an education in sustainable arts: why on earth would I want to do that?!

Following misapprehension and discontent aired on the ecoartnetwork about the lack of interest from graduates towards new courses exploring aspects of cultural response to climate change, sustainability and other such globally (and locally) important issues, I would like to offer some thoughts based on my own experience as part of one such course – the MA Art & Environment at University College Falmouth[i] developed by Dr Daro Montag and the RANE group in the UK.

 a childhood in nature (from the ward family photo archive)

For those of us who are deeply involved in ecological art and its development the many attitudes and assumptions we take for granted within our practice and vocation are maybe not always obvious  – how perhaps we have been fortunate enough to be introduced during our childhood to the sense of empathy and responsibility that we hope to catalyse in others, or the practical skills and knowledge relevant to the ecological remediation actions we propose and even the power and potential of art as a means for social change. The pressing and desperate sense of responsibility we all feel towards the present crisis often clouding our perception as to what is right before our eyes. It is often also the case that we do not fully acknowledge those art practices that fall outside the mainstream of our vocational intent such as object making, art for therapy and pleasure and the multitude of functions that it plays both individually and culturally in our lives.

“Re-engaging with the raw materials from which our lives are shaped is a potent reminder of the difference between what is real and what is only illusory” Anna Konig[ii]

During my MA in Falmouth the discrepancies between our individual motivations and assumptions has become one of the most dynamic aspects of the course, providing an excellent opportunity for discussion and reflection on the nature of our approaches to what is ultimately a hugely diverse area of art practice. Participants on the course range from artists (painters, sculptors, photographers, performers) to management consultants, activists, conservationists, garden designers, ornithologists and fashion designers. While our individual dedication to environmentalism has been unquestionable and created an incredible sense of community within the group, our attitudes and experience of the function and form art might play within our political objectives has been a constant matter of philosophical debate. Such healthy and open-minded conversation has allowed us all to crystallise and define the way our own individual aptitudes might be utilised or simply how we might chose to respond towards the process of ecological reconciliation we hope to support.

 teaching ecology (from the ward family photo archive)

However, one of the main bones of contention to be levelled at the course has been that we had primarily enrolled on the course as artists, whatever that meant to us at the time, and not as environmentalists or social practitioners, even though we all had an interest in ‘the environment’ in some way. What quickly became apparent was the course’s emphasis on issues and on the scientific interpretation of such issues, albeit framed within the context of (environmental) art, which led to a stimulating but often badly managed forum for philosophical debate. Many of us felt that such focus detracted from our main objectives – that is to explore and develop as contemporary artists, rather than as environmentalists, to investigate the dynamics and material of communication through art practice rather than through a deeply emotional engagement with the politics and despair of our times. But then is it really possible to explore one without the other? Can we detach the matter of politics and science from our practice as artists?

“The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude…” George Orwell[iii]

Art in the West is too often a statement or expression of our privilege obtained through imperial domination. Until we can be honest with ourselves about this dimension of our behaviour, accept it as part of our nature and how it is manifest in our art, we will continue to produce work that potentially aggravates rather than alleviates the social and ecological issues we are facing. The dynamic ecology of this planet implies responsibility for its care – if we do not look after it all we are merely destroying ourselves – this makes no sense at all. However such an attitude of care is the complete antithesis of the dislocation and disconnection perpetuated by our civilisation, which purposefully aims to deny our individual power to respond in favour of corporate interests.

The prevalent attitude within art education is still that of modernism – art should and can only refer to itself, rather than anything of the world, that it should not be treated exclusively as ‘instrumental’ towards one cause or another, and that by doing so it in some way decreases its quality and value as art. But it must be remembered that such an attitude is certainly one of the attractions of art – to ‘escape’ from or avoid or skirt around the responsibilities that the world presents – to deny our influence and power in the world – and politically this is certainly not discouraged. It is generally only after some degree of life experience that our, and arts, potential as a powerful medium of social change becomes apparent and that we begin to recognise our aptitude for such work. Regarding the value and quality judgements levelled at ‘instrumental’ art, it is maybe better to see this as a challenge to produce work that simply sweeps aside such accusations. Indeed, those actions, which are not recognised as ecoart, are often the most effective through their ability to sidestep anti-environmental propaganda and stand up in their own right, and this is increasingly becoming the case.[iv]

 217 holes (paper + polythene bags; pward 2010) 

But then the fact that art is in some way escapist should really come as no surprise, nor our tendency to keep it that way. We live in a civilisation that has developed through a desire to often detach itself from the harsh reality of living on this earth, to dislocate itself from the means of production and sustenance that represent the memory of our long struggle with and against nature in order to survive thus far. To change this attitude towards this constant everyday labour and to celebrate and embrace it as our primary objective on this earth is maybe one of the greatest issues that ecoartists might address. But such action boldly contradicts the very structures upon which it seems our comfortable survival depends, and it takes a great deal of courage to make the leap of faith that such a calling implies.

Added to all this, as the contemporary tendency towards mind-altering drugs and passive consumption belies, the world we live in, that we have created through our inherent inclination towards comfort and security and which is constantly (and not perhaps innocently) portrayed by the media, is no longer a pretty place nor one that inspires any sense of trust or joy in our ability to behave differently. It is no wonder that we do not want to spend our time choosing to look any deeper at the crises we are presently facing, nor that we do not believe in our ability to constructively engage with them. Obviously those of us who are fortunate enough to have sensed some alternative means of associating with the world are more in a position to communicate our understandings, but this takes not only a willingness but also an aptitude and highly developed skill set to do so.

 picking up sticks with michael, west somerset (pward 2012) 

This is not to say that artists are not deeply concerned with such issues, or that by any means every artist shares such ecologically orientated political goals, but that it is often not the motivation behind an individual’s choice to do or become an artist. And while it may seem that the sensitivity towards the world that art may promote should possibly go hand in hand with a sense of our power and responsibility towards nature, this is seldom the case. Maybe art has an intrinsic function within human society – to heal or to question, or to catalyse change, or simply to celebrate and entertain through our manual dexterity and the resultant intellect that its has engendered – but it cannot be taken for granted that such eventualities are always for the good of all. It is maybe more often simply a self-perpetuating expression of our existence within the world and to perceive it differently is maybe yet another manifestation of our arrogance to believe that we can control the course of nature.

“I will act as if what I do makes a difference” William James[v]

But let’s say, just hypothetically, that we can change the course of history, or at least our perception of it. That we can through our sensitive and sensible actions prolong our habitation as part of this earth, not just in our own interest but in its best interest, then how might we go about it? And how might we, as seemingly individually inconsequential aspects of this planet and universe, begin to appreciate its ever-changing complexity in order to confidently deploy such actions? And, more pertinently to this article, how might we encourage and catalyse such perception in others whose education thus far has unceasingly portrayed its opposite? What in our artist’s palette might appeal to or attract any potential recruits to the ‘cause’? Personally the prospect of ruminating over the causes and effects of our civilisation’s suicidal tendencies or representing a scientific appraisal of such information or even contemplating the agricultural methods by which we may redress such folly does not appeal to the more artistic bent within me. It certainly would not be why I may have adopted art as a career of life path, despite my current understanding of its relative importance.

 timeless discoursed (paint; pward 1998)

 It seems that we may need some understanding of communication, often displayed in the more commercially practical forms of art, such as graphic design, illustration and storytelling and the means thereof, before we begin to appeal to those in doubt. This is not to say that we adopt the subversive or underhand tactics displayed by most corporately motivated propagandists, but that we are aware of the power of such methods. For example, how might we make something seemingly mundane and unappealing attractive without undermining the spiritual self-worth of our audience or employing deception on any level? And how might we learn to observe the world through fresh eyes and convey our enquiries, through skillful and sensitive application to the circumstances we are experiencing? Or how have we already received and interpreted the plethora of imagery and sensory messages, both natural and artificial, bombarding us everyday throughout our lives? And even, what is the motivation behind them? What art offers us is perhaps the opportunity to explore such aspects of our experience, both intuitive and rationally empirical, and to transform them into something that further enriches and promotes our being[vi].

My own (eco)artistic inclination (and interest) would be to offer educational opportunities to explore these very means by which we may artfully communicate, not as a means to impose our beliefs upon another but as a reciprocal approach to respond to nature and the world in which we energetically exist. As a practising painter I sought to express the experiences I absorbed while in nature, its magic and wonder, its intimate relational complexity if you like, in the hope that through observation of such devotionally created objects I might inspire or channel some of the wonder that I felt to others. I have since appreciated the limitations of such a medium while also becoming aware of the diversity of other means through which such spirited information may be conveyed. While I understand that this is maybe not the motivation or method behind all artists work I do feel it portrays many of the elemental concerns which inspire people to become artists and that engage artists almost devotionally with the natural world.

“At the heart of today’s ecological crisis lies a terrible failure to understand the essence of our relationship with the natural world. One can of course address that failure rationally and empirically; but the arts (particularly the visual arts) offer different insights into that relationship, and touch people in ways that conventional education and advocacy can rarely do.” Jonathon Porritt, Director, Forum for the Future, UK.[vii]

Whether we are seeking to express a relatively literal response to climate change or oceanic pollution, or to more intuitively engage ourselves and an audience (of whatever form) with the resplendent diversity of this world it is still the ‘mechanics’ and philosophy of communication that underpin our practice. To explore such, admittedly quite practical, methodology is surely the essence of our art practice rather than the subjective discussion and spurious study of political issues, despite their implications to our response. As artists we must learn to observe the world through a variety of lenses and to interpret the ‘data’ gathered in a way that may appeal to and engender a response in others. Without such aptitude and skill maybe we should not call ourselves artists at all. Likewise if the work that we produce, in whatever form, does not embody the beliefs and processes we profess to keep then maybe that too should be brought into question.

 family outing 1996 (from the ward family photo archive)

 This then brings me to another doubt I have about the offering of such educational experiences as forwarded in the original question – how is the prolonged disembodied study of empirical and academic theory and data an expression of our joyful or meaningful existence as part of this most physical planet? It is maybe better to focus on activities that lead to a genuine sense of well-being amongst participants, or at least activities that appeal to self-confessed or appropriate aptitudes, rather than focusing on the desperate conclusions of the environmental sciences, or gazing into a book or computer screen for hours on end. Such practice more often than not promotes a deepening sense of dis-ease about the situation and a consequent manifestation of guilt through our own disempowerment.

‘The only sound enough motivation for doing anything is joy. All other motivations, such as guilt, compulsion, obligation and duty only lead us to dissatisfaction, tension and resentment. When we are engaged in what truly gives us joy, we lead ourselves inevitably to more and more challenging, powerful lives which affect more and more of the world.’ Christopher Spence[viii]

Maybe, an art education towards sustainability could be asking ‘How might we utilize art towards ecological reconciliation?’ rather than proposing ‘This is how we might utilize art towards ecological reconciliation!’ – offering spaces for open-ended and individually creative responses in what is after all a relatively new and incredibly diverse movement. In a similar vein, while we have a responsibility to the planet and all its inhabitants, our responsibility to ourselves as agents of change within the ecosystem is also vital. Any experience or activity that does not promote or engage its participants with such principles, or offer support for any apparent short-sightedness relating to the emotional or physiological implication thereof, should seriously reconsider its methodology.

 a bundle of sticks residency, courage copse (pward with katy lee, 2012)

 So what roles can art play in this unfolding drama, and what activities might promote a more powerfully embodied communicative response? My answer would have to be ‘MANY AND OFTEN but not necessarily big and noisy’! I have already suggested that art practice may still be (and traditionally has been) the most responsible and sensitive way by which we may observe and express the world, especially when performed in conjunction with other disciplines. I do however feel that its more specific power is in its skill and understanding, learnt or otherwise, by which it communicates – whatever that may immanently imply. But then there are so many beguiling contradictions and peculiarities in this world that it would be impossible to offer any general overarching formula. For example, maybe the only genuine way to deal with the impending global catastrophe is to celebrate our shared humanity, to embrace our exceptional nature and to rejoice in our implied communality. An element of art is the celebration of our technological and aesthetic dexterity. However this also intrinsically affirms our supposed dominance and our privileged reliance on others to provide the practical and material means that support such privilege. Without a change in the way we perceive art within society as well as the nature of work and labour in this world, towards an art and society within ecology, we will continue to struggle with an attitude of disinterest, and against an attitude of self-interest, perpetuated through a phenomenological misunderstanding of the nature of our interconnected existence, and a lack of conceptual understanding of the totality of what we are trying to achieve.

“A literal restatement of how things are and an emphasis on external action alone will not help us to end the great suffering of nature, or the dangerous contradictions inherent in our view of progress. It will also not help us develop more reverential perspectives toward other living beings, or deal with the complex questions of our supposed stewardship. The way we inhabit the world will not be transformed simply by information. As the coordinator of a UK climate change organisation has said: “We have enough information to have caused us to change our lifestyle decades ago. What is holding us back?” Deeper levels of connectedness are vital if we are to find the energy and commitment needed to make such enormous changes.[ix] Shelley Sacks, Social Sculpture Research Unit, Oxford Brookes University.[x]

To conclude I would like to add that my own experience of such an educational framework has been a most enlightening and productive one, maybe not always enjoyable and hardly ever confirming my limited expectations of what such a course might provide. But then that is maybe how we learn and, as already mentioned, the nature of such work is that its method is still very much in the making. Likewise, my experience and opinions are personal ones encouraged by my own aptitude and interests as a practising eco-artist with a background in graphic design and illustration, and a definite inclination towards a sense of animate belonging in the wild environment. While by no means perfect according to the sustainable values we might judge our actions by, this experimental course[xi] that I ventured upon has offered an excellent and flexible opportunity to actively participate in and shape itself to suit the needs of its contributors, while providing a rich source of differing opinion to play against my own strong views. And ultimately it has provided a caring and diverse community of similarly motivated individuals to continue to share and develop my practice with.

 earth dancing (paint; pward 1998) 

But the most essential aspect of the course, and what I feel sets it apart from other art courses, is the numerous field trips when we leave the ivory towers, the lecture theatres and indoor studios, away from the self-effacing reams of academic pontification, to participate more fully with the world – to actively contemplate our subject in its correct context, accompanied by the birds and beasts, the wind and rain, getting our hands dirty at last…

PW2012


[i] http://www.falmouth.ac.uk/201/courses-7/postgraduate-courses-43/art-and-environment-ma-2855.html

[ii] Anna Konig The Joy of Making, Resurgence Magazine ISSUE 263 • NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2010

[iii] http://orwell.ru/library/essays/wiw/english/e_wiw

[iv] http://www.ucl.ac.uk/art-history/about_us/academic_staff/dr_tj_demos/Demos-Art_After_Nature.pdf

[v] from Suzi Gablik; THE REENCHANTMENT OF ART (London; Thames and Hudson; 1991)

[vi] See the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who explored holistic science as a means towards sensible perception in the 18th Century. His work is currently cited by many inter-disciplinary and ecoartists such as Shelley Sacks (www.universityofthetrees.org) and Jan van Boeckel (www.naturearteducation.com) who utilize his idea of ‘organs of perception’ as a means towards behavioural transformation in their practice, and contemporary holistic scientists such as Dr Stephan Harding (www.schumachercollege.org.uk).

[vii] from http://www.universityofthetrees.org/about/instruments-of-consciousness.html

[viii] from AIDS Time to Reclaim Our Power by Christopher Spence (LONDON; Lifestory; 1986)

[ix] from http://www.universityofthetrees.org/about/instruments-of-consciousness.html

[x] http://www.social-sculpture.org/

[xi] The MA Art & Environment Course at University College Falmouth led by Dr Daro Montag could often be seen as an experiment in a form of Social Sculpture, as proposed by the German artist Joseph Beuys, bringing together diverse but interested parties into an open-ended dialogical structure. The creative potential of the course has possibly been best displayed in its ability to circumvent and accommodate the criteria for running an MA course within a mainstream educational establishment while still fulfilling its ecozoic intentions.

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2 Comments on “an education in sustainable arts: why on earth would I want to do that?!”

  1. Clare says:

    Nice one, Pete. I think the problem lies in the word art itself. Art is now seen as something that, as you say, exists apart from the mundane world, practiced only by a few geniuses/charlatans and owned by a few rich collectors. So the vast majority end up feeling lacking in skills and not understanding or a part of what is going on in the art world.

    Maybe that is why, as much as I do love art galleries and do believe in the power of a painting or sculpture to tap into people’s emotions and even change the way we look a the world, I exist and work in the land of craft. Craft, the bit of art that was removed in order to make art into the rarified thing it is today, belongs to all. And in the craft world everyone shares – they share skills and patterns and the stories of how they came to make things, and they give away the finished products. People craft to raise funds for charity, they knit hats for babies born half way across the world, and they communicate on the internet in a spirit of equality and democracy. If we could bring art into the world of craft and see how easy it is to work in a way that acknowledges and celebrates our extraordinary ordinariness, then we might be getting somewhere.

    On a personal note, I would say (again) that you do not need to stress it – keep on doing what you are doing and have faith that you are, indeed, changing the world.

    Clare x (I am now gong to copy and paste wot I just writ, ‘cos it’s going to be useful elsewhere!)

    • pw130524 says:

      hi clare, wondered where you were off to there for a minute!? but see what you’re getting at…

      not sure if the problem lies with the ‘word’ art (aren’t words neutral until contextualised!?) but our understanding and relationship too it, ie the ‘art world’ (to think there’s just one letter in it!?)!? Just looked up the definition of art in wikipedia (oh source of all wisdom) – quite interesting and apt what it says in relation to your comments…

      “Art is a term that describes a diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities, but is most often understood to refer to painting, film, photography, sculpture, and other visual media. Music, theatre, dance, literature, and interactive media are included in a broader definition of art or the arts. Until the 17th century, art referred to any skill or mastery and was not differentiated from crafts or sciences, but in modern usage the fine arts are distinguished from acquired skills in general.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art)

      But quite simply, as you recognise yourself, it is the constant philosophising that gets my goat – the ridiculous ego-centred obsession of shrouding things in mystery – making it inaccessible to all. Life is very very simple when taken at face value. As entertaining as our vast intellects can be, their indulgence often solves nothing (and in fact cause more problems than they are worth). Back to nature does not have to mean a less than brilliant world, it simply means appreciating the incredible mystery we are part of and our place within it.

      Just came across this quote in the book I’m reading which sums this up nicely…

      “I have learned from long experience that there is nothing that is not marvelous and that the saying of Aristotle is true – that in every natural phenomenon there is something wonderful, nay, in truth, many wonders. We are born and placed among wonders and surrounded by them, so that whatever object the eye first turns, the same is wonderful and full of wonders, if only we will examine it for a while” John de Dondis (fourteenth-century sage), from John Stewart Collis The Worm Forgives the Plough (London; Vintage Classics; 1973)

      (Thanks again Clare! Its great to have a reader!? And pleased it proves useful in some way :-))


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