All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Science and environmental art

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Burtynsky's ship deconstruction

Burtynsky’s ship deconstruction

What is environmental art?  Nobody can come up with a definition of art that pleases everyone, let alone environmental art.  So let’s just say this is where art and environmentalism intersect and leave it at that.  Even the acclaimed website Treehugger refuses to be drawn into the controversy. 

But in the current state of the environment, isn’t environmental art frivolous, something best left to scientists and activists?

In a word, no.  Art can convey a message for those refractory to science; but even for scientists, art can touch the soul in a way that science can’t. 

Novelist and scientist Vladimir Nabokov famously said that “there is no science without fancy and no art without fact.” In the same spirit, for sci-fi novelist Liu Cixin “the beauty of science is locked within cold formulas.  [Sci-fi builds] a bridge to this beauty, freeing it from formulas and displaying it for all to see.” 

What is true of sci-fi is also true of environmental art: it gives us the stories and images to understand a complex and changing world, and these stories and images point to a way to move forward.  (I’m stealing words from a wonderful article by Judith Shulevitz defending the importance of liberal arts.)

Fifty four years ago C.P. Snow famously coined the expression “the two cultures” to describe the gulf between the sciences and the humanities.  It remains largely true that these two have a hard time communicating, but there are notable exceptions, and the domain of environmental art is one of them. 

Andy Goldsworthy's fence

Andy Goldsworthy’s fence

Environmental art is, of course, a thing of artists, and much information about environmental art may be found in fine arts magazines, such as Lake Journal, Chicago Art Magazine, Artes Magazine, WEAD, or Phaidon.    

And because it’s environmental, environmental magazines do cover environmental art: the last June issue of A/J had extensive coverage, with articles about prints from Newfoundland; a lesson on seeing things from five environmental documentary directors; forms with function, a profile of seven environmental artists; and slammin poetry about environmental change.  Quite a wonderful issue.

The on-line enviromags are no slouches, either: check out Grist here or here (about Franke James), or Treehugger here and here.

But what is more surprising is the extent to which straight science magazines cover environmental art.  In particular, the journal American Scientist features extensive coverage, whether it is of photography of natural phenomena of unique beauty (see the amazing ice flowers here), or reviews of the work of environmental artists such as Agnes Denes, Andy Goldsworthy, or Robert Smithson (of Spiral Jetty fame).  That’s in a magazine better known for blowing your mind with sub-atomic particle discoveries or computer forensics.

The august Scientific American is another interesting source, too: its profile of the underwater statuary park off the shores of Cancun in Mexico is a fine blend of ocean science and art critique.

So take that, two-culture gulf.  This bridge is most welcome and most needed: as Bill McKibben said, what the warming world needs is art, sweet art.  Amen.

Jason DeCaires Taylor's underwater sculpture

Jason DeCaires Taylor’s underwater sculpture


Written by enviropaul

September 2, 2013 at 6:06 pm

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