Better quality images of ‘Progress…’ (2013/14)

Better quality images of ‘Progress…’, a large scale drawing I finished earlier in the year




I’d prefer not to have to state that this title is meant to have an irony to it, but I probably need to, as part of the reason I chose it is because if it was used for a similarly-composed landscape drawing made 50-70 years ago I believe the title could have been used without irony – and legitimately-so. Today, however, capitalist growth no longer has energies, which were usually oppositional, incorporated in it or pulled alongside it, that could fuse capitalism’s energies with progress, making for a better civilisation.

The opposite could be said to be true, since we moved firmly into this era of global financial capitalism, legitimised by neoliberal (market fundamentalist) theory. A relentless eroding-away of the social contract that was built up over the last two centuries in the first industrial states to protect individuals from the extremes of capitalism’s boom/bust cycles and market dynamics. Alongside this is an almost universal disintegration of a picture of a future worth inhabiting (something that wasn’t the case in capitalist societies 50-70 years ago), as the violence of profit-thirsty growth brings human life into conflict with itself, the environment, and internally, through the invisible mental illness epidemic.

The upwards-driven spiral in this drawing is two things at once. First of all it is an imaginary chronology of capitalism on planet earth, violently veering off a path made-steady by social and civic idealist demands and onto a hyper (‘feral’) capitalist path, severing its ties from reality, whilst dragging us all along with it. As, even though this is clearly a critique of what capitalism produces (and reduces things to), looking back at where this ‘break’ from what before occurred (at a series of points during the 1970′s and early 1980′s), I really do think that, despite the horrors its ‘invisible hand’ induced during the previous centuries, if we had transcended it at this stage, humanity could have taken stock of the then zenith of material plenty under capitalism, and said “we wouldn’t have what we have now without it, but now it is time to go beyond capitalism” (pretty much along the lines of what Karl Marx meant, that capitalism was the best thing and the worst thing to happen to humanity).

But at this very moment when I firmly believe profit-motivated dynamics were no longer needed, (at least here in the west) a progressive program should have been introduced to help us beyond capitalism (and according to Doreen Massey, what is forgotten by history is that there was plenty of ideas about how to do this). However, a trick was played on social evolution. And in hindsight we can see that although individuals were demanding more autonomy and individual freedom, we (to use a Will Self analogy) had “accepted a Trojan horse” gift; the ruling class had staged an ambush. This isn’t conspiracy theory: it’s about one class (the ruling class) working collectively to regain the ability to organise society in the way they thought it needed to organising. What we thus received was an even more ruthless, sociopathic capitalism, with diminishing social alternatives standing in its way, globally.

The second thing this upwards spiral shows is the social and environmental gradient, that gets harsher and more brutal towards the bottom, where so much is reduced to waste, both in economical and ecological meanings of the word. The protestant work-ethic has an increasingly religious grip over us (a violent dislike of the unemployed has emerged); it isn’t a coincidence that this is happening the same time as so many human beings are becoming surplus to needs of capitalism, no longer needed to exploit their labour, and are falling from all security nets towards an existence of utter destitution and state-sanctioned repression. As economist Guy Standing pointed out in his talk at the Leeds Tetley gallery, the UK Tory MP, Iain Duncan Smith (a figurehead for this extreme enforcement of the religion of work, work, work) has in speeches more or less repeated the same words that, written in German, were above the gates of one of western civilisation’s most extreme outcomes: “arbeit Macht Frei” (“work makes you free”), which was above the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp. But, without forgetting that the vulnerable/voiceless always get smashed first in such a system (the poor, the minorities, plant and animals life), let us not forget, that with total collapse of civilisation, which the dynamics currently driving will sometime no doubt lead to, no one is spared; all in this drawing are vulnerable, eventually, within this upwards spiral.

Up is also down in this drawing. The system, as much as it accelerates – faster and faster , also just accelerates entropy. It only reproduces itself as it drags everything crashing down to a primordial ‘dustland’. Capitalism works fine, whilst putting everything else into crisis, until there is nothing left to put into crisis. Indeed, the only buildings/objects visible in the ‘dustland’ within this drawing are icons from a time when civilisation could be said to be progressing – when our past believed in a future; space shuttles from a time when our frontier was space and not the inverted privatisation of our biology; symbols of times when an alternative world seemed on the horizon; towers and buildings for cities for citizens rather than cities for finance and elites.

The use of red pen colour always seems appropriate when depicting a landscape that shows a civilisation/a humanity/a planet running out of time. Perhaps it makes me think of the ‘red planet’ – Mars; earth’s next door neighbour in the Solar System. Mars is certainly a red barren ‘dustland’ and is also what the originator of the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock, argues could be the fate of planet earth if we make it so that earth’s co-operating eco-systems are no longer able to enable that thing we we call ‘the living planet’.

In fact, keeping in tune with the talk of Space and the planets here, you could interpret progress… as capitalism (and the generations of humans at its mercy) embodied as a space shuttle; elevating itself on the planet’s stored-up energies; veering off track and dragging  life (displaced and dismembered) with it, needing it as it bleeds it, like ripping a plant from the soil and then leaving it on the surface to starve of nutrients as ‘surplus to requirements’. And then add to this the powerful instrumental music piece evoking time speeding up, and then crashing, from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of The Moon, which will forever be the music that reminds me of the conception of this drawing, and you’ll maybe know, more or less where I’m coming from.

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About John Ledger

A visual Artist, eternal meanderer and obsessive self-reflector by nature, who can’t help but try to interpret everything from within the tide of society. His works predominantly take the form of large scale ballpoint pen landscape drawings and map-making as social/psychological note-making. They are slowly-accumulating responses to crises inflicted upon the self in the perplexing, fearful, empty, and often personality-erasing human world.

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