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Art Environmentalism

Art and the American West

Written by Eilish Spear

Eilish Spear is a recent graduate of Oberlin College and Conservatory, where she earned degrees in Viola Performance and Politics. At Oberlin, Spear developed her interest in artistic responses to societal crises, founded a beginning violin, viola, and cello class for 15 men currently experiencing incarceration at the Grafton Correctional Facility, and reported longform stories about the Oberlin community, notably about the activists fighting an oil pipeline slated for construction through the town. Originally from Golden, CO, Spear can be found on long meandering hikes, somewhere on her bike Gladys, or fighting for public lands and water conservation in the mountain west. Spear works at The ClimateMusic Project, where she helps develop new programing and innovative ways to engage diverse audiences.


In the world of high art, the American West is an idea, a romanticized, commercialized, and idealized mirage of beautiful vistas. Of sweeping high desert, snow capped mountains peaking up from swaths of glorious red and gold forests, rivers flowing for thousands of miles; vast, beautiful, and untouched. This art tradition embraces a romantic notion of the West, glorifying the vast “emptiness” of the land, the stunning beauty, the freedom from banal urbanity and the suffocation of suburbia, and framing it, as William Fox describes it, as nothing more than “an advertisement for nature.” This “advertisement” is the high art interpretation and commercialization of the West, negating the reality just beyond the lens, of the destruction of natural resources, development, and continued erasure and genocide of the people who lived there before. Just outside the frame of the photo, oil wells pepper the landscape as far as the eye can see, millions of acres burn due to a century of forest mismanagement and rising temperatures, gravel mines and water extraction destroy river basins and groundwater stores, ranching and destructive agriculture ruin grasslands, and always, the ever growing spread of human development, building, and building, and building.

Photo: John Fowler. You can find these burners of excess gas from oil drilling all over San Juan county in northwestern New Mexico.
Photo: John Fowler. You can find these burners of excess gas from oil drilling all over San Juan county in northwestern New Mexico.

Art and climate activism have always gone together—but this requires a different interpretation and definition of art than that found in the halls of conservatories or opera houses or art galleries. As Lucy R. Lippard writes in her book Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West, “There is a point where artists too must take some responsibility for the things and places they love, a point at which the colonization of magnificent scenery gives way to a more painfully focused vision of a fragile landscape and its bewildered inhabitants.”

Left: Cover of Lucy R. Lippard's Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (2014). Right: Lucy R. Lippard. Photo: Peter Woodruff.
Left: Cover of Lucy R. Lippard’s Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (2014). Right: Lucy R. Lippard. Photo: Peter Woodruff.

Art has always gone hand in hand with lived experience and environmental activism in the West. Indigenous art has always been about place, about “history, colonialism, kinship and innovation.” Lippard writes, “contemporary Native (American) artists have challenged many of my Yankee predispositions,” describing the many ways in which alternative forms of art, those that refuse the conventions of modernism, commercialization, “post modernity, and the shifting mainstreams of the art world,” can become about place, and the lived experience of those living under very present realities of colonization and environmental racism, climate destruction and drought.

Artists are realizing that alternative futures are possible, in art and our broader world, and that art is increasingly essential in this work of imagining another world. Broadening out beyond the traditional confines of environmental art, primarily the centrality of aesthetically scripted photography, organizations like The ClimateMusic Project, where I now work, and Biophilia Records are developing ways of communicating the urgency of climate change and the importance of conservation through science informed music and entire albums about place.

Visual artists like Jenny Kendler are reimagining installations to communicate the crisis that is swiftly overtaking us. Writers like Rebecca Solnit have always wrapped their art making and activism together, each inseparable from the other, and the definitions of what is art and what is activism are slowly blurring. Lippard writes, “artists are good at slipping between the institutional walls to expose the layers of emotional and esthetic resonance in our relationships to place. They can ask questions without worrying about answers…I’ve concluded that the ultimate escape attempt would be to free ourselves from the limitations of preconceived notions of art, and in doing so, help to save the planet.” There is potential in this slipping, and we live in a time in desperate need of potential.

When I left my small mountain town home for college, and headed east to music conservatory, to study Beethoven and Brahms, I left the part of me defined by place and terrified for it’s destruction far behind. There was no room for transformation and activism and urgency in the ever narrowing halls of high art music. But a changing, burning, starving world requires action, and ways to communicate the urgency, build community, and a way to tap into alternative ways of viewing, understanding, and internalizing tragedies. This new world requires alternative forms of art to match alternative forms of living. If we take the time to reimagine the possibilities of art, it can be expanded to describe both absences and presences, the past and the future, and imagined alternatives to where we find ourselves now. Art has the potential to describe these potential futures, both those more horrifying than we can conceptualize now and those that move beyond the confines of our imaginations as they are now, towards a better world, and we need it now more than ever.

By Biophilia Records

Biophilia means "an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems." Our home is Harlem, New York City.

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