Jim Carter

Among the demands made of me by the unfolding environmental crisis is that I question the validity of my consumerist behaviours as they impinge upon threatened nature. What am I willing to risk to maintain personal norms, and which is the greater sacrifice: choosing to depart from neglectful practices that govern my interactions with other species, or to persist in my part in their subjugation? Defining my situation in these terms might lead, in light of a defence of a sacrificial aesthetic, to a disparity between the need to expound clear ethics and an artistic approach that legitimises iconoclasm, mythic reductionism and poetic reverie. Ecological ethics exists in part to stimulate better practice whereas the sacrificial would seem to advocate the exploitation of animals in order to serve human avarice. In this respect, it would seem no different from consumerist attitudes to other species of which my practice is so critical.

We should not be surprised if support of a primitive and spiritually oriented philosophy comes amidst voices of warning. Wolfi Landstreicher has criticized the ‘ascetic morality of sacrifice or of a mystical disintegration into a supposedly un-alienated oneness with Nature’, which appears in anarcho-primitivism. Such perceived weaknesses are part of an overriding critique that it is idealistic, motivated by the construction of a superior world of innocence whilst being hostile towards civilization.

Ken Wilber holds that atavistic concepts may not provide the understanding necessary for resolving ecological problems. They are deemed incomplete because they involve sentiments that fail to appreciate the accomplishments of modernity. Wilber expresses concern that efforts to recover insights from archaic religions invites regression to undifferentiated psychological states, for they exhibit what he calls a one-dimensional, flatland ontology. In his view, the solution to our divorce from nature lies not in returning to primitive beliefs, but rather in moving ahead and reintegrating what has been disassociated.

Although far from being a mystical impulse inviting homogeneity, it is important I acknowledge my artistic credo as one conditioned by the prejudices of Western cultural ideas. Mine must needs be a Eurocentric response to what are, in part, extra-European or, wholly, extra-temporal forms of art. Annie Paul writes that a common response is that, for the Westerner, the primitive artist represents the noble savage, ‘a superior sensibility trapped in prehistoric circumstances’; conversely, the modern artist is stereotyped as the savage noble, one who draws riches from the past and who can ‘tap into the collective unconscious by courting the irrational and systematically flouting convention.’ Further, Sally Price, citing Edmund Carpenter’s commentary on the contexts of primitive art, highlights the arrogance of claims that it is more authentic and elemental than our own. Carpenter quotes Henry Moore’s conviction that primitive art’s primary concern is with the elemental and the simple, qualities arising from direct feelings and a sense of life’s intense vitality. For Carpenter, however, such statements are erroneous, for he goes on to remark that ‘no matter how naked a people, no matter how tormented their situation, no one lives an “elemental,” “simple,” “direct,” “immediate” life. People everywhere are pattern-makers and pattern-perceivers; they live in symbolic worlds of their own creation’.

Jürgen Kremer has argued that such sentiments fail to consider that primitive peoples have something important to say to contemporary humanity. By virtue of their footing in concepts of permeability and fluidity, their worldview, as recognised by Jean Clottes, approximates to an animistic mode of perception that makes it distinct from modern evaluations of animals as expendable: .

Fluidity means the categories that we have - man, woman, horse, tree, etc. - can shift. A tree may speak. A man can get transformed into an animal […] The concept of permeability is that there are no barriers […] between the world where we are and the world of spirits […] When you put those two concepts together, you realize how different life must have been for those people.

Perhaps an outcome of the tension that exists between modern humanity and the primitive worldview is an impasse, because primitivism, as Michael Bell writes, ‘is born of the interplay of the civilised self and the desire to reject or transform it.’ The sacrificial act is for me this moment of struggle between two forms of consciousness: on the one hand an anthropocentric mind-set, self-serving and increasingly ineffective, and on the other a sense of nature as sacred and inextricably linked to human affairs. Laurens Van de Post observed that the primitive ‘lives on in each one of us through an indefinable guilt’, but if we can make ‘his sort of being contemporary, by linking that which was first with what is new [we] do work of cosmic importance.’ Part of my work is to evolve an arts practice that revivifies animistic notions of the world, thereby contributing to a shift in behaviour that illumines the animal and promotes ecological health.