Ecology and Art: East Asian Traditions Meet West

Article excerpt


Recent discussions of ecological crisis have emphasized the far-reaching consequences of environmental neglect This paper will argue that aesthetic cosmologies in the Daoist and certain Buddhist traditions (Huayan, Zen Buddhist) as well as their respective artistic traditions can provide Christianity with helpful ecological resources. In addition, examples of contemporary environmental art in the West will be examined for their ecologically sensitive messages. The aesthetic traditions of East Asia display well the vision of nature in which every element of the universe is celebrated for its particular contribution. According to this model, humanity's role is not to dominate nature; rather, as members of the cosmic community, humanity needs to align themselves with the rest of the universe. Since our culture is deeply visual, East Asian aesthetic traditions together with contemporary ecological art, provide an important insight how to envision environmental ethics of care.

I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.... I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself. (1)

Recent discussions of ecological crisis have emphasized the far-reaching consequences of environmental neglect, from pollution and the decimation of various ecosystems, species extinction, and rise in health problems to injustices against the most vulnerable--the poor, women and children. (2) Domination of nature (naturism) is closely linked to other systems of domination, such as the domination of poor countries in the South by the rich in the North, and the global presence of domination based on gender, race, ethnicity or class status. (3) While many think that the environmental crisis stems from the rampant industrialization encouraged by the expectation of ever-growing profits and surplus, the role of anthropocentrism in the western Christian tradition has been widely recognized as one of the contributing factors. Recognizing the limitations of any particular religious outlook, scholars involved in interreligious initiatives acknowledge the need for uncovering the resources present within the worlds' religions to develop ecologically sound cosmology and environmental ethics. The aim of such a dialogue is to provide a "creative revisioning of mutually enhancing human-earth relations.... [R]eligious traditions may help to supply both creative resources of symbols, rituals, and texts as well as inspiring visions for reimagining ourselves as part of, not apart from the natural world." (4) A number of recent anthologies reflect this concern for an examination of ecological issues from the angle of world religions. (5) Thus, various Christian theologians begun to engage in a dialogue with other religions to advance their own ecologically sensitive theologies. (6) In addition to the mutually relevant resources present in other religious traditions, some theologians acknowledge the importance that art can bring to the discussion at hand For example, a Daoist scholar, Jeffrey Meyer, calls for the inclusion of aesthetic appreciation (of poetry, paintings and of Chinese gardens) into the educational system to invoke a respect for nature. (7) Rosemary Radford Ruether, likewise, recognizes the significance of arts in the protest liturgies: "We can call on all the arts--song and music, dance and mime, posters and banners, costumes and puppetry--to shape the public liturgies of biospheric politics." (8) According to Sallie McFague, art from paintings, sculpture, and poetry to literature, dance and music gives us an opportunity to pay attention to the details and particular existences of beings other than ourselves: birds, stones, trees, etc. (9) In what follows, I will look at the aesthetic cosmology as well as artistic traditions present in Daoism and Buddhism and suggest how these resources can further our ecological concerns. …