Sunday, April 25, 2010

Earth, Air, Fire, Water

Earth Day, 2010: Gathered at noontime outside Hopkins Hall, in the shadow of the Constitution Tree (a sycamore, growing in the 1780's), for conversation about "environmental art." I laid out three questions:
  • What roles do you see (let's call it) environmental art playing in the world today?
  • What role can a conversation about environmental art play in Columbus over the next two years?
  • How can art (or: the arts) clarify and support OSU's commitment to sustainability
On the questions, first: "roles" are multiple, running from visual communication and illustration to vehicles of community-formation or renewal to expressions of anger and mourning. The work of art: to release imagination--intuition, empathy, affect, understanding--from its self-enclosure, from its attachment to habits grown meaningless or self-destructive, to glimpse new meanings on the horizon, new mythologies.

Information, Walter Benjamin tells us ("The Storyteller"), is the enemy of wisdom. Traditional wisdom, layered into stories that have gone from hand to hand, tells us "how to go on." Information shocks, leaving us none the wiser; today, we are awash in a rising sea of information, shocked but struggling. Appearing as information," our "environment" appears as an "issue"--already covered, already inscribed in controversy and power. Art can amplify our relation to "the issue," immerse us in, connect us to, facts we (or is it just you?) would rather avoid. And then?

"(Let's call it) environmental art": For some, "environmental art" is a historical label, taking us back to the 1970's, with Land Art and such. Do those labels get in the way? that is: are they part of the meaningless habits that art works to undo? Or might they have a special resonance today, resources for new ways of working? What if they were the ruins of a still-born civilization, a consciousness that never quite emerged? Could we look at them again?

"In the world today:" let's say, the climate for environmental art has changed. Let's say that, in our post-natural world, "the environment" has grown meaningless, even as the degradation of the earth's ecosystems proceeds apace, "Apocalypse as a Way of Life," as Frederick Buell puts it. Eaarth, Bill McKibben calls our "tough, new planet." What roles, what routes can art take? Recall, for instance, how reminiscent Land Art was of heroic modernism, with its extravagant scales. How are we to imagine now?

Like "the environment," "sustainability" is a parking lot, a place everyone uses but few of us linger. We can't do without it, but it's not exactly hospitable to our best thinking. It's paved with information from here to the horizon. So, what if we take it back to the elements? Orient ourselves to the fourfold: earth, air, fire, water? What could art disclose?

In our conversation, Michael Mercil brought up Jonathan Lear's book Radical Hope, subtitled "Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation." Lear's starting-point is a cultural dead-end, the collapse of the Crow nation's way of life: "When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground. ... After this nothing happened." How, then, did they go on? Reinventing themselves, reinventing what it meant to be meaningful. Lear focuses on the testimony of Plenty Coups, the Crow chief, steering his people toward a different way of being, a reinvented tradition.

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