I reckon Ian’s broad definition of art is a useful provocation:
1. Art is action which changes the culture.
2. This action can be undertaken by anyone.
When operating with a definition like this, it’s perhaps worth reiterating point 2: cultural change is not the sole domain of special professionals from the current narrowly-defined “artworld”.
However, the interesting and tricky thing about this kind of definition is that the folks who are most effective in producing cultural change are often not particularly worried, one way or the other, about being defined as artists. Either it’s not very important to them to show up in the artworld, or the stuff they do doesn’t look like the kinds of things the artworld normally accepts. And in this way, the myth that art is the domain of special professionals operating within the “artworld” continues.*
For the purposes of this here Yeomans Project, we’re operating on the presumption (and gathering evidence for the notion) that Percy Yeomans was this sort of artist, vigorously working to change (agri)culture through actions and words.
Operating in Yeomans’ tradition in Australia today are Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar, who with their young son Ashar live up in Mudgee. A while ago, Kirsten and Nick did define themselves as artworld-artists, and they popped up quite often with high-profile video installations, projection performances and gallery shows. But for about five years now, they have eased away from all that stuff, and gone into… farming. And since Nick and Kirsten aren’t particularly active in promoting themselves as artists right now, the artworld has, to a large extent, stopped paying attention to them.
Not that this matters a great deal to their project of cultural change. As Milkwood Permaculture, they have been using all the skills acquired over their years working in the artworld (and many more acquired since) to make an even bigger impact. By setting up their own farm as a “case study research project”, and running dozens of educational courses for their peers, Milkwood is exploring how we might live our lives differently.
Importantly, they’re not seceding from society, or dropping out like luddites up in the hills. They’re actively involved in urban transformation (running courses and gathering communities together in Sydney as well as out in the country) and they do a lot of it using the web. Their blog is particularly effective (and aesthetically satisfying) as an ongoing critical reflection as they transform their bit of “clapped out” into a thriving food forest…
How does this relate to Yeomans?
I’ve been reading Yeomans’ little green book from 1971, The City Forest: The Keyline Plan for the Human Environment Revolution. For the first half of the book, Yeomans discusses the fundamentals of his Keyline design ideas… But towards the end, he includes a passionately written chapter called, rather innocuously, “The Family Farm”. In this chapter he talks about the return to small-scale (but commercially productive) organic farming as a ‘rebel’ activity in the face of large-scale chemical agriculture.
As I was reading it, I was thinking of Milkwood. It’s like Yeomans was predicting their move from Melbourne to Mudgee, thirty years in advance, when he writes that “a successful Human Environment Revolution will depend on youth and the ‘rebel’ farmer.”
For Yeomans, being a “rebel farmer” is not just about growing organic vegies. It’s about a conscious process of influencing culture. This process involves actively publishing, educating, community building: bringing together farming families and “young people”. Yeomans is very keen on youth – whose uptake of these ideas he sees as key to the transformation:
A necessary first step is for the two groups of critically important people [farmers and youth] to get together and to get to know each other. The place of meeting should be on the good land of the farmers.”
Milkwood is not just altering the use of their bit of land. They are doing that (as Yeomans himself did, using his own family farm in Western Sydney for a major case-study).
But just as Yeomans did, the Milkwood family farm is simultaneously wrangling all the arts of contemporary communication media they can, to gently nudge at the culture beyond the boundaries of their own farm gate.
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* It’s possible that this attempt to redefine art is a bit futile. Coming, as Ian and I do, from the artworld, any redefinition we make is merely an expansion of the artworld definition to incorporate activities which hitherto were outside the artworld. Hence it’s not really a redefinition but a loosening of the boundaries.
But I think the thing we’ve been getting at, in our recent discussions with each other about this stuff, is something like a return to the understanding of art which you get in phrases like “the art of cooking” or “the art of motorcycle maintenance”.
Art in this sense means an activity done skillfully and in a way which, to some extent, shifts the goalposts. In Yeomans’ case, you could talk about “the art of agricultural innovation”. What cannot be left out when thinking about these arts, I would say, is their aesthetics, meaning the way that they are carried out: their material economies, their social ethics, their physical forms.