Book Reviews: Environment & Art
T. J. Demos
Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art And The Politics of Ecology
Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016. 296 pp. 105 Color ills., 3 B/W. $28 Paper
T. J. Demos
Beyond The World’s End: Arts of Living At The Crossing
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020.
272 Pp. 55 ills. $26.95 paper
The Ecological Eye: Assembling An Ecocritical Art History
Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2019. 216 pp. £19.99 Paper
Panoramic degradations from climate change are worsening, of which the most universal catastrophe so far, spurred by disturbed relations between animals and humans, has been the COVID-19 pandemic’s depredations. The sense of ongoing emergency resulting from these conditions both inspired the books under review and stimulated their authors to polemical fervor. While in Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology, T. J. Demos exhorts protests against nature being territorialized for corporate profit, illustrating exemplary approaches with activists’ visual culture, his Beyond the Worlds End: Arts of Living at the Crossing, which nominally promotes artists’ enacting of enlightened ethics, is more striking for his own expanded purview across the landscape of not only geological and biological abasement but also social and racial suffering. Andrew Patrizio, in The Ecological Eye: Assembling an Ecocritical Art History, turns to art historical methodology to urge a broad approach that mimics ecology’s process of networked relations.
This review is belated for Demos’s Decolonizing Nature (2016), but then so is art historians’ participation as custodians of the biosphere through the practice of ecocriticism. This neologism was invented upon the founding of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) in 1992, which shortly thereafter established a journal, ISLE- Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and a biannual conference. Nothing on that scale has been done in the realm of scholarly art history; the belated focus of just 30% of the 350 sessions of the 2021 CAA Annual Conference was appropriately designated ‘Climate Crisis.’ But if the coronavirus has had one political benefit, the widely shared pain has served as a model of the power of consensual behavior toward group health, at least as demonstrated in some US states. Recognition of how the virus disproportionately sickened people of color and the poor followed, and then widespread protests against racial injustice and police misconduct. Those displays of collective solidarity can be applied to our overarching threat of climate change; attention to these environmentalist books is now timely.
The practice of ecocriticism intensifies the interdisciplinary methodology of modern scholarship in the humanities, requiring knowledge of the enfolded intricacies of biological, geological, and atmospheric sciences as well as legislative, political, and corporate acts, in addition to one’s own area of research. A paradigm illustrating this (and aiding comprehension of Demos’ approach in particular) is given in scholar of literary and cultural environmentalism Ursula K. Heise’s definition of ecocriticism’s “triple allegiance to the scientific study of nature,the scholarly analysis of cultural representations, and the political struggle for more sustainable ways of inhabiting the natural world.”
In Heise’s configuration, science and politics respectively bracket the analysis and interpretation of art forms, traditionally the central practice of criticism. Significantly, both are historians depreciate a close reading of art’s material and visual aspects and resonant evocations in favor of focusing on the other two terms in Heise’s formulation: overt subject matter addressing environmental deterioration and political activism.
Demos, founder and director of the Center for Creative Ecologies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and professor of history of art and visual culture, has been a prolific producer of texts for more than a decade. Increasingly emphatic, buttressed with massive evidence that is environmental in the widest sense, Demos conveys an admirable moral urgency.
His introduction to Decolonizing Nature announces his subject: “Political ecology’ insists on environmental matters of concern as inextricable from social, political and environmental forces”. In that, he stands with and on his chapters’ copious citations of authors famous for dismissing the view that the solution to global warming is scientific– the cause and cure are known – to emphasize the imbrication of environment, economics, politics, and racial justice; the resolution will be social and require systemic change. He is adamantine: “We are being held hostage to corporate powers that place shore-term profits over long-term sustainability, as free-market economics is worshipped at the cost of our planet’s very life-supporting capacity. The system of global governance is clearly failing”.
Demos’s contribution to the ecocritical dialogue is to bring the intersection of geographical, social, and economic environmental impacts to the art audience’s attention and secondarily to inform his readers of artists’ activism against sources of climate change and inequitable burdens. Thus, while Decolonizing Nature’s subtitle, Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology, suggests a customary survey of art – here environmentalist – sequenced chronologically or by art form, his five central chapters feature mostly concurrent artists’ projects grouped either by locale across the globe or by type of environmental disaster, a primary driver for Demos. Those themes are framed, in the first chapter, by a sharply critical assessment of early environmentalist art and, in the last, by artists’ gardenesque projects for the ecologically aligned 2012 iteration of the international exhibition Documenta, which he found to be politically toothless. Demos’s strident declarations make it clear that he has stepped away from the reticent podium of academia to advocate confronting the obstacles to environmental and social change and promote activist artists who are doing so.
One sees this in the first chapter, ‘The Art and Politics of Sustainability,’ in which Demos critiques the idealism of early ecoart as politically indirect. This is selectively exemplified, on the one hand, by ecoart pioneers Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrson’s model fish farms and their orchard growing within galleries (Portable Orchard: Survival Piece #5, 1972-73), which responded to postwar apprehensions of famine ensuing from baby-boom procreation, and, on the other, by Barbara Macilsky’s now canonical 1992 environmental land art and environmentalist ecoart survey exhibition Fragile Ecologies. Demos aptly terms much of the work in the latter show ‘restoration eco-aesthetics,’ projects that, with a combination of spiritual and ecological aims, “enact[ed] the repair of damaged habitats and degraded eco-syscems”. In their time, these were important interventions , but he only lists in passing artist Mel Chin’s famous Revival Fie/d (1991), in which hyper accumulating plants that absorb metals from contaminated earth were then recovered and recycled for green remediation, and makes no mention of the artist-architect Patricia Johanson’s numerous commissions to design sculptural botanical and marine environments that clean water and soil. For him, these sorts of projects “depoliticize [their] subject[s)” and “nature ends up objectified … divorced from social, political and technological processes”. Without historicizing the beliefs that prompted such spiritualesque and directly ameliorative “aims once clearly timely and pressing”, Demos appears to denigrate Fragile Ecologies for displaying values of its time rather than his. Also, he could have acknowledged that the practice of artist as visionary protofixer actually continues, as seen in both the subsequently discussed Plantas Nomadas (2008-13), Gilberto Esparza’s project of “cleaning polluted rivers” in Mexico and recycling the “organic residues, metals, and petroleum-based effluents as energy sources, and in a recent major survey presented at six European venues (Eco-Visionaries: Art, Architecture, and the New Media after the Anthropocene), which Demos endorsed by contributing its catalog’s final statement, a condensation of ideas from Beyond the Worlds End.
Demos’s chapters on environmental catastrophes in the Maldives islands, the Arctic, Mexico, India, and California demonstrate an expansive knowledge of disaster geography and social sequelae; his impressive knowledge of far-flung artists, usually only achieved by a battalion of globe-trotting biennial curators, is a major contribution to pedagogy. Although the art he features is chronologically contemporary, that which he appreciates rejects ‘attempts to revolutionize modes of perception through unconventional, experimental aesthetics – which, however, tend to cater to exclusive audiences versed in the highly specialized discourses of contemporary art’ (page 97).
Rather, he advocates work that illustrates political engagement and that potentially has persuasive traction, such as ‘analyses of ecological destruction … as well as creative alternatives that model forms of environmental sustainability and egalitarian structures of living’, foreshadowing emphases enlarged in his latest book. He makes his judgment clear: ‘Some of the most ambitious artistic engagements, for me, are those that enact an intersectionist politics of aesthetics, where art no longer prioritizes the gallery-enclosed experience of aesthetic contemplation alone, but rather emerges in close proximity to field research, creative pedagogies, political mobilization, and civil society partnerships’ (page 13). The work he features is often photography – of environments or documentation of projects – which accommodates his broader criterion of ‘legibility over experimental imagery or conceptual opacity … a populist dimension’. Yet regarding a Tuvalu island during a tsunami, he did not illustrate a straightforward picture of a low-lying island but rather the Argos Collective (French) photographers’ productively ambiguous water-level intimation of inundation, the slow exposure blurring the swell. Its imaginative sensitivity to formal manipulations serves to powerfully arouse fright, galvanize engagement, and suggest the limitations of prescriptive aesthetics.
Between the two volumes under review, Demos published Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today (Sternberg Press, 2017), a small grenade that excoriates the implications of that proposed geological moniker for the modern epoch, as if its environmental degradations derive from actions of individual Anthropos.
Rather, like Naomi Klein, Donna Haraway, David Harvey, and others, including the universally unmentioned Jussi Parikka (The Anthrobscene, University of Minnesota Press, 2014), Demos persuasively posits that the causes of the exacerbating disequilibria in nature and society are systemic, capitalist, and corporate, in relation to which he derides or lauds a few photographers and artists’ groups. Both books under review, with their materialist assertions about the intersection of politics, economics, culture, and ecology, are useful introductions to his position and the visual culture illustrating that. The latest, Beyond the World’s End, which, as in Decolonizing Nature, mixes new and revised published texts, expands his subject matter; here he approves of ‘experimental forms of contemporary art and visual culture’. However, his exposition continues to be impacted: frequent use of fifty-to-one-hundred-word sentences, composing paragraphs spanning pages, and excessive repetition of the environmentalist buzzwords ‘entangled’ (famously derived from Karen Barad) and ‘intersectional’ (coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw) thwart his populism and intention to persuade.
In this newer volume, Demos begins by acknowledging our end-times era – so many losses of species, glaciers, and normative measures of sea level and of carbon in the atmosphere – and reframing ‘models of aesthetic practice … that not only critically identify manifold problems that threaten existence … [but also] offer diverse approaches to a hopeful futurity’.
Following an introductory statement, seven chapters enact his bold ‘methodological intervention’ of practicing what he preaches with thinking that ‘refuses to limit the significance of climate to the biogeophysical realm’ and ‘expands the reach of ‘climate’ and ‘environment’ to their ‘differential impacts, racially and economically determined’. Thus he embeds filmmaker Arthur Jafa’s collage of news videos on Black lives, Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death (2016), within Anthropocene disparities and juxtaposes it to neoliberal delusions of saving the world by commercial geoengineering. Other chapters address climate refugees, extraction, and animal ‘cosmo-politics.’ These topics, central to environmentalist concerns, are familiar to many; more unusual and informative for a mainstream audience is his discussion of ecological scenarios in the medium of video games. Here he draws from research by Aubrey Anable (Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect, University of Minnesota Press, 2018) to make a psychologically astute assertion that ‘games provide ways to rehearse and practice reactions, feelings, and states that extend nuance, texture, and expectation into everyday life … they bear the potential to modulate present and future behaviors’. While unstated as such, that is pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott’s concept (Playing and Reality, 1971) of the ‘transitional object.’ That reasoning could be applied to the primary value of every work of art Demos discusses – each work not only provides information but also facilitates imagined experience of a thought or behavior prior to one’s enacting of it.
Overall, political, sociological, geographical, and economic aspects of the environmental crisis and artist-activists’ responses appear most compelling to Demos, driving and structuring his discourse, which nominally acknowledges aesthetics while regarding the concept ambivalently. Analysis of the formal and material properties of specific works and their emotional and affective effects is sparse, whether because those aspects appear hardly attended to by their makers or because they are of less interest to Demos. Comparative analysis of the work
of artists commonly associated with environmentalism, such as Mark Dion, Olafur Eliasson, Maya Lin, and Alexis Rockman – all unmentioned by Demos – -could have further substantiated his preference for activists’ visual culture that appears mostly outside the art world.
Yet Beyond the World’s Ends chapter on John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (2015) – a film juxtaposing sea rise and slavery shown on three wall-size screens that is as enthralling visually as it is riveting politically –demonstrates that Demos’s analytical muscle can wrestle eloquently with immersive beauty. Here his atypical laudatory suavity was likely prompted by the essay’s commission by a type of institution he otherwise deplores, a museum.
Latent issues remain to be directly addressed. Demos regularly laments the instrumentalization of elements of nature, including not just petrocapitalism but the use of forests and animals, but he bristles at Artforum’s prohibition against the instrumentalization of art to promote a cause, considering that circumscription a modernist myth. But we do not need art to tell us which way the wind is blowing, as Demos recognized early in Decolonizing Nature: ‘The recent efflorescence of science writing, environmental reporting, documentary film and activist movements raises questions about what role art might play now that consciousness-raising is taking place through mainstream mass media’. Those paying attention are aware of the extent of our environment’s decay; for instance, the New York Times reports on corporate and governmental malfeasance regarding the environment and partnered with the nonprofit ProPublica to publish in 2020 a three-part series on mass human migrations underway resulting from climate change.
Likewise, scientists, engineers, and legislators do a better job than artists at direct rectification. What, then, is the process by which works of art are effective toward consensus building? The video games/Winnicott model Demos describes offers a way, one that requires attention like Akomfah’s to sensory aspects of art. Related, then, is recognizing that the postmodern myth of the anti-aesthetic – critiqued by Rosalind Krauss in 1986 as ‘a simplistic opposition … between formal invention and the social mission of art’ – is obsolete. Intending to model and provoke engagement with the political and social exigencies of climate change, Demos’s forceful texts may be just as productive in discussions of the pressing quandary of how works of art produce social change.
In a canny conjunction of the venerable and the topical, Andrew Patrizio, in his The Ecological Eye: Assembling an Ecocritical Art History, follows those scholars who have acclaimed Millard Meiss’s Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (1951) – in particular its integration of the ‘severe drought of 1347 [and] the repeat failure of crops the next year’ into the discussion of the devastation of the bubonic plague of 1348 – as ‘pioneering ecological art history’.
That inclusion marvelously demonstrates both Patrizio’s advocacy of a ‘horizontalizing ecological eye over the work of both artists and art historians now and in the past’ and his productive use of others’ insights.
Otherwise, his art historian’s eye (and thence the reader’s) does not see illustrative examples of the analysis he proposes, as his is ‘a nondominant form of art historical practice and ideological positioning [that] refuses to be prescriptive’ (page 85) – or even demonstrative. Patrizio, who is a professor of Scottish visual culture at the University of Edinburgh and a critic and curator of contemporary art, laudably positions his text in ‘a neglected territory that lies between the care of the planet and the historical study of visual art’. His subject is art historical methodology; he likens ecology’s relational processes so a diffuse non discriminatory assemblage of approaches that he avers to be beneficial for his non-hierarchical analytical procedure.
Patrizio groups these resources, in which a ‘degree of environmental self-reflexivity [is] co-implicated’ as foundational art historical, feminist, and queer theories; the policies of non-hierarchy, anarchy, and ecology; and ecological critical theory, such as new materialism, post-humanities, and animalities. He particularly aligns himself with Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), ‘a giant in the early formation of anarchism,’ whose ‘concept of mutualism and non-hierarchy; provides one of his ideals. Patrizio’s research toward a new way of thinking was clearly expansive; the nine chapters average seventy-five citations each, ninety-six at the most. But his treatment of this research, which should suggest the intended audience, is confounding. He appears to want to convince scholars outside ecocriticism of this methodological approach, but his introductions on the plethora of quoted scholars are often cursory or belated, or assume familiarity with authors prominent within ecocriticism. He oftentimes evinces his observations by adopting another scholar’s statement or their account of yet another scholar. Long passages by others are frequently not inset from the margins, making it difficult to follow who is speaking. Overall, this patchwork appears to have been produced less by a writer than a quilter. Or maybe it is a sly literalization of Roland Barthes’s 1967 assertion in The Death of the Author: ‘The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.’
Patrizio’s advocacy for a flattening procedural tolerance is compromised by his eruptions of antipathy to the discipline of art history, which he considers ‘riddled with narratives, ideologies, and structures of hierarchy, domination, elitism and power’, even as he seeks to resuscitate ‘historical projects that, to be frank, many outside art history probably no [sic] little about or at best feel are moribund’. His avidity for ‘resisting the [discipline’s] elite structures that still have a hold over parts of our work’; suggests unease about power itself. Not content to merely promote non-hierarchy as an analytic mode, Patrizio enacts it by suppressing his own authority; the blizzard of references drowns out his deeply informed authorial voice. And considering his strong environmentalist concerns, he could have distinguished abstract academic methodology from partisan political strategy; anarchistic non-hierarchy, one might contend, is inimical to social change. In a period of rising tyrants and the rolling back of global warming restraints, and when the very designation of our epoch as the Anthropocene indicates the necessity of inverting humans’ destructive dominance over natural processes and aggressively eliminating carbon consumption, we need laws establishing a hierarchy of salutary values, practices and agencies to enforce them.
Patrizio’s prolegomenon to the practice of ecocritical art history is a valiant effort to respond to climate change by rallying colleagues and describing theoretical practices fruitful to ecological thinking. Art historians’ integration and modeling of environmentalist sensibilities in teaching and writing could not only expand understanding of works of art but affect cultural consciousness, conscience, voting practices, and policy change. The current mantra of ecocriticism adopts novelist Amitav Ghosh’s call-’Let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination’ (quoted by Demos, Beyond the Worlds End) Demos and Patrizio offer a wealth of information on environmentalist artists and ecocritical thinkers who may not be presented to art audiences elsewhere. Their venturesome examples of art historical ecocriticism model methodologies of engagement that challenge scholars to apply their own talents and imaginations toward new practices of are history for our time.