Ecological Art: What Do We Do Now?
It has been over four years since Rasheed Araeen – artist, cultural commentator, and editor of Third Text – first presented his “Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century.”1 In the face of rapid environmental change and discussions of ecological apocalypse, Araeen implores artists to “abandon their studios and stop making objects,” instead focusing their imaginations “on what there is in life, to enhance not only their own creative potential but also the collective life of the earth’s inhabitants” (684). He sharply criticizes both the historical avant-garde for its slide into commercialization and the pioneering land and earth artists of the 1960s, whose work, he believes, was too individualistic and has been similarly absorbed and blunted by contemporary art institutions.
Araeen’s lament for the avant-garde is familiar; his critique of the unseeing egoism of American earth artists such as Smithson and Morris is not without precedent. What is unusual about his manifesto is its optimism despite ecological warning signs, many of which we are alerted to by artists. While Araeen rails against ego in the realm of art that focuses on nature, he claims that the idea of making land into art in significant ways remains potent. How? Through what he calls “collective work” (683), a radical transformation of human consciousness. He cites Beuys’ famous 7000 Oaks project – begun at Documenta 7 in 1982 and continued in New York – as an example of how to make planting trees “part of people’s everyday life” (682). Araeen argues that an effectively environmentalist art must change our daily behaviour on a large scale. Like Beuys, he wants us all to be “artists.” “What the world needs is rivers and lakes of clean water, collective farms and the planting of trees all over the world. An artistic imagination can in fact help achieve all these objectives; and it should…lay the foundation for a radical manifesto of art for the twenty-first century” (683).
Many contemporary artists share Araeen’s sense of urgency. They agree that fellow artists should focus on ecological issues but also caution that this emphasis is not yet sufficiently global. Araeen’s examples of art’s ameliorative effects center on bringing water issues – specifically more widespread desalination — to the fore. Shai Zakai, a self-described eco artist from Israel whose practice involves water reclamation, has written in response to the 2003 3rd World Water Forum in Japan, that “every artist should be deeply concerned with regard to the condition of water. The fact that they can reach areas where policy makers can’t, in terms of people and communities is something to acknowledge.”2 Basia Irland has similarly underlined the potency of social organization and participation in her many “Gathering” works. A Gathering of Waters; Rio Grande, Source to Sea,” she reports for example, started in 1995 and “took five years to complete. Hundreds of participants were invited to put a small amount of river water into a canteen, write in a logbook, and pass these downstream to another person. Connections were made that have been lasting, and groups are working together that never would have met otherwise. In order to participate in this project, you had to physically be at the river and interact with someone else downstream, thereby forming a kind of human river that brings awareness to the plight of this stream that is always asked to give more than it has.”3
Embedded in these and many other practices is the key to ecological awareness through art that Araeen identifies: reaching people and strata of society not readily addressed by or included in other public and private discussions of the environment. A prime illustration is Vik Muniz’s celebrated Waste Land project and documentary film of 2010, directed by Lucy Walker, in which the Brazilian artist facilitated the creation of large scale self-portraits in garbage of and by Rio de Janeiro’s “catadores,” men and women who eke out a living by collecting recyclable materials from massive refuse dumps. We are alerted to the social and human dimensions of climate change by other contemporary artists. Helen and Newton Harrison have been working on environmental issues in collaboration with communities for decades. They describe themselves as “historians, diplomats, ecologists, investigators, emissaries and art activists.”4 In his majestic Weather Project in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, 2003, Olafur Eliasson created an artificial sun and attendant atmosphere inside, to the delight of over two million visitors. Less remembered is that as part of the work he polled people’s interest in the weather in accompanying surveys, some of which were in London taxi cabs. On a smaller scale but with a more focused sample group, Roni Horn’s VATNASAFN / Library of Water (2007) in Stykkishólmur, Iceland includes a record of about 100 interviews about the weather conducted with Icelanders in 2005-06. Titled Weather reports you, this component is available in the adjacent reading room and as a separate artist’s book. Significantly too, there are organizations dedicated to providing information about and driving change regarding ecological issues that embrace expertise well beyond that of individuals of whatever specialization in art, science, or social organization. A notable example is the Centre for Land Use Interpretation, based in Los Angeles and with offices across the USA.
As reclamation initiatives demonstrate, art and artists can do more than raise awareness of pressing ecological problems (crucial as that activity is in itself). In addition to the participatory and organizational dimensions of such projects, art has the advantage of making an emotional impact often unavailable to us now from the seemingly endless empirical data on climate change we receive through the media. This point is made well by scientist turned photographer and filmmaker James Balog in the documentary Chasing Ice (2012), directed by Jeff Orlowski. Balog’s team documents the rapid recession of glaciers in Alaska, Greenland, and Iceland not by spinning out numbers (though there are statistics) but by photographing and filming this remarkable evidence of climate change. Balog might well have used veteran ecological artist Iain Baxter&’s tongue in cheek but emotionally truthful maxim to describe the impact of this work: “A word is worth 1/1,000th of a picture.”5
In the contexts set up by Araeen’s manifesto, it is an encouraging development that artists who do not portray themselves necessarily as environmentalists, and whose practices include a wider range of concerns, nonetheless address ecological issues with great acuity. One example is Sean Martindale’s Nature (2009), homespun by comparison with the elaborate and expensive installations of Horn, Eliasson and many others, but equally telling. Martindale carefully crafted large, cardboard block letters spelling N A T U R E and deposited the word/idea/concept/sculpture on the curb outside his home for pickup by the recycling crew. He was acting as a good, green citizen, putting his cardboard out for collection. He videoed the ensuing drama from a hidden location across the street, capturing cars stopping and backing up for a better look, pedestrians taking pictures of and discussing this gentle intrusion into their urban landscape. He caught the denouement, when city workers loaded the letters into their truck, compressed them, and drove away. If ecology can be defined as the science and humanistic perspective that studies the interactions between organisms and their environment, then this is an ecological artwork. It is low tech, made of recycled materials, and it disappeared within a few hours. Nature is not represented or pictured here in the typical mode of a landscape painting. Neither is the impossibility of its representation presented, as in the category of the Sublime. The work is conceptual to the extent that Nature is presented as language, as a concept. What Martindale catalyzes (and with what? A performance, a sculpture, an intervention?) is conversation about Nature, at home and on the street, his street. His work suggests that Nature is the ultimate global/local concern.
Araeen’s “ecoaesthetics” insists that artists can and should make a difference in a world beset by environmental emergencies. He shows one way to move in this direction, by collectively implementing artistic ideas. Thinking of his polemic and of the many and various ecoart projects realized in recent years, we could be forgiven for wondering how much of a difference in this direction is “enough.” We don’t have to believe that artists can save the earth. At the same time, not knowing exactly what difference a project in water reclamation, for example, will mean globally is not a good enough excuse for cynicism and passivity. Let me close with two powerful witnesses to this creed of acting – perhaps artistically – in spite of ignorance. In The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold, Gretel Ehrlich meets the despairing sense of impotence in the face of global warming by suggesting that we act individually and collectively to “develop the discipline to stop destructive behavior, … then make decisions based on creating biological wealth.” “Listen to the truth the land will tell you,” she writes, and “act accordingly.”6 Pico Iyer relates a revealing story about the Dalai Lama, one that could be applied to environmental concerns. Feeling that even someone in his position could never do enough about human suffering, the Dalai Lama told Iyer “that it was ‘up to us poor humans to make the effort,’ one step at a time,” as the Buddha did. Iyer continues, “Then as we were walking out of the room, he went back and turned off the light. It’s such a small thing, he said, it hardly makes a difference at all. And yet nothing is lost in the doing of it, and maybe a little good can come of it, if more and more people remember this small gesture in more and more rooms.”7
It’s difficult to disagree with Mark Cheetham’s measured judgments, toward the end of his essay, (1) that while we “don’t have to believe that artists can save the earth” in order to practice or promote ecological art and (2) that our uncertainty and ignorance concerning the effect of such work “is not a good enough excuse for cynicism and passivity.” These, I take it, are Cheetham’s responses to the more exacting demands and expectations for ecological art put forward in Rasheed Araeen’s manifesto. Part of his response is to describe a number of environmental or ecological artworks that at least contribute to our awareness of crisis, although (implicit in his presentation) is an admission of our ignorance concerning their ultimate effectiveness. Cheetham is not explicit on whether he agrees with Araeen that artists should “abandon their studios and stop making objects” to concentrate solely on works that clearly have to do with improving ‘”the collective life of the earth’s inhabitants.” As I read his response to the manifesto, he seems to be saying that while Araeen’s heart is in the right place, we don’t need to share his extreme expectations regarding the value and effects of the turn toward (a certain kind of) ecological art that Araeen favors in order to make it worth doing.
However, once this reasonable qualification has been made, it is not clear what remains of the manifesto’s position which rejects not only all making of objects in the studio but even the signature earthworks of artists like Smithson, Morris, Turrell and others. My comments, then, are directed not so much to Cheetham’s moderate position, but at the extremism of Araeen’s manifesto. First, do we (can we?) know whether the environmental cost (carbon footprint etc.) of even the favored artworks will actually offset by their desired effects? Is there something else that artists and other participants could have done with their time and resources (including those devoted to photographing, filming, and otherwise publicizing the projects) that would have been more ecologically effective, but possibly of little or no aesthetic interest? Would simply turning off the power, not driving the car, not using public transportation, and so on be more “productive “ – by being anti-productive? If the emphasis is not on measurable physical consequences is it a matter then of changing hearts and minds? But this too is unmeasurable, especially over a period of time. I am not arguing that the work praised by Araeen and Cheetham ought not to be done. Thinkers as different as Immanuel Kant and Georges Bataille claim that art is always in some sense excessive, that it is not an indispensable component of either our cognitive-scientific or ethical-political activities, even though it may help us to see these in vivid and compelling ways. In this spirit, I would challenge Araeen’s dismissal of the earlier generation of earth and land artists like Smithson. Hasn’t Smithson’s work, for example, stimulated artists and thinkers to reconsider the human situation in geological and cosmic time and space? Was the meaning and effect of the work dissipated in the act of its construction, or does the work have a future? (Imagine the absurdity of claiming that Shakespeare’s plays were merely ineffective displays of poetic ego, because we cannot see that their improvement of the moral and political life of their ca. 1600 audience was worth the labor and resources that went into their production). Art like Smithson’s or Heizer’s or Turrell’s encourages us to contemplate the meaning of the earth, and it is such quests for meaning that make us human and enables the otherwise useless activity of art.
Should Aesthetics “Do” Ecology?
Mark Cheetham opens his discussion with a reference to Rasheed Araeen’s 2009 manifesto for an ecoaesthetics, which is an interesting place to begin, if anything because of the way that statement discloses some deeply rooted but also flawed assumptions about the relationship between art, politics, and ecological imperatives. In other words, Araeen reproduces some of the obstacles to an ecoaesthetics in the very same moves that attempt to make a case for one. Cheetham recasts the issues with a view to shedding new light on the discourse of both ecological imperatives and their relationship to art, and it is this effort that I would like to consider here.
What strikes me most about Araeen’s statement is the fact that it responds so forcefully to a problem that remains nebulous. Nobody is a stranger to the feeling of what he calls, an “impending disaster,” connected to irreparable damage to the planet’s ecology. But Araeen is hard-pressed to locate either the actual problem or its source, hence he carries out an unmoored polemic against the barbarism of civilization (Frankfurt School), fundamental human hubris (what he calls the narcissistic ego or nar-ego), the failure of the avant-garde, simple apathy and greed, before even arriving at the issue of ecology. To these culprits of environmental negligence we could also add a litany of seemingly insurmountable pressures: global capitalism, the oil economy, nuclear testing, corporate agriculture and aquaculture, population, etc…
What I find troubling about the tenor and structure of Araeen’s manifesto is that it accepts the generalization of “The Problem,” that it presumes that art should be the domain in which this problem is solved, and that it presumes that art was always and should be in the business of political problem-solving. In the face of the monolithic problem, Araeen vehemently accuses art (particularly studio-based practice and object-making more broadly) of being a “silly game” But what exactly is the problem that artists should address? Should they do something practical, or should it be a structural intervention? What is the thrust of this “should”? And who gets to make these kinds of judgments?
I am not going to counter that art is not silly at all and that it is, in fact, politically effective, nor that there is no imperative for the art world to account for an ecological reality (there is). But we do need to think carefully about how art and ecology involve one another. The question is, how should anyone, not just artists, but also critics, theorists and historians address questions concerning ecology? What is a right response to such a concern? Somehow, the discourse of ecology has an unfortunate tendency to evacuate its own potential by gathering ideology, economy, policy, affects, aesthetics, pragmatics, gender differences, species differences, particular sites of political contestation, and general systemic problems all into one big roiling soup, that seemingly has no beginning or end, no history or immediate present, but which leaves everyone with Cheetham’s question, “What do we do now?”
I would attenuate the question slightly to ask, “What can art do?” When it comes to mobilizing an ecoaesthetics, we would do well to consider Jacques Rancière’s insistence on the severing of aesthetic intentions from political consequences, arguing that critical events occur in fundamental ruptures to our visual and sensorial orientation. While it would seem counterintuitive to think of criticality in these terms given the urgency of the planet’s condition, it is precisely the rush to action, and correspondingly, the reaffirmation of a pedagogical form of art, that I would resist for the following reasons:
First, while there are specific problems that need immediate attention, such as global warming or water shortage, for example, these are issues that are actually getting plenty of publicity, and for which there is no dearth of practical solutions coming from architecture, design, engineering, and other forms of technological development. Whether or not governments and international bodies fund and take measures to build the infrastructure for alternative energies, lifestyles and global citizenship is quite another matter. But the claim that art should become more practical and that this is the basis for an ecoaesthetics is problematic because it suggests that art should compensate for a general lack of pragmatism in our culture. It also ignores the fact that sustainability has become an essential criteria for innovation and production in the aforementioned areas. In short, practical solutions to particular environmental problems abound. But we should nevertheless question the extent to which these constitute a genuine shift in consciousness, sensibility and the orientation of criticism.
Second, there are countless examples to testify to the fact that art has long since departed from the studio and become practical in the ways ecology would seem to demand. In fact, art has crossed over into the domains of engineering, architecture and design in order to do so. Cheetham mentions the pioneering artist-duo Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, and Basia Irland. There are many others too: Alan Sonfist, Betty Beaumont, Patricia Johanson, Jackie Brookner, Mel Chin, Agnes Denes, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, to name only a few American artists who are primarily known for their site restorations. The list of artists who are developing an ecoaesthetics would be very long if we were to include artists around the world who are reflecting on ecology in ways other than restoring balance to neglected sites, and who, for example, deal with the intersection between ecosystems, economic systems, and political systems, or forms of visuality and representation that contend with the phenomenological limits of the human body and their overcoming through technology, or interspecies relationships. Moreover, we should consider those works that already fall within the parameters of eco-art in ways that go beyond praising the literal restoration that they accomplish. This domain of practice is lively, complex, deep and conflicted, and these artists are well aware of this complexity. We do not help things by reducing their knowledge, skill, labor, and the subtlety of their visual interventions to gestures of guardianship and protection. The call for ecoaesthetics is being answered, and so instead of exacerbating the situation with ever more desperate calls to action, we might instead get involved in thinking critically about the terms by which ecology enters into, and is developed through, our visual field, sensorial life, embodied reality, and forms of representation.
Third, we should be acutely aware of the rampant stream of green capitalism that is currently operating on our visual and perceptual field. The 2007 bestseller Natural Capitalism is a perfect example of the danger of ecology becoming a metaphor for all systems—including economic systems, technological systems, and political regimes—and its deployment for a naturalizing effect. The green apparatus is a powerful one, and it behooves us all to become aware of how quickly and easily ecology has become an ideology of energy and resource management in the service of profit.
If we are to turn our attention (once again) to ecoaesthetics, then perhaps we can ask how aesthetics forges another kind of consciousness. Cheetham’s example of Sean Martindale’s work NATURE is apt in this regard. Here, not only is nature shown to be a concept that defies representation (it appears as blocks of text), it is positioned as a throw-away. It therefore calls attention to the growing rejection of “nature” which has in fact encumbered a politics of ecology (Latour, Morton, Bennett, etc…). I am reminded of Graham Harman’s statement in Guerilla Metaphysics, “Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized.” Perhaps if we cast off a worldview in which the earth is understood primarily through systems of energy and resource management undergirded by an aesthetics of “the garden,” we can look to a new terrain in which events, actants, objects, and beings regard each other through different terms of visibility.
Where does the environment end?
I agree with Mark Cheetham that there is both a refreshing sense of urgency and an inspiring sense of utopianism attached to the topic of ecoaesthetics. I wish that there were more of this in the artworld. There seem to be three strategies that are being mapped out; the artist with a master plan to initiate environmental changes, the artist as part of a collective that create wider environmental chains, and absorption of art in small gestures in specific places. I have no objections to these strategies. Although the first strategy does recall some of the worst excesses of engineering, and while Araeen is quite rightly critical of unreflexive egos of modernism, I also recall that he is an engineer by training. I am not implying that that there is a regression at play here, but the appeal to change individual consciousness through collective practice, must also entail a swerving spin away form any authorial proclamations. This is the paradox that has haunted the critique of the institutions of the art world throughout modernity, and while many of us have railed against them, we still seem to be fighting from the inside.
However, something else seems to be at play now. This comes from the conception of the boundaries and the form of engagement in relation to the environment. Artists, like Rosemary Trockel and some philosophers such as Isabelle Stengers, are framing their practice in the broader and through the more ancient idea of the cosmos. The cosmos has threefold meaning; the people – as in all of humanity, a part of the universe that is bigger than our planet, and more fundamentally, a practice of creating order and arranging our place so that it is pleasing and hospitable for others. This way of seeing and making a sense of the world is a crucial element in what motivates contemporary art practice. It begins with sensory awareness of the world and proceeds in the construction of forms that connect differences. Through this approach we can also glimpse what is distinct about ecoaesthtics, and how it can move beyond ethics and politics of eco-activism.
Ecological Art after Humanism
Alan C. Braddock
I applaud Mark Cheetham’s “Ecological Art: What Do We Do Now?” for two main reasons: (1) his transnational perspective and (2) his willingness to look beyond “cynicism and passivity” to acknowledge activism in ecological art as a serious ethical matter, in which artists have the power (albeit limited and imperfect) to reach, inform, and mobilize diverse audiences and engage environmental problems. The following essay reflects upon each of these two reasons for liking Cheetham’s essay in more detail while offering some constructive critical observations about the limits of his humanist point of view.
First, here are a few remarks about Cheetham’s transnational perspective. As an “Americanist,” I regularly face questions about the usefulness of national and regional boundaries for understanding art history, especially in an era of instantaneous globalization and cultural diffusion. The most recent “state of the research” essay on American art history in The Art Bulletin, written by John Davis in 2003 and titled “The End of the American Century,” identified this transnational impulse as an important new direction in scholarship. Recent standard textbooks in my field—notably Frances K. Pohl’s Framing America and Angela Miller’s American Encounters—have tentatively begun to extend the geographical purview of American art beyond the boundaries of the United States into Canada, Mexico, and Central America while accentuating various transatlantic and transpacific connections. Other recent publications, conferences, and museum installations have taken a hemispheric approach to the field in an effort to redefine it as encompassing North and South America. Anyone familiar with scholarship in the field of American Studies lately knows about the importance it places on questions of globalization, immigration, and transnationalism.8
Consistent with such concerns to some extent, my own 2009 volume of essays titled A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History (co-edited with Christoph Irmscher) included work by an interdisciplinary roster of scholars on a diverse range of artists with transnational reach, including, for example, the Calcutta-born immigrant photographer Subhankar Banerjee. As discussed in an essay by Finis Dunaway, Banerjee’s photographs of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge since 2002 reveal that politically-charged place to be neither a barren “wasteland” that might as well be drilled (as portrayed by corporate oil interests) nor a pristine wilderness “last frontier” that needs to be preserved in some edenic state (as portrayed by romantic environmentalists) but rather a global village inhabited by many species, including the Native Inuit and Gwich’in people as well as a panoply of non-humans like Buff-Breasted Sandpipers, who migrate annually from as far away as Argentina. Their/our reliance on and relation to ANWR, however remotely, demonstrates the ecological principle of interconnectedness. Banerjee’s photograph of pregnant caribou migrating across the ice at ANWR’s Coleen River Valley (the book’s cover image) registers that principle formally in its distant aerial perspective, cropped composition, and intermingling of realism with abstraction. When we discover what we’re looking at and recognize the fact that this migrating herd extends far beyond the photograph’s cropped borders, ecological understanding intertwines with aesthetic experience. In effect, this picture by a recent Indian immigrant to “America” compels the viewer to think self-critically about her/his relation to and responsibility for those caribou and their habitat—not with a sense of pity or condescension (despite the aerial perspective) but rather with the recognition that they are neighbors in a way, fellow planetary inhabitants who deserve respect. The question of what constitutes “American” here seems to recede in importance, except insofar as ANWR remains a battleground in political debates over energy policies of the nation most responsible for generating greenhouse gases during the past century.9
The quicksilver character of “American” became apparent to me again recently in my capacity as a member of the editorial board of the journal American Art, published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with the University of Chicago Press. I am co-editing a special section for an issue to be published in the journal next year (2014) on how ecology and sustainability currently inflect historical interpretation, contemporary art practice, and museum work in “the field” of American art. In a phone conversation, the scholar who has agreed to contribute an essay for that special section on contemporary art practice asked me bluntly “What does ‘American’ mean?” I referred the scholar to the journal’s executive editor for a definitive answer, but I said that I viewed the rubric pretty loosely in this context. There would be no need to supply U.S. birth certificates or immigration papers from the artists in question, I observed. If the scholar wanted to discuss work done in North, Central, or South America—or touching on the hemisphere in some way—by an artist from elsewhere, that would be fine by me. As the phone conversation proceeded, my interlocutor and I agreed that an ecological perspective required attention to specific localities while also looking beyond national and regional boundaries. After all, even though the U.S. has produced more carbon emissions than any other nation, global warming couldn’t care less about such boundaries.
Mark Cheetham does not only discuss ecological art as subject matter. By avoiding national frameworks, his interpretive approach also could be considered broadly ecological, insofar as its local/transnational scope extends—like global warming or a migratory bird—beyond political boundaries. As a “Modernist” scholar, Cheetham apparently takes such a transnational interpretive approach for granted, a fact that raises interesting questions about the eco-theoretical legacy and implications of modernism. From my perspective, such an approach may help drive a stake in the vampire heart of American exceptionalism, which has long privileged the U.S. as “Nature’s nation” (to quote the title of a classic study by Perry Miller). Since disciplinary structures die hard, I will probably continue to teach courses and publish texts that refer to “American” art in various ways, but Cheetham’s observations—like ecological considerations generally—tend to dissolve that category and others like it. If I were to do A Keener Perception again, it would dispense with the “American” framework entirely and go even more all over, complicating figure-ground relationships along with national boundaries, like a Banerjee photograph, or a Pollock painting, or a photograph by the Sierra Club activist Eliot Porter, or a mixed media work by El Anatsui, such as Earth’s Skin or Ozone Layer, composed of transnational corporate commodity detritus reclaimed from the artist’s Nigerian environment and transformed into large, colorful “tapestries” that explore the meaning of African tradition and globalization.10
Contrary to its stereotypical association with hermetic, Cold War, Greenbergian, optico-formalism, didn’t modernism harbor an important transnational outlook conducive to ecological thinking, in which biocentrism rather than nationalism prevailed? Don’t some of its less familiar moments—Lewis Mumford’s critical urbanism, the formlessness of Georges Bataille’s squashed bug (in the Critical Dictionary), or Jackson Pollock’s declaration “I am nature”—hint at a kind of political ecology within modernism that animated matter with some sort of non-human agency? Questions like these seem to motivate a number of recent studies, including Oliver A.I. Botar and Isabel Wünsche, eds., Biocentrism and Modernism (2011), Spyros Papapetros, On the Animation of the Inorganic: Art, Architecture, and the Extension of Life (2012), and Barry Bergdoll’s Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront (2011), an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art on architectural visions for adapting the city and harbor of New York to sea level rise caused by global warming. In Bergdoll’s fascinating exhibition, architects and designers from several different firms imagined a “new aqueous city” with “adaptive, soft infrastructures”—a dynamic, amphibious urban environment with porous streets instead of floodwalls, abandoned petroleum tanks reclaimed as recycling centers, revived “oyster-tecture” for food and water purification, and many other innovations for promoting ecological sustainability.11
With those sorts of impulses in mind, I would like to make a few observations about stones left unturned by Cheetham. Despite his laudable transnationalism, Cheetham’s exploration of ecological art remains essentially humanist and anthropocentric insofar he considers only artistic relationships between human beings and various aspects of land or earth, with no attention to nonhuman beings. In other words, he overlooks the issue of animality, or what a growing number of posthumanist scholars have lately called “the question of the animal.” One such scholar, Cary Wolfe, has observed “Those nonhuman beings called animals pose philosophical and ethical questions that go to the root not just of what we think but of who we are. Their presence asks: what happens when the Other can no longer safely be assumed to be human?” Wolfe also notes a “crisis of humanism itself over the past three decades in critical theory” coinciding with “a radical revaluation of the status of nonhuman animals that has taken place in society at large. A veritable explosion of work in areas such as cognitive ethology and field ecology has called into question our ability to use the old saws of anthropocentrism (language, tool use, the inheritance of cultural behaviors, and so on) to separate ourselves once and for all from animals, experiments in language and cognition with great apes and marine mammals, and field studies of extremely complex social and cultural behaviors in wild animals such as apes, wolves, and elephants, have more or less permanently eroded the tidy divisions between human and nonhuman. And this, in turn, has led to a broad reopening of the question of the ethical status of animals in relation to the human.”12
Charles Darwin actually understood all that a century and a half ago, but scholars in cultural studies are just beginning to reckon with the de-centering implications of his research and that of his scientific followers. In The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin recognized the “mutual relations of the innumerable inhabitants of the world,” not as “immutable” or “independently created” species but rather as “plastic” forms subject to infinite “variation” through “natural selection” and “bound together by a web of complex relations.” In The Descent of Man (1871), he noted “man bears in his bodily structure clear traces of his descent from some lower form,” yet “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.” Furthermore, Darwin observed, “The lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery. … The fact that the lower animals are excited by the same emotions as ourselves is so well established, that it will not be necessary to weary the reader by many details.” Darwin even acknowledged that “Most of the more complex emotions are common to the higher animals and ourselves.”13
In an age dubbed the Anthropocene and marked by the Sixth Mass Extinction, a consideration of ecological art should encompass nonhuman life forms, especially since so much recent art engages them in various ways. Exploring such art in his book The Postmodern Animal, art historian Steve Baker puts the matter this way: “the animal is a reminder of the limits of human understanding and influence, but also the value of working at those limits.” Scholarship about nonhuman things obviously will never shed human correlationism completely (the apparent dream of some object-oriented ontologists), but that doesn’t mean we cannot try to be self-critical enough to ponder the “question of the animal” in art and ecology.14
For example, if Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks project provides a valuable model of ecological “community” through reforestation, what about the birds, insects, and microorganisms inhabiting and depending upon those trees as members of that community? Do they count? Are they part of the art? Or, what of Beuys’s I Like America and America Likes Me, a work that would seem to provide an important case study for thinking critically about species boundaries, not to mention national boundaries. In that famous 1974 performance, the artist was brought by airplane to New York and then by ambulance to the René Block Gallery in order to spend several days confined in a caged room with a wild coyote. Wrapped in a heavy felt blanket to protect himself from the coyote’s teeth, Beuys on one level reanimated various human mythic ideas about the American wilderness and his own personal identity as a former German Luftwaffe pilot whose Stuka fighter plane was shot down over the Crimea during World War II, after which he was supposedly rescued by Tartar nomads (with dog sleds) who nursed him back to health by wrapping his injured body in felt and animal fat. If we’re willing to look beyond the tired “prison-house” paradigm of language and myth, we might find in that and other performances by Beuys a self-critical effort to interrogate humanist perspectives and presumptions. When Beuys relinquished his gloves to the coyote (or explained pictures to a dead hare, in another well-known performance), his gesture certainly engaged in a form self-mythmaking that also rendered “the animal” spiritual in terms of natural innocence, but is that all? In a later performance, Coyote III (1984), Beuys produced animal-like sounds in order “to switch off my own species’ range of semantics,” saying “Such an action … changes one radically.” Whether or not “radical” change occurred in such cases, did Beuys contribute to the erosion of what Wolfe called “the tidy divisions between human and nonhuman” in an artistic manner roughly analogous to recent studies of cognitive ethology and field ecology? I happen to think so, though I imagine many artists and scholars would disagree, perhaps because they feel that anything created, imagined, engaged by Beuys—indeed by any human being—can only ever be purely human and therefore always already never part of “nature.”15
Of course Beuys is not the only artist to explore the human/nonhuman boundary and its ethical-ecological implications. Consider, for example, Maya Lin’s What is Missing?, an ongoing online project on the history and contemporary data of extinction, or Sam Easterson’s Museum of Animal Perspectives, featuring various non-human animal “cam” videos, or Nato Thompson’s exhibition Becoming Animal: Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom (Mass MoCA). Such projects deserve critical attention and, in my opinion, praise for their engaging, non-destructive, cynicism-free probing of the ethics and aesthetics of species ecology.16
Let me end with an ontological question prompted by Cheetham’s essay and my own ramblings here: What is the art in ecological art, exactly? The question may seem snarky in an old-fashioned formalist way and therefore beside the point, especially in an era of global warming and other daunting realities of our current ecological crisis, but I feel it’s one that artists and art historians might do well to confront more consciously—as long as they identify themselves as “artists” and “art historians” anyway. If, as Cheetham observes, an ecological artist-critic like Rasheed Araeen (following Beuys) “wants us all to be ‘artists,’” and if Araeen is right that the sole purpose of art is to “change our daily behavior on a large scale” so that we can live more sustainably, do we really need terms like “art” and “artist” at all? Under such conditions, hasn’t the role of the artist simply collapsed into ecological activism as such? Or is there yet something distinctive about the work an artist does? If so, it seems to deserve thorough examination on its artistic merits and not simply for its ability to “change our daily behavior on a large scale.”
In two recent books, The Ecological Thought and Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, the literature scholar Timothy Morton has argued forcefully for abandoning the concept of “Nature” in cultural studies because it preserves the ancient nature/culture binary by treating the “environment” as a distant object—like a Romantic landscape painting—rather than the intimate, tactile, viscous, expansive, dynamic, intrusive, interpenetrating, omnipresent thing that it is. Despite calling for the abandonment of “Nature,” though, Morton finds ongoing utility in a concept of art:
[All] art—not just explicitly ecological art—hardwires the environment into its form. Ecological art, and the ecological-ness of all art, isn’t just about something (trees, mountains, animals, pollution, and so forth). Ecological art is something, or maybe it does something. Art is ecological insofar as it is made from materials and exists in the world. It exists, for instance, as a poem on a page made of paper from trees, which you hold in your hand while sitting in a chair in a certain room of a house that rests on a hill in the suburbs of a polluted city. But there is more to its ecological quality than that. The shape of the stanzas and the length of the lines determine the way you appreciate the blank paper around them. Reading the poem aloud makes you aware of the shape and size of the space around you (some forms, such as yodeling, do this deliberately). The poem organizes space. Seen like this, all texts—all artworks, indeed—have an irreducibly ecological form. Ecology permeates all forms. Nowadays we’re used to wondering what a poem says about race or gender, even if the poem makes no explicit mention of race or gender. We will soon be accustomed to wondering what any text says about the environment even if no animals or trees or mountains appear in it.17
Ecological art, and by extension ecological art history, have always been with us, whether we have recognized this or not. As our unfolding ecological crisis becomes more evident and palpable, we will have no choice but to become more accustomed to wondering what art says—in its materiality, its form, its idea—about the environment.
Mark Cheetham’s thoughtful “Ecological Art: What Do We Do Now?” is itself a response to Rasheed Araeen’s “Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century,” which lays out a provocative and radical vision for avant-garde (or post-avant-garde) artistic practice.18 Cheetham recognizes and applauds both the urgency and the optimism of Araeen’s manifesto. In response to it, Cheetham adds examples of artists—Vik Muniz, Olafur Eliasson, Roni Horn—and an organization—the Center for Land Use Interpretation—that raise consciousness and disseminate ecological information on a scale that one cannot fail to be impressed by. Cheetham adds examples of work that succeeds by making the facts of global climate change compelling by deploying the power of art, as in James Balog and Jeff Orlowski’s film Chasing Ice, and of work that isn’t primarily concerned with large scale or audience or even primarily with ecology, as in the homemade conceptual work Nature by Sean Martindale. In the end, even sound advice appeals to Cheetham, whether it comes from Gretel Ehrlich (The Future of Ice) or the Dalai Lama (via Pico Iyer’s The Open Road).
I take it that Cheetham’s response to Araeen, then, is first of all to Araeen’s demand that artists abandon the institutions and the object-making of the traditional avant-garde. There are lots of ways to make a contribution, Cheetham seems to want to say, and a lot of them allow us to work within the present institutions and artistic paradigms. Like the Dalai Lama, we might all make a small difference, and those differences may collectively amount to something. “No more global warming,” Jadav Payeng says, “if everyone plants a forest.”19 My response to Cheetham is essentially to ask Araeen, with Cheetham, “how much of a difference in this direction is ‘enough.’” That is to say, why doesn’t the meliorative approach Cheetham offers seem like enough to the radical Araeen. Why does Araeen insist that artists stop making objects? I want to propose that a closer look at Araeen’s argument will reveal why he can’t accept Cheetham’s obviously sensible proposal.
“Ecoaesthetics” is the culmination of years of Araeen’s thought. Its claim is that we are “facing [our] own destruction [and] the annihilation of all life on earth” because of our failure to overcome the “violence of the infantile narcissistic ego (hereafter ‘nar-ego’)” (“Ecoaesthetics,” 679). Our selfish individualism keeps us in thrall to the nar-ego, which makes us all complicit in the destruction. Even the avant-garde artist, who undertakes a radical critique of bourgeois (there is an element of class analysis—more on that presently) society, fails. Araeen mentions Marcel Duchamp first, but names others, both members of the historical avant-garde (Hugo Ball) and later avant-garde (or avant-gardist) artists, such as Robert Morris and Joseph Beuys:
the radical forms that the avant-garde produced negated the very creative process which might enter life’s own creativity and affirm it by becoming part of it. What in fact emerged was an anti-art that had no choice but to capitulate to the very institution that it wanted to confront, becoming dependent on it for survival and legitimisation. (“Ecoaesthetics,” 680)
I take this to be the crux of Araeen’s manifesto. The artist’s hope of overcoming his or her own nar-ego lies in escaping bourgeois institutions, but bourgeois institutions are the source of avant-garde art’s legitimization. Araeen also mentions the artists’ dependence on institutions for survival—Clement Greenberg’s “umbilical cord of gold”—but, as we’ll see, that’s not the crux for Araeen. Avant-garde art needs a new source of legitimization.
A note at the end of “Ecoaesthetics” directs the reader to two essays of Araeen’s with which it is to “be read in conjunction.” I take that to mean that they offer different views of the same position taken in the manifesto. The earlier of the two essays, “The Art of Resistance: Towards a Concept of Nominalism,” affords insight into the analysis he gives in “Ecoaesthetics.” Most importantly, for the present purpose, it specifies the place of class and of legitimization in Araeen’s position.
“Witnessing the perpetually worsening socioeconomic and political conditions of most Third World countries since they achieved their independence after World War II, I had reached a point in my life when I could no longer justify my position as an artist or see any significance in art that did not take into account this change and responded to it critically. But would this be enough?”20 Araeen connects the manifesto’s critique of the avant-garde to his own narrative, and shows himself faced with the avant-garde’s limitations. This leads to a discussion of class and global capital:
If we can recognize that there is now a growing resistance, at a global level, against the global power of capitalism, then this can provide us with an alternative context. … If we can stop thinking about the West as the society or the centre of the world, then it is possible to … think of and develop a discourse which posits … a social agency capable of progress …. (“Art of Resistance,” 454)
In essence: if capitalism is the problem, combating Eurocentrism is the answer. For instance, Araeen imagines building a dam that would permit a few hundred people to farm and live independently. It occurs to him that he might, in Duchamp-like fashion, pronounce the land and the intervention collectively a work of conceptual art. Still, it would be the wrong thing to do: “it would still be another example of bourgeois altruism which could help the poor but would never allow them to eradicate the cause of their predicament” (“Art of Resistance,” 458). The problem with the idea is the institutions (Western bourgeois philanthropy and the Western bourgeois artworld) that legitimize it. In that sense, the class analysis is more or less beside the point; what matters is the issue of legitimization.21
The bourgeois institutions of Western capitalism’s artworld undermine even the best avant-garde projects, but they are also what legitimize them. The dilemma seems inescapable. Nominalism is the solution Araeen offers to the problem of legitimization. To see what he means by nominalism, take the example of a project like the dam Araeen imagined, which will allow a community to work previously barren land:
once the community has understood the ideological basis of the work and is able to manage it efficiently by itself, the property rights of the whole thing—both of the land and the artwork—must be transferred to the community. Once everything is turned into the collective property of the community, those ‘artists’ who have initiated the project and have helped in its realisation must renounce both their property and intellectual rights. The work shall then continue to be produced and developed by the community itself, not only as a material production but also as an art concept (“Art of Resistance,” 462)
In all of its workings, this scenario looks identical to the failed version of the project, in which the dam and resulting community farm turn into bourgeois altruism. What makes the difference, though, is that the “‘artists’” (note the extra quotation marks) confer their intellectual property rights on the community that works the farm. Of course, what Araeen is proposing is not nominalism but an (anti-)institutional institutional theory of art.22 The crux of his vision for artmaking is not in the act that creates (or nominates) the work, but in the institution that legitimizes it. That is clearer in “Ecoaesthetics”:
The role of artistic imagination here is to think, initiate and create not what is self-consumed by the ego from which the idea emerges, but what can transcend and transgress the nar-ego and become part of the collective energy of the earth. It can then transform it in ways that enhance not only the natural potential of the earth itself but also the collective creativity of the life of all its inhabitants. (“Ecoaesthetics,” 684)
The place of the artist in the work of art is a little clearer, then: there is no place for the artist. That’s why “‘artists’” needs scarequotes. The “intellectual rights” to the work must be conferred on the sustaining community, but they must also be the source of legitimization and creativity. The work, in every sense, must be theirs. So what is the artist’s place? There is none.
But, of course, this is not literally the case. Araeen, in fact, imagines this whole project from the beginning as his own. The elimination of the artist’s place is, I want to say, a way of reimagining both altruism and conceptual art as actions without an actor, without an ego. But, recall once more, in Araeen’s terms, the ego to be transcended and transgressed is specifically a “nar-ego,” or, to use the term’s expanded form, a “narcissistic ego,” which is to say, an ego whose tragedy it is to see itself. Like Araeen himself when he found he “could no longer justify my position as an artist” (“Art of Resistance,” 453).
I am arguing that Araeen’s project appears to be a radically antitheatrical one, in the well known sense developed by Michael Fried.23 Or, probably more to the point, in something like the sense that John Cage’s avant-garde experiments can be understood as responses to the problem of theatricality, but which (precisely in their desire to leave their public alone) ultimately become radically theatrical.24 Global capitalism will not leave the poor of Baluchistan alone, neither will the nar-ego of the altruistic Western artist. Only an “artist” who vanishes leaves them truly alone. Of course, it is well to remember that antitheatricality is an effect, an ontological fiction, and not a description of an actual or literal state of affairs; the artist’s refusal of intention, of agency, makes the public’s response into the center, or the totality, of the work. The work doesn’t leave its public alone—it subsumes its public.
This radicalization of theatricality, the rise to absolute primacy of the community’s point of view and of the “artist”’s view of him- or herself, helps us see why Araeen’s politics—if capitalism is the problem, fighting Eurocentrism is the answer—are confused. As Walter Benn Michaels explains, neoliberalism’s workings are structural, impersonal, and the injuries it produces are objective. (Poor people are poor no matter how you look at them.) Eurocentrism is entirely a matter of perception, of thinking too much or too highly of the West and not enough or highly enough of Baluchistan. But changing the way we look at ourselves and at Baluchistan won’t end the depredations ecological or otherwise of neoliberal global capitalism. (If you disagree, consider the success of our own identity politics in fostering economic equality here at home.) If we are worried about the damaging effect of global climate change on the poorest and most exploited populations, we should stop worrying about legitimacy and pursue every avenue toward limiting the damage—including those Cheetham names, from sound advice to consciousness-raising art to planting forests. Will that be enough for Araeen? If you plant a tree in a forest, and there’s no one there to see it, does it make you an “artist”?
Mark Cheetham Responds
Gary Shapiro has accurately assessed my stance on Araeen’s manifesto and its recommendations. I am sympathetic with the measures Arareen calls for but – cognizant though I am of their context of enunciation, the Manifestos events held at the Serpentine Gallery in London – I’m also wary of their polemical impracticality. We do not know and should not assume that environmental issues are the most pressing facing our species or planet. To second artists only to the priorities of environmentalism, as Araeen insists we do, would also be to short circuit the freedom and creativity that qualifies artists to work in this field in the first place. Shapiro, Araeen, and I agree that artists’ work is in some ways beneficial, whether through raising awareness and perhaps more practically, as in the many land and water reclamation projects that qualify as art. But as Gary suggests, we shouldn’t measure results only by short term amelioration. Many authors in this field – whether scientists or social commentators – now suggest that we as a species need a change of mind and of behaviour vis-à-vis the environment. We need to re-think the category of ‘nature.’ Land artists from the recent past and eco artists today can move us in this direction.
Amanda Boetzkes has taken us deeper still into this discussion. Before I respond to some of the many points she raises though, let me be strategically difficult and disagree with her statement at the outset that “Nobody is a stranger to the feeling of what [Araeen] calls, an ‘impending disaster,’ connected to irreparable damage to the planet’s ecology.” I wish that were true, but one of the reasons why I began with Araeen’s impassioned plea is that knowledge of global climate issues seems tentative, at least statistically. I read recently – if one can countenance such numbers – that the percentage of Americans who believe we have a problem with global warming is much lower than those in the same population sample who believe in possession by evil spirits. Boetzkes points out that environmental issues receive wide attention in our society. She’s right, but there is still quite a gap between publicity and peoples’ knowledge of the issues and discussions of potential action. As she suggests, the question remains, “What can art do?”
I agree that art is not the best vehicle for practical solutions to the ecological issues she lists. If a project is only instrumental, it’s not art. Isn’t art’s strength instead its “creative” side, its ability to imagine and illuminate new issues? Is art the key attitude changer? If so, this would not be a pragmatic role, and besides, many other parts of society take on these tasks more successfully. Again I think Amanda has it right: however we define the spectrum of effectiveness, there’s lots of meaningful ecoart out there and has been for at least 40-50 years. We don’t need another avant-gardist call to action, not because it failed in this context, but on the contrary because there has been a widespread response that now needs further examination.
Perhaps we could put Nikos Papastergiadis’s call for a “cosmic” perspective on this discussion together with Amanda Boetzkes’s concluding comment on the appeal for a reconsideration of the notion of nature as a starting point from which to consider ecological priorities differently. It is only from an extra-planetary viewpoint, both literally and philosophically, that we can see that our version of “nature” in the West anyway has been wrong headed for millennia. As Joy Sleeman has shown in fascinating detail, early land artists were much swayed by space exploration.25
Nikos’s comments also return me to a point raised by Gary Shapiro, the need to keep the land art of the recent past in play conceptually as we speculate about what environmental art today can and should do. I interpret this as the imperative to consider art historically, hardly a novel position but one that seems in need of reiteration. My self-assigned task in this context these days is to articulate the relationships between the genre of landscape, which could be seen to have waned in significance well before the advent of land and earth art, the various engagements with the earth (and cosmos) in the mid 20th century, and whatever range of artistic practices we want to include in this context today. As I elaborate in my response to Alan C. Braddock, this work is very much about the discipline of art history and its habits.
I am grateful to Alan C. Braddock for his detailed articulation of the imperative to rethink national boundaries and borders in this context. In fact, in ways that I didn’t foreground in my article and may only be starting to become aware of, my commitment to discussions of current and recent environmental art is closely tied to work I’ve done in the past few years on “the nation” in art history.26
It’s a powerful irony that so many ecological concerns – the availability and potability of water resources, air pollution, global warming – ignore human boundaries of any sort, especially national borders, but are generated within the contexts of national institutions and regulations. Responses to such issues are in turn produced by artists who habitually refer to themselves by national association. Art history as a discipline cannot seem to escape the national paradigms, however much it claims to be global these days, but analyses such as Braddock’s will certainly make a positive difference in the ongoing revision of the discipline.
I’m giving a paper next month on border issues in land art of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I will be discussing the USA’s northern border much more than its now more topical southern political perimeter. As someone who teaches “Canadian” art sometimes, I remain committed to the national framework, not because I think there is any essential quality to reveal or explore in this or any other national construction, but because here – and I would be interested to know how “American” art fares in the USA by comparison – without “Canadian” courses, most art and artists who have worked north of the 49th parallel will simply never be mentioned let alone discussed seriously. For me, its affirmative action.
But back to the immediate context: I agree that “a consideration of ecological art should encompass nonhuman life forms.” Braddock’s readings of Beuys here are compelling. What I take from these examples is one way to acknowledge and discuss the non-human in ecological art without taking on an extended theoretical debate about the “animal” to the detriment (in terms of critical engagement) of other parts of the picture. This matter of selection has been one of my struggles in trying to define what I’m trying to write about in this territory. That path is to examine artists’ works that engage the ecological across this broad spectrum. Mark Dion is another prime example.
Alan Braddock asks “What is the art in ecological art, exactly?” It’s a necessary question, especially for someone content on good days to wear the tag “art historian.” I should be able to answer it. Like anyone working with art of the last 50 years, I have to appeal first to a broad, tolerant, and malleable definition of art. For reasons I won’t go into here, I am most persuaded by a broadly sociological definition, locally and historically inflected. Art is what people say is art, their saying and writing powerfully governed by institutions, local circumstances, and individual psychology. For me, art is what self-consciously draws attention to ideas, issues, formal qualities through its own sometimes infra-thin difference from the everyday, the practical. It is distinct from the non-art that borders it but never autonomous. On the contrary, to use one of Amanda Boetzkes’s examples, the Harrison’s purposeful attenuation of the processes of ecologically harmonious food production, for instance, is art – and not ‘just’ food production – because they and others repeatedly say so, because they exhibit it in sanctioned venues that are recognizably part of the art world, and most importantly, because it is, however fleetingly, distinct from what we do but never notice fully (growing and eating food in this case), different enough to reveal what we might not have known about our activities.
Charles Palermo adeptly characterizes my reaction to Araeen’s manifesto; I am more positive about a step by step approach by artists to global climate issues, for example, though I don’t have the illusion that these meliorations are “enough.” Palermo also rightly suggests that we should heed Araeen’s suggestion that we read “Ecoaesthetics” alongside two of his other publications. He proceeds to do just this, analyzing “The Art of Resistance: Towards a Concept of Nominalism” to give us a much fuller sense of precisely what Araeen means by his demand in “Ecoaesthetics” that artists stop making objects. My essay cuts short this fundamental call in Aareen’s thinking by moving quickly to discuss environmental art that is more object oriented than conceptual. Palermo reveals that Araeen’s problem with the ego-centred avant-garde comes down to one of capitalism and Eurocentricism. “The bourgeois institutions of Western capitalism’s artworld undermine even the best avant-garde projects,” he deduces, “but they are also what legitimize them.” The only way out of this cycle, it seems, is for the artist to withdraw after s/he has initiated a worthy project, in Palermo’s terms, to engage in “antitheatrical” artmaking.
While I see the bent of Araeen’s argument more clearly in light of Palermo’s scrutiny, we are still asking the question Palermo reiterates: how much environmental action on the part of artists is enough? Measuring effects is next to impossible and likely the wrong way to think about the issues. Amanda Boetzkes wrote in her commentary, “What I find troubling about the tenor and structure of Araeen’s manifesto is that it accepts the generalization of ‘The Problem,’ that it presumes that art should be the domain in which this problem is solved, and that it presumes that art was always and should be in the business of political problem-solving.” Can we say how much difference even a hugely popular environmental platform such as Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth made? Would we measure that change in carbon emissions? No; it’s the wrong way to think about art and artists in this context. Yet Araeen criticizes but also attempts to resuscitate the artist as (now egoless) avant-gardist. Without, I hope, capitulating to a neo-liberal individualism, I think that discussion about “the artist” and unspecified “institutions” of legitimation in Araeen’s texts is simply too sweeping. Surely there are shades of behaviour and belief missed by such generalizations. Take for example the Simon Starling’s One Ton II, 2005, a project that discloses the material cost of industrial production as it pertains to art by revealing the amount of ore required to yield the platinum in the five photographic prints that comprise the work. Is such showing “enough”? Does the fact that Starling won the Turner Prize in 2005 make him an irretrievable part of a discredited capitalist system? Palermo is fully aware of the paradoxes in such work and in such questions. I would add another: if Palermo is right about Araeen’s “radicalization of theatricality,” do we now wait while artists are so radicalized? Palermo suggests that we stop worrying about legitimation, but he and I are less sure about Araeen.
Perhaps this is one difference between the two essays in play here and a reason why they work well together, as Araeen suggests. “The Art of Resistance” emphasizes underlying issues and grapples with them. The urgency of “Ecoaesthetics” gives us no such luxury. In the final pages of his manifesto, Araeen imagines artists using their talents to construe “the process of desalination as an ongoing continuous artwork, with its own dynamics and agency” (683). There are examples today of artists doing exactly this type of work and on a large scale. Think of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s Greenhouse Britain project (2007-09),27 which exhaustively analyzed and graphically presented the potential effects of rising sea levels on the coastal UK. Much more extreme – and thus perhaps a useful test of what artists (and the rest of us) should do in this arena – are Peter Fend’s many large scale environmental proposals, including his elaborate plans to obviate the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China through an alternative scheme for both flood control and power generation.28 He describes this and other schemes under the banner “Art Can Save Us.” Another slogan pertinent to the question of legitimation that Palermo underlines is “Art Can Save Us But the Artworld Will Kill Us.” Can it? Will it? Fend’s ideas tend to remain just that, however brilliantly worked out. So far, then, the answer to his first question has to be ‘no,’ but to be fair, the same answer would apply if we substituted “politics” or “science” in the “can save us” slogan.
Art and its institutions are multiplex, the worries of capitalist levelling notwithstanding. That artists and, yes, their objects and projects can keep environmental issues before our eyes and minds is enough (for me).