It’s a word that actually does not exist at all in German: “degrowth”, a neologism that has been commonplace in the English-speaking world for some years, but can only be rendered in German by paraphrase-type constructions. That means there is often talk, and has been for some time, about “growth critique” or about the somewhat more zeitgeisty term of “post-growth”. “Growth reversal” would be another (quite literal but rather awkward) variant, while “growth decline” does not really hit the mark, since it would suggest some kind of almost automatic shrinkage that would not do justice to the active dimension of the term.
What is behind this? And what does all this have to do with the arts sector? Even in the face of mounting crises, growth and prosperity are still among the fundamental ideological constants of our supposedly post-ideological age. Not a month goes by without new growth forecasts being held up as a warning, as if the happiness of the (Western) world hung solely on this thread. The current war in Ukraine and the energy crisis it has triggered have intensified this once again, as if through a kind of magnifying glass, now perceptible to all citizens in Europe (and beyond, of course). If “degrowth” had been pursued earlier, one might state cynically, the current situation might not be so problematic, except of course for the catastrophic damage currently being inflicted on people in Ukraine.
In any case, it is growth and prosperity that play a critical, indisputable role in movements that seek a change of course such as those related to a climate, energy and mobility transition. Attention is seldom paid to art and culture in this context, or to the question of how the cultural field relates to the aforementioned ideological patterns. Nonetheless, ever since the limits to growth have been addressed in the economic and socio-political field – a debate that goes back to the 1960s – there has been a tendency for the focus to turn as well to questioning agendas within the culture industry (and their large-scale embedding of artistic practice). Admittedly, the question of why everything must constantly grow larger, more expansive and better, also in artistic and cultural terms, was of rather secondary importance, especially in prosperous times. However, in the context of the critique of growth that is now picking up speed again, art institutions and many practitioners in this field are also beginning to question the mantra of permanent enrichment and increase.
That concerns many aspects, from waste of resources and the unsustainable nature of the cultural sector to contemporary art’s still unchecked expansionist thrust, along with the problem of how individual artistic work can resist the growth dogma or criticize it meaningfully. What course is steered by a company that claims to be committed to the oft-demanded Green Deal, yet in reality contributes to maintaining a status quo that is anything but “green”? How could the desire to avoid being forced into constant expansion and growth be implemented effectively?
The De-Growth issue seeks to address all these questions from multiple perspectives. In her overview essay, Daphne Dragona aims to draw up a kind of inventory of the art field. Which promising approaches have already been adopted here in the past? What is the source of the urgency within current practice about placing increasing emphasis on issues around resource consumption and life cycle assessment? And which showcase projects merit a mention, understood pars pro toto and without any claim to completeness? Dragona’s consistently sober findings suggest that the art business may be heading for an elementary split on the question of growth, with capital-intensive business-as-usual on the one hand and growth-critical, resource-conserving low-budget art on the other.
Ulrich Brand’s piece addresses the foundations of the critique of growth in sociology and political science. Brand, co-author of the seminal Imperiale Lebensweise (2017), explains the many ways in which it would be necessary to break with the still dominant capitalist growth imperative to bring about profound socio-ecological changes. Although that kind of transformation is being talked about in many places, hardly anyone dares to imagine what it would take in tangible terms in relation to their own lives.
Andrea Vetter presents a thought experiment on this question in eight memorable steps. At the end – without giving too much away – he presents the insight that every practical living environment, no matter how humdrum, contains what is dubbed a convivial technology at its core. In her field study on the situation concerning raw materials in Latin America, Kristina Dietz underlines that this cannot simply be equated with switching to “green energy”, while also pointing out the new, equally disastrous forms of extractivism that switch entails. Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki engage in an even more fundamental discussion, drawing on such different situations as the Ukraine war or the space programs of a handful of the super-rich and considering the fatal economic-ecological downward spirals that are currently being set in motion and will prove difficult to halt.
Finally, philosopher Frédéric Neyrat presents a daring proposal on how it may be possible to escape the Anthropocene’s “effective constructivism”, which is currently dragging so much to rack and ruin with it. Neyrat’s idea of dismantling the (growth-obsessed) world is also echoed in several visual contributions in this issue, most of which are taken from this year’s documenta. A more differentiated look at that show and its largely one-sided and curtailed reception is planned for the next issue, which will be published in December.