Environmentalism in Art
“Eco” is the prefix that represents the word “ecology,” a term that refers broadly to how people interact with their physical and social environments. The term also refers to how organisms interact with their environment. Problematizing the history of “ecology,” Hiroko Shimizu, one of the contributors to the exhibition catalogue Eco-Art, maintains, “the term ecology has mixed the layers of traditional views of nature and the scientific objectivity of the West. It is traditionally said in Japan that nature and human beings are recognized not as separate entities but as a state of interrelation.” She goes on to explain that ecology is a perception that existed long before anyone labeled it.[i] In other words, human actions are part of ecology and we have the capability of influencing everything in our environment, either in a positive, negative or neutral way. It is important to approach this discussion through global perspectives because environmentalism is a global concern and one that requires many voices and interpretations to reach sensible outcomes. For this exhibition however, it is equally relevant to look at how artists in the region respond to environmentalism.
Scientists, art historians and artists generally point to the mid-twentieth century as the beginning of the contemporary movement in environmentalism. However, many will also point to earlier catalysts, such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold. Even Thomas Cole is lauded for his nineteenth-century landscape paintings that are as much about Manifest Destiny as they are about preservation. Linda Weintraub and Andrew Brown largely refer to the 1960s and Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring as the beginning of the environmental movement.[ii] Weintraub also notes events that occurred in the 1960s, which spurred the debate in the West, including smog that was linked to 750 deaths in London, an oil tanker crash off the coast of England in 1967 and an oil spill in 1969 off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.
Recently, Weintraub and Brown have put forth efforts to define which artists created early examples of works that fit within current notions of environmentalism in art. Weintraub is a scholar of eco-art who developed her expertise on the topic through her interest in the avant-garde. Her definition of eco-art relies on the concept of ecocentrism, which is a term that was coined by activists in the 1970s. Weintraub asserts, “Ecocentrism refers to the principle that humans are not more important than other entities on Earth. It is the opposite of anthropocentrism, which interprets reality in terms of human values and experiences.”[iii] With respect to the early stages of the eco-art movement, Weintraub elaborates:
Although eco art has been hovering in the wings of the art scene for over half a century, two phenomena are converging that might ultimately cast it in a leading role in the current era’s cultural chronicle. First, its mission is becoming ever more crucial, as the Earth’s ability to sustain current and future generations of humans becomes more precarious…. Second, the number of international artists rejuvenating the planet has reached a critical mass.[iv]
Sustainability is key to Weintraub’s interpretation of eco-art, whereas others are content to include any art that has something to do with plants, natural phenomena or global position. By her definition, “Four attributes refine the identification of eco art with ecology: topics, interconnection, dynamism, and ecocentrism.”[v] Through her in-depth analysis of eco-art, Weintraub has staked a claim on the term, confining it to art that deals specifically with environmental sustainability. Although this approach limits the genre of environmentalism in art, it allows us to appreciate eco-art by artists with diverse bodies of work. It also gives artists flexibility where they might otherwise be designated as eco-artists. The works chosen for this exhibition exemplify this situation by offering multi-layered readings that support ecocentric principles.
[i] Hiroko Shimizu, “Future Compass, Ikeda Water – Flowable to Amplify,” in Eco-art, John K. Grande et al. (Helsinki: Pori Art Museum, 2011), 76.
[ii] Andrew Brown, Art & Ecology Now, (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2014), 11; Linda Weintraub, To Life!: Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 19-20.
[iii] Weintraub, To Life!, 7.
[iv] Ibid., xiv.
[v] Ibid., 6.