Ecology and Ideology: In Search of an Antidote in Contemporary Art

VERGE no.1 (February 2010)

Sustainability has become a buzzword of politics and commerce, and with its spread from the field of environmentalism into society there has been some dilution of its radical implications. Ecological sustainability is also mentioned with increasing frequency in discussions of contemporary art and there is a parallel lack of awareness of the history of environmental thought, which in many accounts begins and ends with the early 60s classic of poetic, anti-pollution literature, The Silent Spring. If we begin with an understanding of sustainability derived from green capitalism, then the widespread belief amongst critical theorists that sustainability was invented by big corporations to create new markets for environmentally-friendly products seems a logical conclusion. Unravelling the confusion between ecological sustainability and greenwash, in other words between the solution and part of the problem, requires revisiting theoretical debates within the field of ecology, in order to open up our understanding of sustainability and its relevance for both society and contemporary art (full text here).

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4 responses to “Ecology and Ideology: In Search of an Antidote in Contemporary Art

  1. Thanks for such an in-depth article and yes, I would agree on some of your comments on the Radical Nature exhibition. As an artist working in this area, it was however, for all its faults along with other exhibitions leading upto Copenhagen Climate Summit, at least reassuring to see some artists who had been tackling these issues for decades being put centre stage.

    I wonder if you might look much further back than Rachel Carson for a more in-depth understanding of the beginnings of environmentalism. True, she was the first scientist to make the headlines around the time that the world had the first lunar images of earth as a finite small globe. But cultural reactions to industrialization, ecological degradation stretch much further back, among many creative individuals in the arts and in religious circles. Perhaps you might like to refer to the book by Dr Joe Smith, Open Uni, London ‘What do greens believe?’.

    I also think the crisis in contemporary art in regards to responding to the world’s worsening ecological crisis has many other facets – why has it been that cultural theorist have in the main overlooked the natural world for so long – it has been so damaging to consider ‘nature’ as a cultural construction, hasn’t it… I remember studying cultural theory in a fine art college, my interest in the natural environment was thought to be quite peculiar. I was however somewhat lucky to have a previous background in science and environmental projects to inform me of issues of the world we live in are in crisis that made up for the gaping shortfall that I encountered. I believe there is more engagement in art colleges now but its still in its infancy – and I would look to more interdisciplinary, community involved projects where artists work with scientists, politicians rather than recycled materials for more inspiring indepth analysis, eg Newton Harrisons, Beuys – I’ve seen great recycled projects from children but they do little to inspire action or a change of ideas – often they are picked up for greenwashing by advertisers.

    In regards to examining sustainability perhaps you should also look into deep ecology as a philosophy in which to consider green-washing.

    Thanks for such a thought provoking article though, more is needed

  2. Thank you for this important article pointing out how deep the threads of the sustainability movement run and that it is NOT just driven by big corporations trying to market the next green thing. We need more work, artistic representations and otherwise, that highlights this long-standing tradition and what it really means.

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