How will 21st century artists represent and imagine our transformed relationship to damaged nature?
The global damage we are inflicting on the planet, with our own survival on the line, has profound influence on our concept of nature, especially with our intrusive and toxic presence now always in view. We can no longer be “out of the picture.” How might this influence our deep-seated cultural assumptions about our relationship to nature, the meaning we give to it, and our portrayals of it, particularly in both representational and imaginative art?
Most representational art and illustration of nature stays carefully within conventional parameters of seeing it as pure, serene, gorgeous, and imparting spiritual uplift. The radical feminist art critic Rebecca Solnit will have none of it. In 2001, she imposed a new aesthetic demand on nature artists: that they depict its physical often gross actuality–gritty, dirty, and assaulted. For Solnit, this complements the honest depictions of women who become symbols of messy nature in such 1990’s artists as Cindy Sherman, Judy Dater, Barbara Bosworth, and Ann Hamilton at the end of the 20th century.
As we come to grips with climate-changed nature in the 21st century, we need to extend this feminist nature aesthetic to help us comprehend how radically changed the world is. Contemporary artists now must contend not only with pervasive despoliation, but intense climate disasters, up-ended familiar landscapes, and a disbelieving, hostile government for such revelations. This has drawn a number of artists both ways—to hyper representational realism and staggering imaginative fantasy, often an enhancement rather than the whole story. They also tend to reconceive the very elements and forms of previous nature art, for instance using found materials and employing older technologies.
Exploring some of these artists begins to give us a sense of the challenges and pleasures of a new climate-changed aesthetic, one that I have named the “Bald” or “Naked” or “Under the Skin Aesthetic.” These terms capture the exposed state of the earth’s surfaces as we dry them out, set fire to them, flood and empty them, and often wipe them clean through the effects of our rampant climate-driven transformations. Finding ways to express this radical change will engage artists in both representational and imaginative strategies.
Artists directly experiencing local effects of climate-change disasters who then make art from it are worth examining as they bring to their work the passion and fear and comprehension of what people around the world have or will have to contended with. This includes Ventura County visual artists Hiroko Yoshimoto, Susan Petty, Luke Matjias, Karen Kitchel, Luther Gerlock and others. These locals deserve our attention for the heroics of their reflectiveness on experiences they and many others endured during fire and other environmental disasters, and they turned them into expressive art that helps define if not console about what the broader world has and will experience in the future.
Robert Chianese, Ph. D., was professor of English at Cal State Northridge for 40 years, where he taught literature and courses linking the humanities, arts, and the environment. He taught at the CSU Northridge Ventura campus for many years and hired the first faculty at the new Cal State Channel Islands.
He won a Mitchel Prize for Sustainable Strategies in 1979, and has been a Fulbright Senior Specialist to Bulgaria and China. He is a recent past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—Pacific Division, the first non-scientist to hold that position in the organization’s 100-year history, and the publisher of his recent book, Art Inspired by Science. He is a columnist for the American Scientist magazine, writing on the connections among science, the humanities and the environment. He is a published poet and essayist and maintains his eco-focused website at www.islandviewmedia.com.
Originally from Trenton, New Jersey, Chianese lives in Ventura, California with Paula, his partner of 54 years. They have two children and four grandchildren.