A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History

Article excerpt

MEDIA REVIEW A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History Braddock, A., & Irmscher, C, (Eds.). (2009). A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press. 278 pages, (paperback). ISBN 978-0-8173-5551-7

A Keener Perception (2009) has sought to highlight research in American art history with an ecocritical perspective, the ethical integration of visual analysis, cultural interpretation, and environmental history. Editors Alan Braddock and Christoph Irmscher have questioned how art historians and scholars who care about climate change can respond through scholarly inquiry in a way that fosters solutions through the transformation of environmental perception and historical understanding. They have offered this book as a re-imagination of environmental relations and possibilities for our planet, through its highlighting of environmental contexts of past cultural artifacts, bringing attention to neglected evidence of past ecological sensibility, casting canonical works and figures in a new light regarding environmental concerns, and emphasizing the particular ways in which human creativity unfolds within different environments. They have asserted that ecocritical art history challenges anthropocentrism while fostering a greater awareness of environmental relationships, the predicament of nonhumans, and limits of human dominion. I recommend this book as a model and content resource to inspire both art teachers and curriculum developers to reimagine how we teach about historical and contemporary issues confronting our natural world in art and art history classrooms through discussions and artmaking.

The focus on American culture in the volume has been the result of the book's inception at the 2005 American Studies Association conference, and the editors' desire to further examine American ideologies of exceptionalism and what Perry Miller (1967) describes as the belief in America as "nature's nation" (p.15). The volume's chapters follow a chronological journey through American environmental history from the 16th to the 21st century. Three prominent themes covered are environmental inte reo nnectedness, sustainability, and justice. These themes deserve attention, as they provide a framework for teachers to structure art curriculum that encourages students to take an active, informed approach to sustainability through increased awareness of the connectedness of our natural world. Also explored are how the tension between development and preservation has been dealt with historically and can be thought of contemporarily in our country, and how sustainability can be expanded to include social justice.

The first theme, environmental inte reo nnectedness, has been addressed in terms of the relation between human and nonhuman nature, acceptance of nature on its own terms, and recognition that humans are not the most important part of the larger environment. Acknowledging the interconnectedness of the natural world has served as a foundation for understanding and appreciating the necessity of environmental sustainability. Thomas Hallock's chapter, "Vivifkation and the Early Art of William Bartram," contemplated the lifelike, emotionally evocative illustrations produced during 18th-century American naturalist William Bartram's travels through the American South. Hallock addressed how the notion of being curiosities, an 18th-century European concept, was often attached to American specimens. The emphasis on classification fueled philosophical questions about the permeability between human, plant, and animal realms. Hallock asserted that Bartram's experiences in the field compelled him to give plants and animals human qualities, emphasizing their interconnectedness. In the chapter, "Wonderful Entanglements," Christoph Irmscher demonstrated how naturalist Louis Agassiz and illustrator Antoine Sonreí critiqued the belief that humans are primary among the diversity of beings, through their collaboration on the book, Contributions to the Natural History of the United States of America (1857). …