The Art of Nature and the Nature of Art

Painting by Alexis Rockman, http://alexisrockman.net/

I went to a fantastic symposium yesterday evening titled “The Art of Nature and the Nature of Art,” which explored the various connections both historical and present-day between art and the environment. My favorite three talks were by the artists Alexis Rockman, Mark Dion and James Prosek. Each gave interesting, personal accounts of their work and their relationship with nature. I was particularly struck by Alexis’ paintings which go from beautifully life-like to highly satirical.

“The Farm” from alexisrockman.net. Satirical look at the progression (left to right) of our food sources as they get increasingly manipulated by industry.

Listening to the talks made me think about my own impressions of art and nature. My artistic talents are woefully limited, but almost every time I’m in nature I do feel a creative impetus. Much of that has been concentrated in my photography, but I’m only beginning to understand how to do more than just create a visual record of something that is itself beautiful. I admire drawers and painters who can capture the beauty of nature and mirror it through the work of their own hands. I’m inspired to try my own hand, and perhaps I’ll post a few pictures if I can get the hang of it.

Listening to the artists talk made me think of another component of the human/environment relationship.There’s a desire in the conservation community to establish monetary values for a patch of “nature.” We’ve done this through estimates of the costs of mechanizing the “services” ecosystems provide for us, such as pollination, carbon sequestration or water purification. This very pragmatic view of the world around us enables comparisons of a landscape with its potential “improved” economic value. If the value of the nature is greater than the value of the development then the nature should be protected. Simple, mathematical, impartial. But how do you put a price on something like an autumn view of a mountainside of maple, oak and birch trees? That value is intrinsically personal and inherently different for everyone, so our solution has been to largely ignore it as too difficult or too “wishy-washy” for the cold hard realities of economic necessity.

In largely leaving the aesthetic value of nature out of our calculations, or only dealing with it tangentially, I think we deny the very personal, emotional relationship with nature that needs be fostered in order to kindle the passion needed to preserve it. Yes a decision solely employing economics will surely convince a regulator or a developer but will talking about a marsh in terms of dollars inspire a new generation of youngster to get out there and explore it? I hope that as we have to fight harder and harder to protect nature by making these rational economic arguments, it’ll be the artists that will remind us that replacing a forest for an oxygen-producing-carbon-sinking-technological-wonder isn’t going to inspire the next Leopold, Thoreau or Muir.

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