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Art world economics and spiritual transcendence in Zima Blue

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

The following is a paper I gave at Productive Futures: The Political Economy of Science Fiction held at Birkbeck, University of London, in April 2019. Productive Futures was the 2019 theme for a conference that is hosted yearly by the London Science Fiction Research Community. You can find out more about future conferences and the monthly reading group at their FB page.

Zima Blue

Zima Blue is a ten minute animation produced as part of the Netflix series Love, Death and Robots. It is based on a short story by Alastair Reynolds with the same name. In a series that is otherwise preoccupied with gore violence and sex, the production of this episode stands apart: the stylish animation is enhanced by a soundtrack and voice work that are both exceptional, completely bringing Clare and Zima to life.

The eerily-beautiful story follows a journalist - Claire Markham - who has received an invitation to give a rare interview with the universally-renowned artist Zima Blue: it is the first time he has spoken to the press in 100 years. As Claire travels to meet Zima, she recollects his life story. He rose to fame painting vast murals, upon which began to appear a tiny geometric shape in his trademark colour - Zima Blue. The shapes grew in size until eventually they eclipsed the rest of the canvas, at which point Zima began to make even more ambitious works, for example painting a whole planetary ring.

When Claire meets Zima he explains that he has invited her because he is about to make his final artwork. He then recounts his real life story that has, until this point, been a secret. Zima actually began life as a small robot designed to clean a swimming pool. Various owners modified the robot, and it became more and more human, until eventually developing its own agency. And with agency, the robot - Zima - began to paint.

Zima explains to Claire that the trademark blue in all his works is the colour of the swimming pool tiles that he knew when he was a tiny robot. For Zima’s final work he has reconstructed the swimming pool. In the stunning ending sequence of the animation, in front of an audience of thousands, Zima dives into the pool and dismantles himself, becoming once again the robot servitor which starts to clean the pool.

Chapter one: Zima Blue and art world economics

This paper is divided into two chapters. In the first chapter I want to use Zima Blue as a mirror for our own art world in order to identify some of the underpinning assumptions that allow it to operate economically and aesthetically. In particular the commodification of art and the idea of the genius. In the second part of this paper, I explore two bodies of theoretical work that may point towards utopian solutions to some of the grosser problems identified in the first chapter.

Evidently, the backdrop of Zima Blue is an exaggerated version of our own art world. In Reynolds' short story for example, Zima’s last work is staged in a future Venice - actually the one-hundred and seventy-first known duplicate of Venice made entirely in white marble. We are told that, “expense was never a problem, since Zima had many rival sponsors who competed to host his latest and biggest creation.” Following William Gibson’s view that science fiction is firstly about the present, I’d like to extrapolate from Zima Blue two key things it tells us about the art world. These two themes naturally intersect.

1: Art is inextricably linked to capital

A projection on the side of the Guggenheim art museum by the artist-activist groups Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) and The Illuminator, in protest against the expansion of the Guggenheim franchise in Abu Dhabi, and specifically highlighting the plight of extremely low-paid migrant labour required to construct the new museum spaces and the lack of workers rights.

When we talk about the art world, we are referring to:

“A vertiginous 56 billion dollar art market in a globally dispersed field where there are more artists, and more artworks being produced, than perhaps ever before in history. And yet, much as things are with the neoliberal economy in general, this art world concentrates value amongst a small number of champions, leaving the majority to serve as its system of barely recognised reproduction and maintenance.” (Gregory Sholette - Delirium and Resistance)

Ignoring the astronomical number of low paid people who support the art industry in other ways, from cleaning staff to customer service roles, I want to share some statistics, which are indicative of a trend. This is based on an Arts Council survey undertaken in 2016 for professional visual artists in the UK; of the 2000 people surveyed: “Only 3% of artists indicate that their art income is sufficient to live on comfortably, with a further 7% indicating that it is enough to live on but only barely. Therefore 90% of artists do not earn enough from art practice to support their livelihood."

This is a graph based on the data from the Arts Council survey. The numbers on the bars indicate the percentage of people whose earnings from their art practice fall in that bracket, with 63% of artists surveyed making between zero and five thousand pounds per annum.

Adding a crude line of best fit, the shape is made more clear. I was originally expecting a pyramid but in fact it is an upside-down funnel. I suspect we would find this shape in many of the creative industries - such as film, fashion, music - where a minute fraction are extremely wealthy and the vast majority form the base of the shape.

In trying to research whether this particular shape has a more exact name beyond funnel or horn, I stumbled across this diagram which felt very apt. Based on one particular theory of the Universe, I think it ports quite nicely to our discussion of capitalist inequality. The curious factors are that if you attempt to escape the funnel from the bottom you merely return to the other side, and also those at the top of the funnel are too distant to even observe. Zima of course does not have to worry about this as he is definitely at the infinitesimal point at the very tip of the horn.

2: The artist as genius

There is an interesting reflection in the short story version of Zima Blue, “but I couldn't help wondering how many people were buying the pictures because of what they knew about the artist, rather than because of any intrinsic merit in the works themselves.” In the animation, Claire mentions Zima’s Blue Period in an allusion to Picasso; however, the artist Zima is most indebted to is Yves Klein. Here is a picture of Klein leaping into space:

Klein famously trademarked his own colour blue: International Klein Blue or IKB. Most of his works are monochrome paintings or sculpture in IKB.

Of the colour blue, Klein said: “Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colors are not... All colors bring forth specific associative ideas, tangible or psychological, while blue suggests, at most, the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual nature what is most abstract."

Perhaps more than any other artist Klein embodies the grandiosity of the avant-garde impulse, continually seeking to go beyond. He is known for his gestures and showmanship: works in which he released 1001 blue helium balloons into the atmosphere, or traded gold leaf for a zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility. And of course, the grossly problematic performances in which naked women were used as living paintbrushes while an orchestra played a monotone symphony.

The history of Western art is predicated on the idea of genius: when artworks become a commodity then the artist becomes a trusted brand. The worship of the artist as a solitary genius therefore plays directly into the hands of the art-as-capital game. A model that celebrates just a very few artists, also has the benefit of being entertaining - it privileges large personalities and drama, as well as good-looks and a savvy approach to the media. Of course as well within these networks is embedded a mine-field of prejudice based on poverty, gender, race etc.

Fame in the arts operates in a similar way to the financial disparity we saw in the previous section. The fame or notoriety of a few is attained at the cost of an enormous number of comparatively unknown artists. The disappointment that results from this is perhaps more heightened than ever in our current generation, affected as we are by deeply entrenched views of individualism, including the belief that if we try hard enough we can get what we want. A culture that focuses on the success of a few key individuals is blind to the wider interconnected networks necessary for any success, not only ones artistic peers, but also the manufacturers of oil paint, the cleaning staff, or the gallery sales team.

That’s not to discount the integrity of individual artistic praxis or search. In Klein’s case, while undoubtedly egotistical, the longing is deeply felt and religious in intensity. A prayer he left at a votive shrine - that he did not intend to be read - was opened years later. He had written:

“Saint Rita of Cascia, I ask thee to intercede with God the Almighty Father that he may always grant me in the name of the Son Jesus Christ and in the name of the Holy Spirit and of the Blessed Virgin Mary that I may live in my works and that they may become ever more beautiful.” (Klein)

Zima possesses a humility that Klein did not. Of his journeys through the outer cosmos, Claire narrates: “But what Zima realised is that the cosmos was already speaking its own truth far far better than he ever could.” The avant-gardism of Zima Blue cancels itself out in a beautifully symmetrical process. Zima’s quest for ever more profound artworks leads first to a great outward journey into the cosmos and secondly to an inward journey into his own past and the essence of his being. His final work, in which he reverts back into the cleaning robot which he began as, provides the climax for Zima Blue and also makes it, in its completeness, a beautiful spiritual parable. Zima’s happy acceptance of his final sacrifice hints at the integrity of his search. The circularity of the sequence as a whole is reminiscent of the spiritual path as conceived in many traditions, and I am reminded especially of the classic set of ten Zen Ox herding pictures.

These show a boy slowly taming an ox; the ox metaphorically representative of the boy's mind. As the ox gradually becomes more docile it changes in colour from black to white. In the eighth picture the ground falls away and both the ox and boy are floating on clouds. In the ninth picture the ox has disappeared, and in the final, tenth picture there is just an empty circle: both boy and ox have vanished.

For those who saw Caroline Edwards' keynote yesterday, Zima’s final words to Claire chime well with the durable joy that Ursula K. Le Guin talks about earned by “anyone doing needed work and doing it well.” Zima says: “To extract some simple pleasure from the execution of a task well done. My search for truth is finished at last.”

Chapter two: Utopian Alternatives

Zima Blue presents a galactically inflated but all too believable art world, one that depends on the commodification of both art and artist to an extraordinary degree. In her seminal text Utopia as Method, Ruth Levitas makes an argument for connecting the colour blue with utopian longing, and in this spirit, I want to briefly explore two bodies of theoretical work that speak to the problems that Zima Blue raises.

This is Joseph Beuys planting a tree in 1982 as a part of his Documenta project at Kassel for which he planted 7000 trees. This activity, along with his peripatetic teaching and sculpture, was folded into what he termed ‘social sculpture’: a praxis which united radical utopian vision with art making. In his lectures he said “this springs from a profound conviction on my part that no revolutionary force exists other than the creative power of humanity, of every person as an artist, and that this affirmation is not abstract but can be proved when ideology is stripped away.”

Beuys outlined in detail a utopian vision which required what he termed an upward evolution of money: “The only thing worth talking about is the creating of a new credit system, changing both the communist and the capitalist system, and the creation of a new and higher level of social cohesion, a new social order. This is the only way of working towards world peace.”

He expands on this:

“Money must be transformed into a juridical regulator of relations. That is, money must become a ‘juridical document’ in such a way that it is the elementary expression of democracy, and as a consequence, the whole banking system would be transformed into a democratic legal figure. Therefore as a juridical document that accompanies people's work processes, money would no longer be the real creator of the economy; instead the true capital would be art, that is, people's creativity, and it would become clear that this concrete capital is simply accompanied by a juridical document.”

Critics, such as Thierry Du Duve, have argued that Beuys’ proposed economic system presents a naive utopia, nevertheless, I think it casts some light on the social and economic structures necessary for art to exist outside of the bondage of capital.

The other theoretical concept that I want to bring in here especially as antidote to the idea of artist as genius is the anthropological term "communitas" developed by Edith and Victor Turner. Communitas is a self-consciously nebulous designation. Edith Turner favoured presenting a series of examples of communitas rather than a definition, though she described it as “a group’s pleasure in sharing common experiences with one’s fellows. This may come into existence anywhere… festivals, in music, in work situations, in times of stress, in disaster, in revolution, and in nature.” (Turner 2)

Communitas refers to situations where a community undergoes some kind of transitional or liminal period together in which usual hierarchical norms are forgotten temporarily. Therefore, communitas is an unstructured collective experience that is dependent on structure. The narrative that presents art history as a succession of heroic figures disavows the importance of community and wider networks of art production. It makes art something that is only accessible to a select few instead of being a fundamental power available to all. By reasserting the importance of communitas in the creation of art, it is possible to step beyond a solitary, competitive praxis into a more outwardly focused mode of work. Importantly: “Communitas...does not merge identities; the gifts of each and every person are alive to the fullest” (Turner 3). This is crucial in visioning an art-making that is communal and yet retains the freedom and integrity of individual expression. Most relevant to our discussion, communitas resists commodification. Turner says:

“Even though businesses and government institutions would dearly like to be able to construct it artificially, and have tried, such attempts have been hampered because there is an important principle at the heart of communitas, the inversion of the structural order and the abandonment of status and acquisition. Indeed, any hoped-for spreading of communitas for profit would ultimately fail.” (Turner 5)

The liberty offered by communitas is interlinked with the freedom garnered through creativity as capital. To return to Beuys:

“The most important part of creativity, or the most real part of the whole idea of creativity, is freedom. This has two sides to it. On the one hand, everyone has the freedom to act and to do something, and on the other hand, everyone is completely alone and you have to use all your power as an individual when you want to get closer to other people, to our brothers and sisters.” (Beuys 129)

It seems apposite to finish with these now well-known words from Ursula K. Le Guin’s address at the National Book Awards in 2014:

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art — the art of words… the name of our beautiful reward is not profit, it is freedom.”


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