Critiquing the Critique: Preamble, Sermon, Manifesto, Coda


The phrase “in-the-beginning” rewinds history until it arrives at the origin of time, matter, and space. “Never more” and “in the end” imply finalities. All these phrases are indicators of attitudes that belong to “bygone days” before environmental conditions and concerns became fore grounded on this era’s headlines, policies, curricula, and ethics.

The relatively new science of ecology has generated broad scale awareness that, in the absence of human intrusions, material existence on Earth is never-beginning and never-ending—it recycles! Recycling brings eternity down to earth by overturning the presumption that material goods are “departed” when they are deposited in landfills. An eighth deadly sin has recently been added to the standard seven. You are guilty if you sentence your cast-offs to a stifling purgatory where materials are prevented from returning to active material duty. Non-recycling consumers repent!

Cycle-logic is a new addition to the lexicon of English-speakers. It was invented to formalize the entry of a radical new ethical construct regarding human interactions with the materials of this planet. The term reverses the widespread assumption that material goods are cheap, disposable, and replaceable. Instead, it asserts that the molecules that comprise our bodies and all our material effects are inherited from our ancestors. This bequest does not belong to us. As living beings, we are bound to honor this loan by sharing it and bequeathing it to future generations. Regrettably, the present era is tainted by the havoc humans have wreaked upon the planet’s faltering systems by ignoring this edict. We seem to have forgotten that we all share the responsibility of ensuring that the earth’s resources live “happily-ever-after.” 

If an Eco Ethics Gospel was to be written representing teachings of prime importance for the current era, it would detail strategies to enhance an ecosystem’s ability to maintain vitality, cope with stress, withstand adversity, recover from a disturbance, and perform its own recycling strategies. All these functions are subject to a single mandate: that one organism’s waste is another organism’s bequest.

All species consume resources. All species create waste. Neither of these interactions is problematic if cycle-logic is applied to them. Cycling the earth’s finite molecules now constitutes an undisputed standard of ethical rectitude. We would go a long way to erecting Heaven on Earth if all material use (from acquisition to disposal), all living species (from microbes to mammals), and all human behaviors (including the production of art) conformed to these principles.

When this new imperative is applied to the art critique, the environmental impacts of an artist’s material interactions undergo scrutiny that is unprecedented in the annals of art criticism. Cycle-logic may offer the one bona-fide standard of merit regarding art created in the 21st century. It offers a refuge from the competing approaches that currently characterize art criticism in the classroom. In addition, cycle-logic fulfills current definitions of virtue, mercy, and benevolence, and it ensures the soulful and pragmatic rewards they promise.


Artists must unite to monitor the material impact of the mediums they choose for art production:
GOOD: Avoid manufactured art supplies that squander non-renewable resources and those that contaminate renewable resources by purchasing canvases, adhesives, charcoal, pigments, etc. from companies that produce these products according to “green” protocols.
    BETTER: Use discarded and reprocessed mediums that are traded, found, refurbished,     cultivated, bartered, scavenged, or mined.
    BEST:  Detoxify a polluted resource (e.g., decontaminate soil laced with heavy metals to make     pigment) and/or utilize an excessive product (e.g., harvest an invasive weed to make paper).

 Artists commit to examining all by-products of their material manipulations:
GOOD: Reduce energy consumption and waste production during art production.
BETTER: Reduce energy consumption and waste production during transportation, packaging, and display of art, as well as art production.
BEST:  Eliminate energy consumption and waste production during transportation, packaging, and display of art, as well as art production.

Artists accept responsibility for the environmental costs of maintaining their works of art after they leave the studio:
    GOOD: The art work minimizes environmentally costly investments in climate control, archival     papers, and storage.
    BETTER: The art work eliminates environmentally costly investments in climate control, archival     papers, and storage.
    BEST:  The artwork is either biodegradable or it is non-biodegradable but recyclable.

Artists pledge to curtail the environmental impact of their studio waste:
GOOD: Temporarily divert discarded materials from landfills (e.g., create sculpture with used plastic bags).
BETTER: Permanently divert discarded materials from landfills (e.g., disassemble objects made from multiple materials so that all the components can be recycled).
BEST:  All wastes are retained and used as resources for future art or non-art activities.

Artists will, hereafter, factor transportation of art ingredients into their material decisions
    GOOD: Ingredients are sourced from within a 100 mile radius.
    BETTER: Ingredients are sourced from within a 50 mile radius.
    BEST: Ingredients are sourced locally.

 Artists will honor the needs of future generations when they select material resources:
    GOOD: Halt practices that decrease finite resources.
    BETTER: Adopt practices that use renewable resources.
    BEST:  Invent practices that increase resources (e.g., cultivate a medium).
Artists will henceforth apply environmental mandates to their tools:
    GOOD: Purchase a used tool or repair a broken tool.
    BETTER: Purchase a used tool or repair a broken tool and share it.
    BEST:  Use scraps and discards to create your own tools. Share them.

Artists will diminish the importance of self-expression and self-fulfillment in order to monitor the consequences of art production.
    GOOD:     Consideration is given to the current impact of artwork on the immediate environment.
    BETTER: Consideration is given to the long-term impact of artwork on the immediate     environment.
    BEST:  Consideration is given to the long-term impact of artwork on the extended environment.

Artists will attend to the impact of the artwork on the site where it is created and presented.
    GOOD: Interference is temporary.
    BETTER:  Interference is avoided.
    BEST: The artwork’s presence improves the vitality of the environment (e.g., it removes toxins from the air).


How might art instructors help redress the promiscuity that characterizes the prevailing behaviors regarding material consumption and disposal? 

Jane Bennett, the distinguished Professor of Political Theory at Johns Hopkins University, insists that people should become MORE materialistic, not less.  This means replacing the current definition of materialism—the preoccupation with material objects and comforts. This definition is obsolete because it only focuses on consumption—half of the equation of every organism’s material interactions. The new definition completes the equation by adding “disposal.” Both consumption and disposal factor in the environmental consequences of material use. They coexist within the updated form of materialism, known as “eco-materialism.”

Bennett may not have been thinking of art critiques when she identified two essential components of eco-materialism. Nonetheless, they function as indicators of contemporary art “excellence.” One is “prudence,” which means good judgment in practical matters.   The prudent aspect of ecological materialism involves assessing materials according to their current and long term effects on humans, other species, water, air, soil, and weather. This means that artists’ material choices are made with concern for immediate environmental impacts as well as people they will never meet, places they will never visit, and outcomes they will never experience. Thus, eco-materialism extends the list of criteria regarding art materials beyond cost, availability, reliability, and stability. Prudence introduces efficiency, renewability, and conservation as criteria of an art work’s merit. 

 “Enchantment” is the other quality highlighted by Bennett. She describes it as “a sense of having had one’s nerves or circulation or concentration powers tuned up and recharged—a shot in the arm, a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life.”  Material enchantment affirms that the Earth does not consist of mute matter that is available for plundering and exploiting. The new definition implies the appreciation of the unique chemical/mechanical processes, biological/geological forces, and aesthetic/pragmatic potential of all planetary matter.   As significance is fostered, so is the delight that is missing from mindless consumerism. Thus, when enchantment is applied to art, mediums cease being “neutral” conveyors of an artist’s thoughts and feelings, and critiques cease to focus on an artwork’s marks and images.

Adding prudence and enchantment to art critiques allows art educators to play formative roles in awakening ecological consciousness and instilling environmental responsibility among their students. Their capacity to affect environmental reform originates in the “materials list,” extends into classroom assignments, and ultimately arrives at the critique. All these aspects of art pedagogy are opportunities to instill lifelong commitments to ecological conduct.