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Proposal Toward Visual Eco-Criticism
Katie Kurtz, 7 Aug 09


Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions.
It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated.
–Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art

In February 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its most strongly worded assessment to date: a statement declaring that “global warming is “unequivocal” and the rise in global temperatures is “very likely” the result of human activity. This news item appeared on the front page of The New York Times and was accompanied by a picture of polar bears stranded on melting ice caps in the Bering Sea. The photograph was taken in 2004, but was not widely circulated until it was paired with the Panel’s announcement. Coincidentally, the front page of that same New York Times also featured a news item and photograph of a Florida tornado’s aftermath – an aerial view of flattened buildings and felled trees.

Over the past few years, this combination of images and headlines – coincidental and otherwise – has become an increasingly familiar sight. Nature is now delivered to our doorstep and found online through news of weird and previously unimaginable events caused by global climate change – extreme weather, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and the like. These events cast new light on the age-old question about our relationship to nature: Where does it end and we begin?

Eighteenth century philosopher Edmund Burke argued that the wildness and scale of nature provokes a special kind of fear, and that this fear is inherent to our experience of the sublime. He also asserted that the sublime cannot be conjured: picturing the awesome expanse of the ocean while staring at an open field is impossible. Following Burke’s logic, nature can never accurately be depicted and humans must experience it directly in order to encounter the sublime. The 21st century introduces a new fear about natural occurrences –- the sublime as experienced in catastrophic weather events. At the same time, while some of the effects of climate change are writ large, the vast majority of its consequences remain invisible.

Borrowing from Burke, I want to suggest that perhaps we cannot be moved by representations of rising sea levels. Just like we can’t adequately imagine the ocean while staring at a field, we are unable to visualize rising sea levels while standing on the beach. These things will not be real to us until the oceans are flooding our homes and swallowing up loved ones. If the weather itself illustrates the dire place we’ve reached with anthropogenic global warming, what does it take for pictures of polar bears floating on ice caps or art installations about sea levels to be meaningful? What does it mean to depict nature in light of 21st century global climate change – one that does not hearken back to an idealized past but recognizes the complexity that globalization introduces in terms of how we respond to the natural world?

I come to these questions from the perspective of an urban environmentalist and from the position of a cultural critic. What I am interested in outlining is a proposal toward visual eco-criticism, a methodology that draws on literary eco-criticism and visual culture studies to consider cultural production from an eco-centric perspective.

In an essay about visual culture, W.J.T. Mitchell (editor, Critical Inquiry) suggests that, “…the questions to ask about images are not just, ‘what do they mean?’ or ‘what do they do?’ but ‘what do they want?’” The question of what images want sets up the proposition for a more ethical reading of images, one that reveals the social, cultural, and political entanglements embedded therein. So what does a photograph of a polar bear stranded on a melting ice cap want?

While there is a long legacy of landscape art and a more recent tradition of land and environmental art, the fact of climate change ushers in a whole new paradigm in which to consider representations of nature. The effects of both man’s intervention into the environment coupled with the ways climate change contribute to land loss and species extinction were not typical considerations for early landscape painters or Land Art artists.

Photograph of oil drums by Chris Jordan
A newer strain in environmentally related art records man’s abuses of the environment. Given the popularity of such photographers as Chris Jordan, we seem to be becoming more interested in mountains of throwaway objects than in Mount Fuji. Considered retrospectively, representations of nature -– paintings, photographs, and film –- now act as a kind of preservation, visually archiving sites and habitats before they disappear forever.

While visual eco-criticism borrows from some of the strategies of literary eco-criticism, the argument is located within the field of visual culture, allowing for an interdisciplinary examination of a fuller spectrum of images about the environment – of both artworks and mainstream imagery such as advertising and photographs accompanying news stories. As a starting point, I propose that visual eco-criticism:

1. Revisits both art and non-art representations of nature and the environment with an eco-critical lens.

2. Interprets contemporary art and media through an eco-conscious framework.

3. Recognizes the role of race, class, gender, and sexuality as critical components to any examination of visual culture and that visual eco-criticism has a stake in addressing these issues.

4. Encourages a dialogue between cultural producers and the environmental community in order to advance an ecological agenda.

5. Considers the sustainability of the process and materials in a work’s production.

Through visual eco-criticism, an object or image is interpreted not only in terms of its political, social and cultural meaning but also for its environmental implications. That is, when one considers U.S. artist Matthew Barney’s productions through the lens of visual eco-criticism, questions are raised about Barney’s lavish use of unsustainable materials that complicate the artist’s conceptual insistence on “restraint.”

This proposal was conceived in order to instigate a deeper dialogue about the very curious place we find ourselves in natural history.

Editor's Note: This is an advance excerpt of a longer essay that Katie Kurtz is working on to describe the need for, and her vision of, visual eco-criticism. We are pleased to be able to preview it for our readers here on Worldchanging. If you live in the Bay Area, we encourage you to see Katie present this topic in person at the Headlands Center For the Arts in Sausalito on Sunday, August 16. Learn more

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Katie Kurtz brings up some thought provoking ideas and I believe that creative people need to be involved in finding solutions to our environmental crisis. Its time to bring Visual Eco- Criticism to the fore. Thanks for this excellent article.

Jeanne Anderson

Posted by: jeanne Anderson on 7 Aug 09

I came across eco-criticism (or green theory) as a study of literature a few years ago while working on my honors thesis in Fine Arts at university. I have been fascinated by the topic ever since & have been interested in applying the theory into the visual art field. I think my art practice touches on it slightly as much of my work deals with themes of extinction - although not humankind-related extinction (dinosaurs) - as well as some environmental degradation (represented by hoodoo rock formations.) Look forward to more in-depth analysis in the longer essay.

Posted by: Cameron D. on 7 Aug 09

The overall tone and sentiment in the article is commendable. However Katie I think you have some work to do in contextualizing this as a new and radical departure from what artists have always done... reflect on contemporary issues, fears and concerns through a critical lens. This is really not that radical an idea, even as considered in the context of the representation of nature. There is rich and bountiful literature on this, and also countless historical examples of how artists have drawn critical and insightful lenses toward ecological or landscape issues. Consider the amazing images from the dustbowl of the great depression, or Ansel Adams role in bringing attention to the need to preserve the Sierra Nevada and ultimately having a significant role in the hearings that led to the protection of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. You might also look at the dialogues and art being produced by contemporary artists, including those using interactive and mobile media to do just what you propose... placing the viewer into a more sensorily immersed setting to reflect on ecological issues. Keep up the work, but be careful framing these ideas as a new paradigm. Thanks!

Posted by: Eric Kabisch on 7 Aug 09

Can't wait for the full essay. I'm currently approaching this from another angle - the types of visual analytics used in environment decision making. What I've researched so far is that visuals are used augment the textual (ie.legislation) argument in environmental hearings, and particularly, that visual frameworks limit our consideration (perhaps purposely?) of the environment.

Posted by: Andrew Butt on 7 Aug 09

The scholarly field of Environmental Communication has long been engaged in the kind of visual eco-criticism that you are proposing here. Kevin DeLuca, now at the University of Utah, has been a leader in this area. In addition, you might check out the journal Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, at and a new blog Indications: Environmental Communication and Culture at

Posted by: Steve S on 7 Aug 09

Fascinating and critically important.

I remember one morning opening up the front page of Huff Post with an article about the Tennessee ash spill with a banner ad for a movie above. A huge gun sprang up into the visual field of the banner ad; the gun was larger than the small photograph of the ecological catastrophe.

The recent ad campaign of Exxon-Mobil that shows a guy talking, the words appearing on the page, "mobile" juxtaposed with articles about the failure of leadership to 'mobilize' on climate change: What is the embedded narrative that we make from the simultaneity of of Mobil-mobile words and images - global leadership 'immobilized'? it seems to me clear that the narrative we make -- unconsciously -- via the visual field is a propagandistic tale of Mobil mobilizing to take care of us and leadership failing to mobilize.

And what of the dancing stuff that parades across a website with ecological articles about how doomed we are? How are we to make sense out of the ads of happy consumerism as usual in the same mental landscape as ecological catastrophe?

The answer is that we cannot. Our brains cannot form a coherent narrative out of the contradictory visual images and the juxtaposition of image and narrative.

The biggest problem is that the images of nature ecological catastrophe seldom have human beings in them; hence, we do not register our human part in the catastrophe -- THE core issue of climate change.

I think that we urgently need to look at the "art" that we are generating about our ecological situation as the 'theatre of the absurd' of the competing images and narratives in the media that visually fuse advertising, propaganda, information, opinion, etc., and not limit ourselves as cultural critics to deliberate artistic creation. I am not saying we are; I am only saying that the overwhelming experience of ecological imagery is spewing from the media, and that it is absurd.

Vaclav Havel said that we should take the theatre of the absurd as a "warning" that we are "dangerously close to despair and hopelessness." For me, eco-visual cultural criticism begins here, with the theatre of absurd of the visual media landscape as the generator of despair, and how/if artists can/are able to overcome the despair generating absurdity of our daily media experience with images that can help us transcend despair and inspire action.

Posted by: MimiK on 10 Aug 09

Trying again here... Thanks for this great intervention, Katie. I like the way you bring in Mitchell's work (his "What Do Images Want?" is a great starting point for those interested in current visual studies).

I will have to agree with Steve S, though, that ecocritical visual studies have been developing in many venues, as have ecocritical film studies, performance studies, musicology, et al. (e.g., in such journals as ISLE, Green Letters, Environmental Communication, Ethics & the Environment, TDR, Topia, Cultural Studies, and other places). I've blogged about these topics at Immanence; see also the bibliography towards the end of this syllabus.

Posted by: Adrian on 11 Aug 09

I think that some of us, who are not well known artists are doing this on a subconscious level now....if you go to my Power Series
you will see that many of them reference environmental concerns...
I'm also concerned about the lack of altruism on a personal level... our actions hold a mirror to the environment...

Posted by: ann tracy on 11 Aug 09

The fifth tenet, "Considers the sustainability of the process and materials in a work’s production," is the one I watch met with the most vitriol resistance. When I ask about the embedded energy, social justice, etc. of the materials used in many eco-art installations, I am often dismissed as not understanding the art.

All of our "arts" have some negative ecological footprint and some have a positive one (aka handprint) as well. I am an egregious abuser of resources (planes are my ecobane), yet hope to balance it with my positive impacts.

Thank you for suggesting that we at least consider the sustainability of our acts and materials… not just as a banal act of accounting, but as a deeper part of our art.

Posted by: Lonny on 13 Aug 09

All the proposals for visual eco-criticism are excellent but are part of a wider dialogue in this field already, as mentioned by Steve and Adrian. While it will help to solidify 'visual eco-criticism' as an approach to unpack the ecological implications of visual material - it is not entirely fair to present this as a new proposal. BTW, another excellent journal in this area is:

Still what Katie describes as visual eco-criticism is hugely important, and if we want to change ideas about our relationship with the natural world (absolutely necessary if we are to create a sustainable future), we will need to re-examine our visual representations of our place in the wider ecosystem. In an ecologically literate world we would be capable of deciphering ecological toxic ideas that support unsustainable practice, industries, politics, etc. - and images that support these ideas would not win design awards. Alas, presently we exist in a profoundly dysfunctional and ecological incompetent culture. This must change.

I don't agree with the suggestion that we cannot be moved by representations of sea water rise. I think this is cynical and unfounded. Some people are moved. Many are too dis-empowered and helpless to allow themselves to be moved. Certainly many people feel a sort of horror in the face of a unspeakable tragedy.

Certainly what Katie is doing is crucial. Also thanks to Mimik for his post. 'Eco-centric' is fundamental - I look forward to seeing more!

Posted by: Jody Boehnert on 13 Aug 09

Good article -- in the end, all of our actions need to be brought back to an examination of their impact on the planet, and the people, animals, and plants therein.

Posted by: David - green thoughts on 15 Aug 09

Thanks Katie, I find your question, if media can anticipate a climate catastrophy, extremely important. I agree with Jody that we can be moved by mediated pictures and I agree with Katie, that it won't be an experience of the sublime. Can we imagine a future landscape devastated by climate change, when we see it smoothly 3D-modelled in films like "Age of Stupid"? Would we feel concerned?

The human-caused nature catastrophy brings about a new understanding of the nature-man-relationship. But what happens, when we apply the old spectator-image-relationship, when we see nature in a staged distance?

I would be deeply grateful for helping theory on that!
(thanks stephen for "environmental communication")

Right now, I'm researching on the conditions to imagine future geoengineering projects in that perspective.

Posted by: Susanne Quehenberger on 26 Aug 09

Thank you everyone for your thoughtful responses about this initial essay. I understand there is a long legacy of ecocriticism and do not believe that what I am proposing is wholly new. However, what I hope to introduce to the existing body of ecocriticism is considerations of the role of images within ecocriticism. The methodology I propose is to be used as a framework for interpretation rather than a suggestion that artists perform ecocriticism in their work.

The caveat that this is a proposal is intentional. The comments here are reflective of exactly what I hoped - that we need to delve deeper into how we negotiate the chronic cognitive dissonance around understanding what we see versus what we know. Many of us know that an image of a polar ice cap is no longer simply an image of a polar ice cap. I am curious as to how we account for this shift in perspective and the many influences that come into play - political, environmental, and social.

Thank you again - I hope that this conversation continues!

Posted by: Katie Kurtz on 6 Sep 09

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