Friday, February 27, 2009

Environmental About-Face

Nancy Holt
"Sun Tunnels"
1973 - 1976

A supporter of many environmental non-profits, I'd grown accustomed to receiving distressing memos detailing the Bush administration's environmental transgressions, large and small. Reading these emails and letters, my disappointment was compounded by the knowledge that Bush's irresponsible environmental policy was no more reckless than his economic or geo-political program; the Bush presidency was for me, as for so many others, a long, sad eight years.

It is with great delight (and relief), then, that I receive so much positive environmental news in these, the first weeks of the Obama administration. I won't recount all of the progressive developments in this space, but I will share one happy turn around.

David Gessner's essay "Loving the West to Death: A Story of Drill Rigs, Mountain Bikes, and the Fight to Save Our Last Wild Lands" was published in the Winter 2009 issue of OnEarth magazine, a publication of the National Resources Defense Council. Gessner writes,
"At the moment the West is growing faster than any region in the country, and it's here that the cries of 'Drill, baby, drill!' resound most loudly. And drilling is just part of the picture. A few weeks before I boarded my plane, a 2,000-page document landed with a thud on the desks of environmentalists in Utah. This was an 11th-hour surprise from the Bush administration, courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the latest installment in a plan to open up millions of acres of public land, not just to the extractive industries but to off-road vehicles."
What a difference a few months can make! Gessner's spirit was surely buoyed four weeks ago, when President Obama cancelled "all oil drilling leases on more than 130,000 acres near two national parks and other protected areas in Utah." Robert Redford, speaking on behalf of the NRDC, said, "I see this announcement as a sign that after eight long years of rapacious greed and backdoor dealings, our government is returning a sense of balance to the way it manages our lands."

Yet there are countless Joe-Sixpack Americans (and many politicians in Washington, D.C.) that rankle at the notion of federal protection for our public lands. Their skepticism of "big government" interference is especially apparent in the West. The pursuit of freedom is high on the list of principal American virtues, and most contemporary Westerners fancy themselves members of a vanishing, but free pioneer tribe. No surprise, then, that George W. Bush's cowboy mentality is commonplace in big-sky country. Gessner writes,
"This, I thought, is the crux of it, the reason so many are resistant to restraint, to regulating and policing our public lands. 'Lawlessness, like wildness, is attractive, and we conceive the last remaining home of both to be the West,' wrote [Wallace] Stegner. Yes, we come West for that feeling of wildness, of lawlessness, the sense that we can do what we want and do it on our own."
But Gessner argues that this "Live Free Or Die" stance is no longer tenable; it has been rendered obsolete by our burgeoning population.
"[In] these days of crushing numbers, one person's freedom has an impact on the freedom of a hundred others...[With] greater numbers and greater use, it may just be that championing regulation and restraint, while not quite as sexy as championing freedom, is the key to preserving the smaller freedoms that are left...The larger reality is that it will require some restraint and some laws -- the legislative embodiment of restraint -- if we are to preserve these final wild patches, these final strands of hope in a diminished geography...And while old myths are hard to abandon, there is no reason why the cowboy myth of George W. Bush can't turn back into the cowboy myth of Teddy Roosevelt."
Well said, Mr. Gessner.

On a tangentially related note, resource extraction doesn't threaten "only" species and landscapes. Although artwork is by no means endangered, individual land works are. Michael Heizer's "City" and Nancy Holt's "Sun Tunnels" are just two of many land works threatened by BLM development in the western United States. For more on this subject, read "Land Art: here today, gone tomorrow?," in The Art Newspaper.

Photo credit: ripped from Utah Division of Arts and Museums

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Becoming phoebes

Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

The renowned naturalist, entomologist and sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson maintains that belief in the afterlife developed as a human coping mechanism, as a way for our enlarged brains to contend with mortality. He writes,
"Our conscious minds hunger for a permanent existence. If we cannot have everlasting life of the body, then absorption into some immortal whole will serve. Anything will serve, as long as it gives the individual meaning and somehow stretches into eternity that swift passage of the mind and spirit lamented by Saint Augustine as the short day of time."
Today, religious literalists look forward to Pearly gates or seventy-two virgins while most rational secularists, frightened of death's finality, strive to reject it. The first perspective is delusional, the second, incomplete; both are fearful.

Yet there is at least one sensible and beautiful conception of the afterlife, and it is not at all fearful: reconstitution. Most people find contemplation of the body's posthumous decomposition uncomfortable. But the knowledge that my corporeal substance will rot and, in doing so, release energy for use by the rest of things is deeply satisfying.

Poet Galway Kinnell describes reconstitution in his poem "The Quick and the Dead" as "the crawling of new life out of the old, which is what we have for eternity on earth." But beyond the biological, death remains a mystery.

I can not, one way or the other, speak to supernatural transference, though I feel that metaphysical notions of self or soul preservation are misguided. The "me," I think, will rot with my body, but the flow keeps on keeping on, until the end of time.

The author and essayist Edward Hoagland, the writer that inspired this blog's first post, speaks to the magic of reconstitution in his book On Nature.
"In my stint in the army, working at the hospital morgue, I'd noticed how commonly the dead had managed at the last moment a benign or temperate sort of smile. This circularity is neither alarming nor incongruous, but rather seems to make things whole and complete. In the summer, dancing butterflies of pretty colors will congregate where I've gone outside to piss in the grass. The glint of tiger yellow or cobalt blue in their beautiful wings may be enhanced by the minerals that they so crave and that my body has declared surplus. And if a nesting phoebe soon grabs one, she is going to profit also -- which is a foretaste of the myriad uses that more extensive portions of me will be put to eventually."
We are all, then, becoming phoebes, butterflies, mud and gas. I find so much joy in the thought.

Image credit: ripped from Photographs From Virginia section of Kirk Rogers' site

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Holland Cotter's Unknowns

I enjoyed reading "The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art!," Holland Cotter's sometimes scathing New York Times farewell to contemporary art's reckless past decade. Cotter describes the art world as a "full-service marketing industry [built] on the corporate model," and he sees art schools as a branch of this money-hungry industry. In his estimation, critics, curators and other art world operators are "public relations specialists who provide timely updates on what desirable means." With these stark observations in mind, Cotter asserts that "a financial scouring can only be good for American art."

"The Boom Is Over" likely raised the ire of many artists and dealers. A commenter on Edward Winkleman's blog characterized Cotter as "out of touch" and guilty of perpetuating a "fabled myth," and I wouldn't be surprised if more online dismissals and condemnations of Cotter's article appear in coming days. That's a shame. I don't believe that the article is intended to titillate or to offend.

Cotter's description of our prodigal art world brings to mind artist and critic Robert Morgan's caution not to mistake glamour for substantive beauty.
"Beauty is not glamour. Most of what world has to offer is glamour. Glamour, like the art world itself, is a highly fickle and commercially driven enterprise that contributes to...the 'humdrum.' It appears and disappears...No one ever catches up to glamour."
Because I call on Morgan's rather romantic position, some readers will immediately decide that, like Cotter, I'm guilty of perpetuating a myth. If so, it is a vital myth. The beauty that Morgan exalts is complicated and profound. I have in mind philosopher poet John O'Donohue's conception of beauty.
"Beauty induces atmosphere and spirit: wonder, delicious turbulence, love, longing and a trembling delight....Beauty inhabits the cutting edge of creativity - mediating between the known and the unknown, light and darkness, masculine and feminine, visible and invisible, chaos and meaning, sound and silence, self and others."
O'Donohue defines a soulful beauty, a beauty that springs from generous attempts to be and to belong.

Although many of the artworks offered for sale at art fairs or on auction blocks are born of beautiful striving, art fairs and auctions are never, themselves, beautiful. And because fairs and auctions are the events most representative of the contemporary art world, Cotter's harsh language seems reasonable. He's right; "during the present decade [art] has become a diminished thing."

I sense that Cotter wants the Times article, a dismal record of a profligate art world, to serve as license for artists, dealers, curators and critics (Cotter's own tribe) to ruminate on their standing. He hopes that the result of that rumination would be an open-hearted embrace of the artist's vital social role (and the art world's part in facilitating that). It is edification, above all, that interests Cotter.
"With markets uncertain, possibly nonexistent, why not relax this mode, open up education? Why not make studio training an interdisciplinary experience, crossing over into sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in in-extremis environments, i.e. real life?...Such changes would require new ways of thinking and writing about art, so critics would need to go back to school, miss a few parties and hit the books and the Internet....[If] there is a crisis, it is not a crisis of power; it's a crisis of knowledge. Simply put, we don't know enough..."

But I think that Cotter should have included an addendum. Speaking in generalities can be valuable, but the excess and superficiality of the art world's recent history hasn't tainted all artists, dealers, curators and critics. Certainly, there are "thousands of groomed-for-success [art school] graduates" who have made contemporary art into something "proliferating but languishing," but there are also, as ever, many individuals pushing toward O'Donohue's complicated beauty. Some admirable artists and dealers experienced great success in the boom market of the late nineties and oughties. Perhaps they wouldn't have flourished without the opportunities afforded them by the fattened industry? Artists have always had an uneasy relationship with commodity, and there's little sense in championing lean times over relative abundance.

We're now living through an socio-economic upheaval that is quite nearly global. Such rapid and widespread change should, as Cotter expects, force a significant number of artists to conscientiously reexamine their ideals. But let's not delude ourselves. The opportunity for reflection and mindful action wasn't precluded by the excesses and superficialities of boom time. Although some artists, dealers, curators, critics and hangers-on acted improperly because the environment encouraged bad behavior, most did so because they wanted to. So even as I cheer Cotter's call for us to "[imagine] the unknown and the unknowable," to raise up "new ways of thinking and writing about art," and to see artists blazing unexpected paths, I remind myself that the burden of proof falls foremost on the individual.

Image credit: ripped from Daily Serving

False Divisions

I recommend Bioephemera posts often enough to be mistaken for that blog's unofficial spokesperson, but I'll continue to do so, and without reservation. It's an exceptionally well-written and thoughtful it has a lot of really cool things to look at!

I encourage HH readers that are interested in the ongoing debate between science and religion to read Jessica Palmer's recent essay, "Taking Darwin's name in vain." Jessica offers a reasonable take on a complicated, fraught issue. I include her particularly quotable conclusion below.
"There's danger in thinking that just because something is or was evolutionarily adaptive, it is good for us. Science can shed great light on why humans might perceive things as good or bad, but it can't tell us what is good or bad. That's a question with which we have to constantly struggle, just as Darwin struggled with the existence of God.

One of the difficult realities evolutionary theory has made clear to us is that the human mind is not optimized for truth. It's optimized for survival. We routinely embrace adaptive fictions. If we want to use our understanding of evolutionary processes to improve society, we must accept that evolution did not bestow upon us a dispassionate, non-spiritual, strictly evidence-based worldview. We're passionate, spiritual, emotional, irrational, subjective creatures who are poorly equipped to imagine incremental change taking place at an invisibly tiny scale over millions of years - because we evolved this way! Getting the human mind to run the scientific method as its primary OS is a bit like getting a Nintendo to run Linux: we should be impressed that it can be done, not complaining that it's hard. And when people express deep spiritual reservations or conflicted feelings about the religious implications of evolutionary theory, just as Darwin did, scientists have to understand that it's not just because they're ignorant or obstinate. It's because they're human."
Read the essay here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Artworld Digest interview and Art Fund

David Cohen is a man impelled to inform and inspire. Installation artist, writer, editor and publisher of Artworld Digest, director of the Center for Contemporary Environmental Art (CCEA), seed bomber, and brain behind The Seed Project, David wears many hats.

It was a treat to sit down with David recently for an Artworld Digest interview. (Read it here.)

David is also offering one of my recent drawings for sale through Artworld Digest's Art Fund. 30% of the sales price will be used for CCEA art and educational programs. Another 40% will go to one of the four non-profits I've selected (buyer's choice). I will receive the remaining 30%. The Art Fund is also making available a drawing by David.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Wonderful Worms

Jessica Palmer
is an artist, scientist and writer. Her blog Bioephemera combines these three vocations to consistently excellent effect. Her current series on the sometimes fractious relationship between art and science (or, more precisely, between artists and scientists) is worth checking out. (Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. More posts in the series will follow.)

As regular HH readers know, I believe that the human animal depends on wonder and awe for psychological sustenance. These complicated, overlapping emotions impel curiosity, creativity and reverence and, in my estimation, science and religion "(re)awaken or invigorate our capacity [to experience] wonder."

Unfortunately, many thoughtful contemporaries disagree, often vehemently. They worry that we're losing wonder, and they accuse science (they often call it "scientism") of demystifying experience. These thinkers fear that science elucidates so thorough an explanation of the material world that scientists (and, in turn, society at large) believe only in the observable and the quantifiable. Metaphysics and transcendentalism are thus relegated to the intellectual dustbin, realms traveled only by the deranged, the fey or the weak-minded.

This worry is unfounded. Wonder can't be extinguished by revealing "the workings" of observed phenomena. Quite to the contrary! Even the most Cartesian of scientific explanations enhances our conception of the material world. In turn, that advanced understanding enriches our imaginative experience of both the material and the metaphysical.

To this point, a blurb in a recent issue of National Wildlife magazine entitled "The Science Behind 'Worm Grunting'" explains the once mysterious cause-and-effect relationship manipulated by "grunting."
"As recently as the 1960s, hundreds of people in the southeastern United States earned a living through a curious practice known as 'worm grunting': driving a stake into the ground, then rubbing the stake with a long piece of steel in order to produce a sound that, for reasons unknown, would drive hundreds of earthworms to the surface where they could be collected for bait. Now biologist Ken Catania of Vanderbilt University has found an explanation for the technique’s efficacy. Without realizing it, worm grunters were imitating the sounds made by worm-hungry moles digging through the earth. By observing both earthworms’ reactions to grunting and their response to the presence of eastern American moles, Catania found that the invertebrates rapidly pop to the surface when they detect the presence of a mole—or a grunter."
I've never gone grunting, but as a child of the southeastern United States, I've done my fair share of earthworm digging in preparation for afternoon pond fishing. I wish I'd known about grunting those years ago, and I'm very glad that I know about it now. I still fish every now and again, so I may yet have practical use for grunting. More importantly, I might also have occasion to educate children about grunting; a vital part of that teaching will be the astonishment the kids experience upon witnessing the worms' emergence. It ain't magic, but it's surefire enough to make this adult shake his head in believing disbelief. Another word for that? Wonder.

For more on grunting, check out this blog post.

Photo credit: Discovery blogs