The last century has witnessed a faceoff between two contrasting food-production schemes. One favored large scale industrial farming; its goal was to maximize yields and its methods depended on powerful mechanical technologies and applications of chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. The other pursued the gardener’s intimate and nurturing interactions with plants and animals by emulating non-human strategies of growth and propagation. The farm straddles these opposing world views.
Industry, farm, and garden are society’s dominant forms of biological productivity. Because entire social, political, spiritual, environmental, and ethical philosophies are imbedded in each approach, gardening offers artists a powerful tool for waging subversive actions. Critical Art Ensemble provides one compelling example. Nicole Fournier provides another.
Evidence abounds of the health dangers associated with large scale agricultural production. I discovered the fallacy of assuming that artists who garden necessarily object to industrial agricultural production. In the early years of the 20th century, Karel Teige (1900 – 1951), a Czech artist, championed the ethical, technological, and aesthetic innovations that characterize modern industrial societies, and applied them to all human activities.
Although some eco artworks promote sensory and emotive engagements, the overt functionality of much eco art introduces a particularly disputed form of innovation.
Because it frequently seems indistinguishable from engineering, gardening, farming, researching, educating, etc., eco art tampers with the popular assumption that art only engages
the human spirit. How can eco artists defend themselves against the accusation that pragmatic practices do not belong within the realm of ‘art’?
My previous blog exploring humanity’s preference for savannas, the landscape where humans first evolved into a distinctive species, has stimulated some further reflections.
Compare golf courses and savannas – which both offer park-like settings with short grass and scattered large trees. This is an intriguing comparison since the aesthetics of these settings are similar, but their growing patterns are different. One relies upon humans imposing chemical fertilizers/mowing/weeding/watering to provide divertisment for wealthy folks with leisure time. The other is created by, and thrives because of, the maintenance and reproduction regimens that animals perform to perpetuate their species. Does our evolutionary advantage include recognizing the artificiality of one and the natural vitality of the other?
What kind of biome is your favorite?
Do you prefer a rain forest? deciduous forest? desert? tundra?
If you are like the majority of humans worldwide, you would prefer “a parklike setting with short grass and scattered large trees.” According to an experiment conducted by J.D. Balling and J. H. Falk, this landscape preference prevails worldwide. Humans everywhere possess a strong preference for the savanna. Even Nigerian subjects who have never travelled beyond the rain forest prefer savannas to their native biomes.
How can this be explained?
In order to construct an image of sustainability and implement the means to attain it, eco artists are boldly revamping the themes, mediums, aesthetics, processes, skills, and even the role of art in society. In the process, aspects of art that have been cherished for hundreds of years are being discarded as irrelevant.
How is the practice of art-criticism and art-history affected when it addresses art that explores the urgent environmental predicaments that define the contemporary era?
It seems inevitable that eco art critics and eco art historians must be scrambling to accommodate the radical transformations in the creative production of art introduced by eco artists.
Eco art critics are figuring out how to integrate into their analysis the seismic shifts in social meanings and ethical values that reflect environmental concerns.
At the same time, eco art historians are confronting the challenge of contextualizing and conceptualizing a form of art that exists without precedent.
The chapters representing the early years of the 21st century in future art history texts are not yet written. They will likely be formulated through the creative rewiring of professional protocols that differentiate art critics from eco art critics and art historians from eco art historians.
Art critics evaluate merit and assign cultural/historical contexts to art. They have based their analyses upon multiple forms of judgment, focusing on material, aesthetic, thematic, expressive, biographical, historic, theoretical, and/or ethical criteria.
Eco art critics add a second basis of evaluation. While acknowledging art theories and aesthetics, eco art criticism also reflects the ecological principles associated with protecting the planet’s life-sustaining conditions. Managing two disciplines simultaneously more than doubles the complexity of their task.
The ‘eco’ part of their mandate expands the concerns of the art critic to include the actuality of peoples’ lives, corporate policies, technical science, and government regulations. Such considerations unsettle the long-held determinants of artistic “success,” “excellence,” “integrity,” “originality,” and “significance”.
Constructing an alternative system requires creative problem-solving. Like eco artists, eco art critics strive to resolve planet-wide infirmities and vulnerabilities and search for meaningful forms of innovation.
The process of seeking environmental INFORMATION more closely resembles the process of forming an OPINION. I was reminded of this in two reports that appeared in this weeks’ news about bee populations. What they reveal is that credible sources of data can support opposing views. Although the book, “TO LIFE!”, attempts to be inclusive of the diverse themes and approaches being explored by contemporary eco artists, it may not have adequately addressed ‘optimist’ and ‘pessimist’.
Pessimist: Headline: “Mystery Malady Kills More Bees, Heightening Worry on Farms”
Optimist: Headline “Everyone calm down, there is no “bee-pocalypse.“
Pessimist: Quote: Citizens are rallying to support a bill to ban the pesticides believed to be the cause of the bee populations disaster wrote an appearl that states unequivocably, “Recent years have seen a steep and disturbing global decline in bee populations — some bee species are already extinct and some US species are at just 4% of their previous numbers.”
Optimist: The “NASS Honey Production Report”, recently released by the USDA, actually shows that US honey bee colony numbers are stable!!
As the author of a book dealing with artists addressing the current state of the Earth, I continually confronted the lack of a vocabulary that is shared and registered in the minds of readers.
How extensive was this challenge? It extended to the naming of the movement itself!
This challenge was the topic of an inquiry from Aviva Rahmani, an accomplished artist who is debating these issues as she writes her dissertation. My response:
I debated the ‘environmental art’ / ‘eco art’ dilemma aince there is no consensus regarding the defining characteristics of each.
“Deskilling” is a term that emerged to describe work is fragmented, as in assembly line factory production, resulting in the loss of integrated skills and comprehensive knowledge that yields pride in workmanship and a sense of accomplishment.
In an application to the arts, Benjamin Buchloh, the esteemed art historian, defines deskilling as artistic endeavors throughout the twentieth century that “are linked in their persistent effort to eliminate artisanal competence and other forms of manual virtuosity from the horizon of both artist competence and aesthetic valuation.”
Some thoughts on ‘deskilling’ and eco-art:
How can we cultivate the mental attitudes essential for alerting people to threats to environment while instilling the mental balance and hope required for taking action against our mounting environmental crises? In her new book, The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture, psychologist Mary Pipher insists that it is helplessness, not apathy, that leads to inaction. Most people are stuck in a state of knowing-not/knowing, a form of willful ignorance that prevents the mind-shift that precedes remedial activism. Pipher’s approach to the need for coping mechanisms that lead to reform is summarized in the following paraphrased quotes:
THE CRISIS: “Escapism is possible. Escape is not.”
THE CONDITION: “We have Paleolithic impulses, Neolithic brains, Medieval Institutions, and 21st century technologies. Our coping skills have not evolved.”
THE PROBLEM: “We are in a race between human consciousness and the physics and chemistry of the Earth.”
THE CORRECTION: “Despair must be crucible to growth.”
THE STRATEGY “Moral imagination is imagining conditions from another species point of view.”