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  • Ihor Biloushchenko

From Anthropocentrism to self demolition

Can art give the way out?

I think, therefore I am

René Descartes

Humans are probably the only species who oscillate between the two narratives: believing they are the center of the universe and doubting their place in the world, speaking of a better earth without humans. Can these questions help us to progress toward a higher state of humanism or do we keep balancing on the edge of self-destruction? How do artists look at it?


Maybe anthropocentric ideas have been around long before but classically we can start with the Aristotelian belief that humans with the capacity to rationalize everything g are on the top of the hierarchical ladder. Later religious tradition solidified the notion of human exceptionalism because the human was seen as being created in the image of the divine.

The Renaissance celebrated human potential, knowledge, and creativity. During the Enlightenment, humanism took the center stage. But I dare to assume that the doubt started somewhere here. René Descartes, with his famous dictum "Cogito, ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am), placed the individual human mind at the core of knowledge and existence. This critical introspection questioned the assumptions of human centrality and exceptionalism. The self-reflection and doubt grew even more in 19th and 20th century. Charles Darwin's theory situating us as a part of the natural world. Sigmund Freud delved into the depths of the human psyche, revealing hidden motivations and complexities that defied our rational self-image. Until we reach Rachel Carson who highlighted the consequences of human actions, signaling that our dominance often results in ecological imbalance.

Although humanism brought better self-understanding and gave higher value to human life we realize that our dominance brings only ecological imbalance and looms the threat of our own destruction. It brings us even more to the self doubt and existential frustration.

What does art do with it?

Through the ages artists always expressed their impressions and thoughts about the society and often played a role of a mirror to humanity. In contemporary art I can define various paths artists chose to focus on. Of course with the time some artists add more questions or even change their main aspects.


Dystopian narratives have always served as cautionary tales, warning us of the consequences of unchecked human ambition. George Orwell's "1984," Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," and more recently, "Blade Runner 2049," present perfectly organized worlds that conceal totalitarian futures, fueled by industrialization and artificial intelligence. These works compel us to scrutinize the price of human dominance.

Jenny Holzer is one of the visual artists who works with the issues of power, control, and the ways information is spread in the digital age. In her work series of 2007, like “Blue Purple Tilt," she puts the key words so that we keep asking ourselves how much freedom do we still have in this world, because even words are under surveillance.


At the same time there are artists who still hope for a better humanity. For example, if we look at the older work like Guernica by Pablo Picasso, we see that although he is extremely disappointed in the humanity and is shocked by the barbarism of war, he still hopes to educate the humanity to look at it and draw conclusions. Unfortunately, we continue to face different interpersonal issues.

In 2017 Jordan Peele in his movie “Get Out” confronts us with the still existing racism uncomfortably placed in a modern context. In the same year Greta Gerwig in the film “Lady bird” tries to balance between the struggles of a young woman and the hopes for a better future of family, friendship and self-identity.


Other artists focus on ecological problems. The climate is constantly changing but we assume the recent changes confront us with the consequences of the human existence. Bong Joon-Ho’s film “Okja” can be seen as the reaction on the ecological consequences in a sweet and joyful manner. He critiques the meat industry and its impact on the environment, while highlighting the possibility of a bond between human and nature.

A lot of visual artists work with these questions as well. Alicja Kwade, for example in her works “WeltenLinie” 2018 challenges perception of reality and explores the relationship between humans and the natural world. Olafur Eliasson in "Ice Watch” brought real icebergs from Greenland to urban centers, drawing attention to the urgent issue of melting ice caps and climate change.


Some artists go even further by creating a new world breaking as many traditional norms as possible. Some artists don't adhere to any single ideology, choosing instead to question the very foundations of our beliefs. Their work challenges the dichotomy of humanism versus ecological responsibility, forcing us to confront our own contradictions.

In visual art probably the most iconic work is the “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp, which consisted of a urinal, questioned traditional notions of art and challenged the authority of art institutions.

Yorgos Lanthimos - "The Lobster" (2015) comedy challenges the societal pressure to be in a romantic relationship, depicting a dystopian world where single people must find a partner within 45 days or be transformed into an animal. Barbara Kruger’s “Untitled (Your body is a battleground)” powerful artwork challenges societal norms and the objectification of women's bodies, inviting viewers to critically examine gender roles.

In the contemporary oscillation between the importance and disturbance of humanity artists, force us to confront uncomfortable truths about our place in the world.

Do we as humanity stand on a crossroad? Which path do we have to take towards a more harmonious coexistence—with ourselves, with the planet, and with the universe?


References and further reading:

Carson, R. (1962). Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Murray.

Descartes, R. (1637). Discourse on the Method. Ian Maire.

Freud, S. (1915). The Interpretation of Dreams. S. Fischer Verlag.

Orwell, G. (1949). 1984. Secker & Warburg.

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