The material basis of art culture

About a week and a half ago or so, soon after I’d made my last blog post about synthetic organic pigments, I noticed an article that ran in the Business section of our local newspaper (yes, the physical kind). It was titled Oil Is Everywhere. (The article is online here.) Since it was relevant, I became interested and looked through. Here is a quote:

Oil is everywhere. It’s in carpeting, furniture, computers and clothing. It’s in the most personal of products such as toothpaste, shaving cream, lipstick and vitamin capsules. Petrochemicals are the glue of our modern lives and even in glue, too.


“It’s the material basis of our society essentially,” said Michael Wilson, a research scientist at the University of California Berkeley. “This is the Petrochemical Age.”

Well, all I can say is that it’s about time someone noticed.

Gasoline is what tends to come to mind when we think of petroleum, but it is only one of the many, many products made from it. The stuff really is everywhere. To see that this is true, we artists need look no further than the materials we use today in the creation of our art. If petroleum is the “material basis of our society,” then it is also the material basis of our art culture. Not only are the synthetic organic pigments discussed in the previous post made from hydrocarbons, but so are modern varnishes, modern “gesso” for our canvas, mediums, inks, dyes, mineral spirits (solvents), paintbrushes, and acrylic and alkyd paints.

In the long term, none of these – nor any other petrochemical product – can be considered sustainable. The current abundance of petroleum is a short-term accident of history and geology; one day its production will decline (or perhaps before that time we will simply decide to quit using so much of it for environmental reasons, but I’m not holding my breath). When petroleum production declines, so will our current art culture.

If you took away our petroleum-supplied art products, many of us would hardly know how to paint any longer. If the modern synthetic inorganic pigments that have only ever been made with hydrocarbon-driven industrial processes were also taken away, we’d be in dire straits indeed. We’ve lost much of the knowledge that would allow us to paint effectively and expressively with simpler materials – “Old Master” knowledge, if you will. Such is the extremity of our reliance upon the industrial machine in this age. Art has always been coupled with industry, since ancient Egypt at least, but now art is almost wholly dependent on it.

Of course, when peak oil passes and world oil production begins to decline, the world will be busy with far larger issues than those revolving around the tiny art materials industry. But personally, I can’t help caring what becomes of our art culture. I don’t want our knowledge of natural and homemade materials to deteriorate to the point where we no longer know what to do without the modern industrial products. This is one reason – one of many, now – that I’m on this path.


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