Amanda Boetzkes


On her book Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste

Cover Interview of November 13, 2019

The wide angle

The book’s primary tenet, that waste is defined in relation to the global economy of energy, derives from the French poet and surrealist Georges Bataille’s book, The Accursed Share, published in the late 1940s. Bataille suggested that organized societies inevitably produce a surplus of resources. In restricted economies, such as those that appeared under the competing political régimes of the twentieth century, this excess is expended in the form of destructive spoilage, such as war and global pollution. His analysis of the alternative, the general economy, suggests how societies might invoke ethical strategies of expenditure, such as sacrificial offerings, the ritualistic destruction of objects of value, or more pertinent to this study, the production and consumption of art. Bataille argues that systems gather energy in excess in order to expand. Inevitably, however the system is driven to expend this excess whether consciously and openly (as in generous wasting), or through the unpredictable disasters that result from suppressing this drive. His critique of capitalism is that it refuses energy expenditure and dictates only the consumption and stockpiling of energy thus generating ever more totalizing forms of destruction as the system expands.

The Accursed Share serves as a springboard into a wealth of other theories of waste discussed in the book. Bataille’s theory of economy has recently been investigated for its ecological potential. My book connects this new scholarship to the aesthetic history of contemporary art. I argue that artists are challenging the restricted economy that would conceal and disavow its systemic forms of waste. I therefore extend ecology theory in new directions by addressing aesthetic and cultural perceptions of human waste.

Often, when art is analyzed in relation to the political, scientific, or ecological climate, it is considered illustrative but not critical or formative. Plastic Capitalism suggests that art is constitutive of an ecological consciousness, and not simply an extension of it. Moreover, I interpret specific works with a view to showing how critical forms are an integral facet of the visual experience of art. The book insists on the centrality of contemporary art for the study of the ecological condition. It is not a survey of artists of this genre; rather it provides the tools for situating contemporary art in the disciplines of political ecology, energy humanities, environmental history, and eco-criticism.

In addition to giving an account of art, the book argues against a current trend in art history, cultural theory, and environmental studies that subsumes reflection on the aesthetic dimension under the domain of the “political” or “history.” While the book is certainly attuned to the prevailing political vectors of global ecology and makes these clear, it also provides a fresh perspective on the trajectories of ecological culture through the redistributions of the sensible world that art provides.