgent questions of the Anthropocene is whether we can afford to indulge in art for art’s sake. To answer this question, we may have to examine which artistes, and/or their production have stood the test of time, have made positive contributions to the emancipation of peoples across the world. 

At this juncture we should ask ourselves some questions:

  1. What art piece most influenced you and your world view?
  2. Which musician stirred your conscience and demanded that you stand up to be counted?
  3. What do you learn when you reflect on the bronze artistic pieces of Benin Kingdom and why they were stolen?
  4. How best can you use your talent to communicate on the issues of our time— climate change, corruption, poverty, crime and violence?
  5. How can art build resilience in our time by propagating a counterculture?

The artist must take a stand. The artiste must make a choice. The battles raging in the tumultuous age of Anthropocene requires that no artist can afford to sit on the fence.

A talk by Nnimmo Bassey at Exposed! – A TellThatStory Conference, Benin City, Nigeria. 30 October 2023

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