Confronting Environmental Collapse: Visual Culture, Art Education, and Environmental Responsibility

Article excerpt

The news about Earth's environmental health is not good. The scientific consensus that human activities are contributing to global warming has solidified. The planet can look forward to rising sea levels, melting glaciers, significant changes in drought and rainfall patterns, species extinctions, ecosystem disruptions, more severe storms, new emerging diseases, and frightening levels of social and cultural dislocation. But will the world's governments and corporations act soon enough to curb the release of greenhouse gases and reduce other forms of environmental degradation?

This special issue of Studies in Art Education is a timely call to art educators to take up the challenge of confronting the environmental crisis. The environmental challenges ahead are complex and multi-dimensional. However, we believe that artists and educators can and must play a role in bringing about a more environmentally responsible and ecologically literate culture.

The arts and visual culture generally have always provided tools and a medium for negotiating the interface between culture and nature, the human and the "more-than-human." From the beginning, humans have used visual and material means to depict and invoke the forces of nature for both practical and spiritual purposes. By representing the non-human world in art we invest it with meaning and personal or cultural relevance. Thus, humans make a home in nature not just by engaging with the biophysical world in the practical search for food and survival, but also by articulating nature's meaning and import and imagining how their aspirations fit within the context of non-human realities. This is a cultural rather than a technological project.

In a time of mounting environmental damage and threatening future prospects, we believe the arts must help guide human beings towards a more informed and responsible engagement with the natural world. Learning to live in nature in a sustainable way is a cultural challenge to our very sense of who we are and what we should aspire to become. To meet that challenge, we need more than new energy efficient technologies and new sources of fuel. We need to re-think and re-imagine the human place in nature. This is one of the most pressing tasks set for artists, educators, and other cultural actors today.

There is precedent for the hope that the arts can contribute to the task of re-interpreting our relationship to the natural world. We know that when European colonists first came to North America, they often did not see beauty and moral significance in the landscapes they encountered. The wilderness they experienced was imbued with Satanic connotations and was to be feared. The colonists worked hard to domesticate the wild nature they found, motivated not only by practical need, but also by what wilderness meant. In the 1 9th century, painters, photographers, and poets began to re-imagine the natural world around them. They were instrumental in leading Americans to see beauty and ethical meaning in wild nature. Indeed, their works helped convince society that environmental appreciation and conservation were socially and politically significant.

More recently, artists have used their work both to highlight human relationships to nature, and also to actively remediate environmental sites.1 For example, artist Bob Johnson's work, River Cubes, involves public sculptures made from discarded junk removed from public waterways. The pieces draw attention to the waterways, while also raising questions about how we treat them. In a similar vein, Daniel Dancer's ZeroCircles project uses stone circles in mining or logging sites to advocate for zero pollution, or zero cutting on public lands. Artworks like these draw attention to environmental problems and help to inspire efforts at finding solutions. At another level, artists such as Betsy Damon, Aviva Rahmani, and Yolanda Gutiérrez create artworks that engage in environmental remediation. …