Art Critics as Socio-Political Commentators-Vis-à-Vis Climate Change
Write by Jean Bundy, MFA, PhD
54th International AICA Congress, Valparaiso/Buenos Aires, November 13-19, 2022
What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Art Criticism in the 21st Century?
Art Critics as Socio-Political Commentators-Vis-à-Vis Climate Change
Art critics play an important role as curators in print (also online) maintaining integrity of the high to low aesthetic world, which often pays more attention to how much something sells at auction, rather than its purpose or quality. A.O. Scott writes, “It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom (Scott, 12).” As an art critic from Alaska where Arctic melt and flooding are evident, I interact with artists/writers who depict Climate Change. Art critics have become town-criers for socio-political issues merging the Formal with the Conceptual—but how and when?
In the New York City Post-War arts arena, Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) and Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) strongly influenced what got embedded into the art-for-art’s-sake, Ab-Ex canon. The Sixties movie, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, starring Doris Day and David Niven, written by Jean Kerr (1922-2003) was a comedic look at her theater-critic husband, Walter (1913-1996) whose critical play-lambasting could close a show.
By the late-Sixties, artists like Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) responded to the aesthetic winds of change: the Vietnam War debacle, plus women and minorities demanding a voice (Fineberg 368). Linda Nochlin’s (1931-2017) essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (Jones 263-267) also helped to open doors for today’s critics to write in a Conceptual manner.
While there are renowned art critics today: Peter Schjeldahl (b.1942) (New Yorker), Jerry Saltz (b. 1951) (NewYork Magazine) their opinions don’t cause mountains to crumble because Social Media’s platforms provide a format for the ‘Everyman’ to be an opinionated critic. Also websites like rottentomatoes.com, where public commenting is tallied, often kill a performance, or at least undermine box office remunerations.
Most critics don’t work for media that provide a living wage. Writing an exhibition catalogue or a chapter for an upcoming book doesn’t pay enough; therefore many critics have multiple jobs: part-time curating and/or teaching or working away from the arts. Women and persons-of-color are still denied a voice, particularly when delaying careers to raise a family, sadly experiencing discriminatory practices when reentering aesthetic fields.
Full or Part-time, Critics Need to be Aware of the Bigger Picture
Curators frequently must concede to what their institutions deem politically appropriate when conceiving and organizing exhibitions. This is slowly changing as major museums have recently been criticized for not promoting equitable exhibitions. Curating shows that situate works from different eras adjacent to each other helps to dispel Colonial approaches. Mostafa Heddaya writes, “Increasingly acute, the critical, historical, and curatorial interest in coinciding artworks across time and space has generally pitched such shuffles as expansionary and inclusive, as extending the range of possible connections. In principle, we cancel the distances that produce historical enclosures in order to broaden the historical and conceptual domain of art (Heddaya, Artforum, January, 2022).”
In addition to competing with the unschooled ‘Joe-Public’, art critics must comprehend anonymous street protesters supporting museum workers, who want impartial hiring practices, exhibitions curated by persons-of-color, elected/appointed museum boards to be culturally diverse and behave ethically/responsibly, not to mention politically-themed monuments to be bashed down. And there are also authoritarian governments discouraging art criticism.
Critics Must Assess the Counterpoints
Some feel destroying monumental art doesn’t remove the travesties they represent. And what about a philanthropist like Eli Broad (1933-1921) who had enough cash to bypass convention and build his own museum—The Broad, in Los Angeles (2015)? Is it just a big toy box, lacking curatorial engagement? In the end will ‘Joe Public’ pay the increased gate fees, already surfacing in museums like New York’s Metropolitan, when donors who allegedly gave ‘dirty-money’ are erased?
The Critic and Climate Change
Today’s critics serve as curatorial aesthetic guidance counselors— in print or virtually, moving beyond traditional Formal painting/sculpture analysis, and into Conceptually scrutinizing book reviews, dance and music recitals, photography/film/video; which adds to the richness of the essay genre, and provides an entry point to critique the socio-political of Global Warming.
The term ‘pollution’ entered into Nineteenth Century conversations (Jarrige and LeRoux (J&L) 143). Caroline Shields writes about Nineteenth Century artists explaining, “a landscape sliced by train tracks or a horizon dotted by smokestacks were potent symbols of the era, markers of modernity and progress (Shields 14).” Francois Jarrige and Thomas Le Roux write, “Between 1899 and 1901, Claude Monet traveled to London three times to seek the play with light in the pollution fog of the city (J&L 134).” However, William Morris, and John Ruskin “condemned the evils of industrialization, and especially the fumes that vitiated the air of cities (J&L 135).” Not surprising Jarrige and LeRoux write, “In the colonies, environmental degradation was blamed on neglect by the native populations (J&L 132).” Scapegoating the impoverished everywhere fueled denial of pollution, and still does.
Critics now Possess a Formal and Conceptual Toolbox to Unpack Global Warming—Here are Six Artists/Writers:
1: Race Against Time, 1976, by Ya Ming (1924-2002) resembles compositional verticality, complete with the misty atmosphere pictured in ancient Chinese scrolls. But here fog is generated by polluting machinery meant to build China into an industrialized powerhouse. This painting integrates a typical Chinese dwelling at the lower right, now dwarfed by cranes and resulting skyscrapers that push upwards, with laborers in the left lower quadrant producing billowing black smoke. The piece marries Chinese-aesthetic tropes with Western Modernism’s bold value shifts akin to George Bellows’ (1882-1925) Hudson River scenes, where longshoremen toil, often unsafely, among industrialization’s detritus. Essayist De-nin D. Lee writes, “Vast forests composed of varied plant and animal life were felled to make way for farms….Although the culture celebrated its hermits and gave due consideration to the regular operations of the heavens and natural phenomena, nevertheless it did so in the face of marked ‘improvements’ to the natural environment (Kusserow 42).” Race Against Time reveals China’s paradoxes of Post-Modern growth, along with disproportionate wealth, versus a fairy tale land of enchantment.
2: Thanks to Marilyn Monroe (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953) we think of diamonds as a girl’s best friend, but once pearls were all the rage. Pendant with a Monstrous Pearl in the Form of a Madonna, by a Netherlandish artist (1640-50) belonged to Catholic Spain’s King Philip II (1527-1598). Christopher Columbus discovered oyster beds off Venezuela in 1498, and Philip considered it God’s will that he control and profit from the Spanish Indies. Mónica Domínguez Torres writes, “in the Middle Ages the white, iridescent matter of pearls became metaphorically associated with the figure of the Virgin Mary (Kusserow 82).” Spain needed money and it was thought that canoeing to an adjacent bed would always be possible because pearls were bountiful and providentially ordained as the symbol of Hapsburg rule. It was finally realized that dredging sea beds, albeit lo-tech, destroyed oyster regeneration. Resting periods from January to September were decreed, as was throwing back young oysters; sadly conservation came too late. Today, this monstrous bauble is an allegory to Philip’s ‘Atlantic pearl industry’ and the everlasting devastation it caused.
3: Dutch photographer Jeroen Toirkens’ Canada, Broadback Valley, The Cree (January 2018) depicts a truck loaded with felled trees taken from the Boreal Forest (Taiga), which forms a ring around the Arctic, covering 17.5% of the world’s land surface. This photograph images white-out conditions contrasted with the dark tree bark, formulating a paradox--decimation of lands benefitting the economy versus preserving forests for the planet’s health. The Taiga is called the carbon sink, as it retains 44% of the world’s CO2 in all its ‘terrestrial vegetation’. Only 12% of the Boreal Forest is protected with 15 billion trees cut annually, and is half of what it was millennia ago. Jelle Brandt Corstius writes, “Trees are fantastic. Just try to imagine a machine that takes CO2 from the air, produces oxygen, stores carbon, filters the air, makes clouds and rain, and works like a kind of air conditioning unit….All this machine requires is sunlight and water (Toirkens & Corstius (T&C) 15, 19).” Global Warming is causing ‘dry lightning’ resulting in frequent/expansive fires and massive releases of arboreal CO2 and heat retaining soot. For eons First Nations of Canada have forest-subsisted. Forced sales for clear cutting by logging companies have reduced animal populations and thus fur trapping. Working with Greenpeace, the Cree are attempting to preserve lands off-limits to logging (T&C 21, 47). Corstius writes, “For a long time, people have seen the taiga as a kind of wasteland from which you could take what you wanted….The effects of global warming are only too apparent in the boreal zone (T&C 15,19).”
4: Norway’s Aslaug M. Juliussen’s Multiple Stitches-Sight in Absence VII, VIII (2016-2017) are: cotton fabric, horsehair, metal wire, embroidery, painting, drawing, fishing hooks works, resembling nomadic Sámi portable doors. Loosely hung, they beckon visitation, while joining both outdoor and indoor spaces, metaphorically connecting the ancient and modern worlds that collide. Juliussen spent twenty-two years helping her family herd (eat and wear) reindeer, acquiring inspirational art materials along with oral histories from women workers who engaged in ‘collecting, rinsing, cooking, drying, sorting, and packing’ (Gullickson 16). These unique experiences situate her projects within Sámi culture, embedded in the seasonal cycles of plants and animals. Juliussen feels, “The materials, once part of a living animal, are brought to life again in her art (Gullickson 41).” Not only is Northern ancient craftsmanship being recognized as fine art, but present-day Indigenous artists like their ancestors are recycling animal by-products, not only for functional purposes, but for decorative effects, and bringing attention to minimizing waste.
5: Andreas Hoffman’s (director of The Arctic Culture Lab, Norway and Greenland) Aesthetics of Hanging Laundry is his photography project about Greenland’s Disco Bay and a call to enjoy dependence on weather. Hoffmann writes, “[it] is about discovering the beauty of sculptures consisting of stiff, frozen sheets and towels…. It is striking that some people prefer to hang laundry according to size and color, while others show a sense of repeating patterns. Often the laundry’s color matches the color of the owner’s house.” And while there are still world communities where fabric is hand-washed and dried on lines, there is also a strong desire to do laundry faster using less muscle power, with washing machinery. Greenland was one of the first areas in the Nineteenth Century to imagine Global Warming from the Industrial Revolution on both continents it separates. In 1878-9, Swedish Explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, unknowingly discovered coal dust floating in water holes, which he thought was an undiscovered mineral, (Hatfield 174). Hoffman’s laundry looms metaphorically as Greenland’s Indigenous are striving to maintain a subsistence lifestyle, while upgrading health care, and their economic status. Like much of Alaska, Greenland is not fossil-free and disposing of waste is a big problem. He believes the sea air embedded in Greenland’s hanging laundry becomes a symbol for hope, a needed balancing act between desired conveniences and protecting the Earth. Hanging fabric can also be visualized to underscore social injustices often linked to Climate Change, as it’s the poor who are helpless to avoid the polluting effects of Global Warming.
6: Two books by environmentalists are: A World on the Wing: A Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds, by Scott Weidensaul, and Crab Wars: A Tale of Horseshoe Crabs, Ecology, and Human Health by William Sargent. Weidensaul admits, “The world is changing around us, in ways that we barely understand and show little ability to control, and birds—especially migratory birds-- are our best and most compelling window into those changes (Weidensaul 21).” The Red Knot is one of many birds who navigate between hemispheres yearly, breeding in their summer above the Arctic Circle before spending their winter ‘on the windswept beaches and hardpan lowlands of Tierra del Fuego (Sargent 75). In early March they fly up the Argentinian coast to Brazil (pannes of Lagoa do Peixe) where they feed on snails and Cochina shells before each eats 135,000 Horseshoe crab eggs off Delaware Bay’s beaches, and flies to the Arctic to nest. Over fishing and harmful industrialization causing diminishing crabs, leads to a decline in eggs, which normally feed migrating Red Knots, who now fly North, too malnourished to lay eggs, and often die in the process (Sargent 75, 115). Weidensaul writes, “From its effects on weather, precipitation, prevailing winds, habitat, food supplies—even what impact it will have on avian diseases and parasites—there isn’t a corner of the globe, a cubic meter of the air column above it, or any moment in any migratory bird’s annual cycle, that hasn’t been (or soon will be) touched by the planetary fever that carbon emissions are producing (Weidensaul 190,191).” And birds don’t comprehend international borders either.
A Critic’s Conclusion
Today’s art critics investigate the visible Formally, while contemplating the metaphorical Contextually, propagating museum and community involvement, and importantly alerting readers about developing an awareness for protecting ‘Place’ —locally and Globally. A 2006-TIME Magazine cover shouted, “BE WORRIED. BE VERY WORRIED. Climate Change isn’t some vague future problem (Time 4/3/06).”
Art Critics as Socio-Political Commentators Vis-à-Vis Climate Change
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Greenberg, Clement, Ed. Art and Culture, Critical Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. Print.
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Hatfield, Philip J. Lines in the Ice, Exploring the Root of the World. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 2016. Print.
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Torres, Mónica Domínguez. “Pearls for the King: Philip II and the New World Pearl Industry.” Picture Ecology Art and Ecocriticism in Planetary Perspective. Ed. Karl Kusserow. Princeton: Princeton U.P., 2021. Print.
Weidensaul, Scott. The World on the Wing, the Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds. New York: Norton, 2021.Print.
Bundy, Jean. “Aslaug Juliussen: Intersections at the Museum.” Anchorage Press, February 11, 2020. Print.
---. “Materiality of Laundry: Highlighting Social Disparities and Climate Change.” Anchorage Press, August 3, 2020. Print.
---. “Arctic Women Artists Contextualizing Climate Change.” Anchorage Press, November 27, 2020. Print.
---. “Science vs. Greed=Climate Change; Crab Wars by William Sargent.” Anchorage Press, February 7, 2022. Print.
---. “A World on the Wing.” Anchorage Press, May 11, 2022. Print.
---. “Aestheticizing Climate Change with Picture Ecology.” Anchorage Press, June 22, 2022. Print.
---. “Borealis: Life in the Woods at the Anchorage Museum.” Anchorage Press, July 6, 2022. Print.
---. “Artists Appraising Climate Change Isn’t New—Who Knew?” Anchorage Press, December 10, 2022. Print.
Heddaya, Mostafa. “Art and Comparison” Art Forum (Left, Right, Inside, Out) January 2022 Print.