What is environmental art? Is it art that is connected to site or place? Does it come in a particular size, shape, or color? Medium? Craftsmanship? Is it a commentary on our relationship with the nonhuman world? Is it trying to say something about how we treat the Earth? Or each other? Does environmental art even need to reflect contemporary environmentalism? What does environmentalism even mean?
These questions are important, some unanswerable at this moment, but still worth grappling with if environmental art is to be part of the work changing the fate of our home and the people who live here.
Art assists us as a society to explore tough questions, the in-between spaces where philosophy and science fall short. Art allows us to learn, to facilitate learning, and to better understand the incomprehensibly complex issues facing us as humans who share a finite planet with one another. There is art that reflects not only environmental thinking but also engages a public to have an opinion about it. Art inspires wonder but also action.
Cannupa Hanska Luger, well known for the mirror shields he created, promoted, and delivered to the North Dakota Standing Rock Water Protectors, is just one of many artists tackling environmental and social justice issues. Luger said in a February 2017 presentation at OSU, referring to the terrible realities of the Dakota Access Pipeline, that “the injustice isn’t happening to them, it isn’t going on over there, it is happening right here.” It is happening right now. To us.
We are a collective of humans on Earth, and when one of our communities suffer, we all suffer. Our shared source of clean drinking water is being ravaged. The morals and ethics we so proudly tout as being uniquely human are being dismantled. Our constant need for more, for better, for comfort at the expense of others’ discomfort, and disregard for the limits of our natural resources, haunts our society as the monsters described in our bedtime fables.
“As living beings, we all have myths and tales that describe our lives being abused by monsters. These monsters are out of natural order and heroes rise from their torment to defeat them. Today, we are once again plagued by monsters. It is time to be the hero, each of us must be aware of what we can do in the place that we stand. So that a far future that remembers this era of monsters can sing the songs and dance the stories of our mystic ability to come together and become Monster Slayers.” – Cannupa Hanska
The monsters that exist today aren’t associated with Standing Rock, or the Missouri River alone. As Luger said, “the river I’m most worried about is the one that flows through us all.” It is a river haunted by innumerable monsters: gluttonous extraction, environmental degradation, social injustice, corrupt politics, and a culture of capitalism.
Fortunately the people of Earth are making art and experiencing it too—those who call themselves artists as well as those who don’t—from the fine artists of academia, to the part-time crafters at home. In far off natural spaces, and in late night sketchbook doodles, we are creating objects, words, ideas, and practices that help us face these demons of despair.
Together we question the monsters. Together we reveal the monsters. Together we fight the monsters. Together we win.