To Life!: Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet

To Life!: Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet

by Linda Weintraub

ISBN: 9780520273627

Publisher University of California Press

Published in Calendars/Arts

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Sample Chapter


Eco Art Is

"ECO ART IS ..." IS AN INCOMPLETE SENTENCE that all the pages in this book attempt to resolve. While new concepts are introduced by each chapter, eco art's extraordinary diversity coexists with a thread of commonality. These works share such descriptive nouns as experiment, exploration, and inquiry, suggesting that eco artists may be testing the limits of art's tolerance for change. Thus, examining eco art raises such quandaries as these:

Is innovation an essential aspect of a masterwork of art?

Is an understanding of past art a prerequisite for appreciating vanguard art?

These pesky and persistent questions have been swarming around Western art since the collapse of the guilds in Europe after the Middle Ages. That is when cultural attention shifted from the otherworldly domain of infinity and eternity to this-worldly interest in materiality and progress. The transformation established the dynamic course of civilization that has been accelerating and intensifying to this day. Along that course, the pathways of work, family, recreation, governance, and spirituality have resembled lanes, byways, arterials, detours, and occasion dead ends. Comparable routes chart the dynamic course of art.


Most of the artists who have earned enduring esteem have dislodged existing standards of art. Nonetheless, innovation does not ensure renown. History demonstrates that two additional criteria are essential to earning masterwork status—the characteristics of artistic innovation must correlate with the nature of changes occurring in society at that time, and the degree of novelty must be synchronized with the extent and intensity of these changes.

How is this accomplished? Expanding art's mediums is one way artists throughout the ages have fulfilled these criteria; for example, clay and bronze factored into past avantgardes because they were once novelties. Employing newly invented technologies is another means to introduce meaningful change in art; tube paint, welding guns, and lasers mark a succession of technological adoptions by avant-garde artists. Acknowledging a changed locus of influence is another strategy; for example, art made for domestic interiors instead of cathedrals and castles was innovative in the seventeenth century. Eco art perpetuates this pedigree because the scales, mediums, processes, and themes it is introducing are correlated with compounding environmental woes and humanity's determined efforts to rectify them. Its innovations address the uncertain fate of life currently existing on planet Earth.

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, and so forth, eco art can tamper with the popular assumption that art engages the human spirit. Two responses defend including pragmatic practices within the realm of "art." First, art that focuses on the practical requirements of survival already appears on the historic trajectory of art innovations. Consider, for example, the many cultures where art functions as offerings to gods who reciprocate the favor by producing rain, multiplying flocks, healing the sick, curdling milk, and raising the sun. Second, artists typically serve the needs of their contemporaries. In the past, art has awakened devotion in times of spiritual unrest and it has aroused protest in times of suppression. Now art innovation is including utilitarian strategies regarding pollution, resource depletion, climate change, escalating populations, and so on, because the strategies that sustain us are threatened.


Every art interaction is individualized. It is a product of a person's knowledge, intuition, interest, and mood. Familiarity with past art offers one of many ports of entry. Since the far-reaching innovations that eco artists are initiating comprise the content of this book, it is simply a fact that some people will relate this work to poets William Blake and William Wordsworth, or environmentalists Aldo Leopold and John Muir, or painters John Constable and Claude Monet, or philosophers Aristotle and Murray Bookchin. However, readers with none of these reference points need not despair. It also suffices if their context consists of a landscape painted with skill, observed sensitively, and rendered faithfully, or trips to Disney World and the Magic Kingdom, or Discovery Channel specials. All these possibilities provide portals for assessing eco art's explorations with temperature, moisture, sunlight, wind, water, topography, compaction, chemical change, plants, animals, microbes, and human cultural patterns.

In addition to defending its status as art, eco art must also justify its adoption of the prefix eco-. On one level, this is satisfied by noting the shared goal between ecologists and artists participating in today's environmental movement—they all actively strive to ensure the vitality of Earth's ecosystems. Four attributes refine the identification of eco art with ecology: topics, interconnection, dynamism, and ecocentrism. These attributes serve as routes for navigating the inspiring profusion of eco artworks. New discoveries are continually being made at their intersections, feeding the ever-evolving expanse of eco art.

Topics that apply to eco art comprise a vast spreadsheet of opportunities that are derived from the rigorous methods of ecologists and the subjective considerations of environmentalists. On the one hand, artists influenced by ecologists glean topics of consideration from three sources: nonhuman organisms, the nonliving environment, and human actions. Every temporal, spatial, behavioral, physical, and chemical possibility on Earth is accounted for within these three categories. On the other hand, artists who behave like environmentalists enrich this topical abundance by adding intuition, opinion, and interpretation. Their shared environmental agenda, however, rarely produces consensus regarding causes of observed phenomena or strategies to protect or rectify them. As a result, eco art encounters are replete with surprises. Some artists, for example, place faith in nature's own healing powers, while others trust human ingenuity. Some focus on local remedies while others adopt global perspectives.

Interconnection is the inescapable law of links and relationships that govern all materials, all processes, and all events on Earth. Eco art that manifests this principle accepts the influences of fluctuating humidity, temperature, sunlight, fungus, bacteria, mice, and humans. Glossaries of ecological terms affirm the centrality of interconnections to this discipline. They reference, for example, system, network, synergy, coevolution, community, commensalism, mutualism, symbiosis, competition, mimicry, feedback, and succession. The ecological axiom that no object is separate and no force is isolated has engendered a host of new disciplines that replace their former separatist identities. They are known as behavioral ecology, urban ecology, social ecology, acoustic ecology, political ecology, industrial ecology, Christian ecology, and media ecology, to name a few. Oddly, the term used to refer to art that embraces the abiding truth of connectivity is eco art, not art ecology.

Dynamism acknowledges that anything occupying space also transforms through time. Eco works of art that incorporate this attribute submit to the perpetual permutations that account for life on Earth by melting, evaporating, growing, mutating, dying, and so forth. While flux is inevitable, its tempo is variable, determined by the inherent responsiveness of a medium and the intensity of surrounding influences. Some artists choreograph this dynamic duet so that it proceeds according to plan. Others allow their works to yield to conditions they do not predict or wish to control.

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. Societies founded on anthropocentrism cultivate "the humanities" and focus on human constructs, not natural systems. Furthermore, they honor "humanitarian" efforts to privilege the welfare of humans, not other living entities. The ecocentric alternative urges humans into alignment with broader environmental directives. It interprets reality as Gaia, the Earth goddess of the ancient Greeks. In 1979 James Lovelock, the renowned independent scientist and author, evoked the Gaia hypothesis that focuses on interdependence and mutuality, as applicable to humans as any other form of life. Ecocentric artists may choose to manifest this theory by inviting living entities and inert forces to create the physical, structural, and functional attributes of their works of art.

In sum, eco art's defining features can be constructed out of these four attributes:

• Topic identifies the dominant idea and determines the work's material and expressive components.

• Interconnections apply to the relationships between the physical constructs of a work of art and between the work of art and the context in which it exists.

• Dynamism emphasizes actions over objects, and changes over ingredients.

• Ecocentrism guides thematic interpretations as well as decisions regarding the resources consumed and the wastes generated at each juncture of the art process.

Since no single work epitomizes all four attributes, and no attribute alone conveys the range of eco art's thematic and material components, this book presents a panorama of examples. The burgeoning arena of contemporary eco art is disclosed, therefore, from two vantage points. Individual works of art delineate the components of this cultural landscape. The overview becomes visible only at their intersections, through relationships, and in combination.


Eco Art Is Not

WHEN "TO LIFE!" RESOUNDS at gatherings of well-wishers and grievers, it is reserved for one particular species—humans. Its exclusivity characterizes anthropocentrism, the perception and interpretation of earthly phenomena in terms of human experience and values.

If, however, ecologists and environmentalists were to exclaim "To life!," the object of their toast would include microbes, plants, animals, and their habitats. Individuals who share ecology's commitment to the perpetually shifting, infinitely layered montage of living entities manifest ecocentrism. The ecocentric worldview honors life's sanctity, augments its diversity, protests its neglect, and optimizes its vitality.

The word ecocentrism entered the English language in the 1970s after a zealous minority arose to proclaim that rights belong to all species, not just humans. Ecocentrism envisions humans as components of interconnected systems. These systems are more essential to the planet than any of the individuals or objects found here.

The Twentieth-Century artists who joined this cause established the strategic and perceptual underpinnings of current eco art. These eco art pioneers challenged the assumptions that nonhuman forms of life are important only to the extent that they are useful to humans. The imprint of this anthropocentric supposition defined the cultural norm. It was evident in the era's prevailing notions of utility, beauty, ethics, recreation, spirituality, politics, and so forth. This essay provides a sampling of such anthropocentric notions by exploring three of its manifestations: productivity, longevity, and perspective. Each is revealed through a Twentieth-Century vanguard art movement: pop art, land art, and conceptual art. The individual examples of each were created by artists renowned for being among the originators of these movements: Andy Warhol, Walter De Maria, and On Kawara.

All three vanguard movements revolutionized fine art protocols. Ironically, they accomplished this transformation by affirming the cultural values that mainstream culture absorbed throughout this turbulent era. It is remarkable, therefore, that none of these examples of pop, land, or conceptual art was fueled by cultural dissent. It was left to eco artists to dispute the ethics and prudence of these transformations and implement reforms. Citing these movements, therefore, provides a means to convey the renegade character of eco art. Besides establishing its oppositional stance, such antithesis clarifies the principles that propel eco artists' bold explorations. Thus, the question, What is eco art? is answered in this essay by explaining what eco art is not. The text prepares readers to acknowledge eco art's contribution to art of the 1960s and 1970s as a deviation from a cultural norm that, remarkably, included vanguard art. This deviation exists even when Warhol depicts flowers, De Maria engages weather, and Kawara interprets landscape. While these subjects appear related to the considerations that fuel eco art, none of these artists addresses these issues from the vantage of a sustainable planet. Instead, they remain loyal to anthropocentric perspectives.


Andy Warhol demonstrates that paintings of flowers in full bloom in a field don't necessarily evoke the beauty of nature or the concerns of environmentalists. His pop art paintings have more in common with General Electric, Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, IBM, Bell Telephone, US Steel, Pepsi-Cola, DuPont, RCA, and Westinghouse. The unprecedented productive capacity of these industrial giants was being celebrated by lavish displays at the 1964 World's Fair in New York City, the same year Warhol initiated his Flower series.

Although Warhol also showcased the abundance that infused American society in the mid-twentieth century, he did not depict a shoppers' paradise. Instead, his attention went behind the scenes to the processes responsible for both the production of cheap goods and the generation of popular imagery. He then reconfigured the production of his art to match the machine's takeover of culture and landscape, replacing the sensibilities, aesthetics, and skills associated with fine art with the mechanized production, assembly-line routines, and commercial strategies of non-art material production. These art practices occurred in a studio he renamed the Factory to indicate his radical artistic goal—to minimize inputs and maximize output. Warhol summed up his artistic intentions when he declared, "The reason I'm painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do."

Between June and July of 1964, Warhol created seven large paintings showing four Mandrinette flowers at peak bloom. The image of this prized hibiscus was mass-produced by a legion of Factory assistants who completed as many as eighty small Flower paint ings per day. Warhol exclaims, "Friends come over to the Factory and do the work with me. Sometimes there'll be as many as fifteen people in the afternoon, filling in the colors and stretching the canvases." Printmaking, even more than painting, enabled Warhol to exploit factory production strategies. By adopting a simple reproductive technique known as silk screen, the factory accelerated and increased its output of images. Perhaps the most radical confirmation of the industrial ethic was the strategy he devised to demonstrate that in an age of mass production, the multiple takes the place of the original. Warhol signed all the works that emerged from the Factory whether or not he was personally involved in their production.

Warhol's adoption of the cultural norm is apparent in the contemporary context in which he acquired the flowers he painted. Instead of growing in a field or garden, these flowers appeared in the June 1964 issue of Popular Photography magazine. The flowers had little connection with living botanicals. Instead, they were captured mechanically with a camera and processed industrially when they were developed and printed. Warhol's process is a tribute to the machine and its takeover of natural occurrences. His style of representation further accentuated these cultural insignia. The images were altered by subtracting the flowers' textures and shading, pressing their spatial complexity into a flat decorative pattern, and then adding the hypersaturated hues common on '60s miniskirts, go-go boots, and psychedelic record album covers. Through these devices Warhol reformulated flowers into the glaringly artificial depictions of nature on tissue boxes and gift wrapping, earning them esteem as emblems of contemporary reliance on industrial manufacture.

Anthropocentric Productivity

The flowers Warhol represented were neither grown like botanicals nor created like art. They were assembled like cars. Their production encapsulates the anthropocentric reliance upon commerce and industry. Warhol's Mandrinette blossoms are as laborsaving as TV dinners, as synthesized as plastic, as processed as breakfast cereals, and as contrived as network news.

Excerpted from "To Life!: Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet" by Linda Weintraub. Copyright © 2013 by Linda Weintraub. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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