In the mid-1970s I had a friend whose father was planning to make an end-of-the-world desk calendar, the tear-off variety, with a different quote for each day. It seemed humorous until he told us some of quotes he had selected. One that stuck in my mind was from Neil Young’s song, “After the Gold Rush”: “Look at Mother Nature on the run / In the 1970s.” I remember dwelling on this juxtaposition: the abstract, ludicrous idea of the end of the world on one hand, and the vivid apocalyptic images that the lyric brought to mind on the other. The song lines reached me and made me uncomfortable, and the calendar concept didn’t seem funny anymore. I remembered the calendar when I first noticed that I was encountering a significant amount of art that addressed the environmental crisis. Up to that point I had been successfully compartmentalizing my rather detached concerns about climate change, considering it the purview of scientists, not of an art historian working in New York. When I let in the art, it became harder to maintain that stance. I simultaneously became aware that scholars such as Alan Braddock were developing an interdisciplinary perspective to art history that takes environmental realities into account. I found this to be very inspiring and experienced a strong feeling of connectedness. There were no more excuses to remain aloof.
The individuals whose statements are included here consciously create art that engages with the environmental crisis. Their art not only raises awareness of our predicament, it helps us to imagine other worlds and possible outcomes, offering opportunities for direct action, reminding us of our broken connection to nature, and at times offering solutions that could potentially be scaled up. Collectively these art works make it harder to disregard the impact of destructive human activity on Earth’s fragile ecosystems. They are a manifestation of the urgency of our situation, and can help us resist feelings of helplessness that can lead to apathy. These artists address myriad issues, including concerns about the impact of their materials on the waste stream, concern for environmental justice, the need for collaboration with communities, and a basic need to document the threats to a habitable planet Earth. All place faith in the power of visual representation as a form of expression.
Environmentally engaged art is a product of a culture in crisis and as such will be passed down to future generations. Roy Scranton argues persuasively in Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene that the preservation and continuation of culture in the form of human records—the humanities—is as essential to our long-term survival as a species as are the physical conditions on earth. While he focuses primarily on records in the form of texts, works of visual art have a similar significance. Assuming we get there, this art will one day be a means of bearing witness to how we responded. For now, it has the potential to awaken our resolve and shape our next steps, changing the message and cultivating new narratives.
I’ve been asked on several occasions how we will know if environmentally engaged art has helped change minds, or whether it has helped people make better decisions around climate change. I posed similar questions in 2017 when I chaired a session optimistically titled “Art and Sustainability in the Anthropocene” at the conference for the Council for European Studies. There are some concrete metrics we can produce that involve tracking viewership and subsequent actions taken. We can count the numbers of visitors to exhibitions that address environmental issues, et cetera. But in the end, these statistics are not strictly necessary to defend the art’s value. We have only to take note of the prevalence of artists who have been utilizing all available platforms to communicate, and understand that each of these acts represents a willingness to stare down a monster. By facing what is happening and rendering it visible, artists challenge and empower viewers to confront and comprehend as well, offering footholds as we search our way forward.
The texts that follow respond loosely to questions I posed about the role art can play in the environmental crisis. I asked the contributors how their goals regarding their work had shifted over time, and how they maintain a balance between a sense of hope and agency on the one hand, and despair on the other, because it is potentially overwhelming to open oneself up to the vast repercussions of climate change and create in its wake.
I was introduced to Phong Bui by Jack Flam, President of the Dedalus Foundation, with whom I studied while in graduate school. I had mentioned to Jack that I was soon to publish an anthology on artistic responses to global climate change and its consequences, and he immediately thought of Phong. Under his editorship The Brooklyn Rail, has consistently provided a forum for this subject since Hurricane Sandy. In my anthology, Art, Theory and Practice in the Anthropocene (2018), as in the following pages, I have gathered together a range of voices and perspectives. We need not speak in unison to be in solidarity with one another.