Eight years ago I gave a visiting artist lecture at RISD that began with the provocation “nature doesn’t exist.” The auditorium squirmed. Too glib? Given typically incredulous art students, I’d assumed they heard it before, maybe in that “iek at the dump” video. It must have been a tough one to swallow from an artist known primarily for landscape imagery in panoramic oil paintings.
Last year I visited RISD again, same provocation. No one blinked. What changed? For one, history. Eco-criticism had taken its sweet time reaching back through our understanding of art history. In this narrative, the revisions nearly blindsided contemporary art, especially “post-production,” which had been running an earlier beta version of the critical theories, so painting offered its slow but available memory for the new post-naturalist operating system. But something else must have primed the acceptance of the “Anthropocene.” Clearly, the change was more about “how” than “where” we see what used to be nature.
Orange is the new readymade
I recently attended a panel on painting since the 1990s with Lydia Dona and Fabian Marcaccio at Columbia for Dana Schutz’s students. Feeling that certain critical/ethical positions in art (not theirs) had become largely aesthetic, I questioned the “look of thought” as a lingering Cartesian rift over the “primacy of percept or concept.” I likened it to culture-versus-nature, and ye olde “Picasso or Duchamp” debate, Duchamp being famously anti-retinal to Picasso’s Cézanne—who didn’t paint oranges, but “how we see” them. The appearance of reified “nature” doesn’t insist it exists, but rather persists, in the “blown cover” of ideology. Marcaccio paused and offered, “Yes, but today the orange is Monsanto.” It clicked: why culture-versus-nature, or percept-versus-concept, when the readymade is the orange?
Thought problems make iffy ecotourism of the imagination—alternate prehistories for our future to resemble. The television show Lost was Robinson Crusoe for the Bush years, with characters named Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, etc. Are we still asking whether society corrupts or constructs? Marx outperforms the Austrians’ oversight of the fact that Crusoe’s shipwreck included tools, thus demonstrating labor over utility; almost every important thinker on economy or ecology has used Crusoe’s island as a naturalistic setting to model a problem.
Naturalizing sociology is dangerous. When cultural evolutionists theorize a phylogenic explanation for our taste in memes, it’s Social Darwinism 2.0, conflation of an ecology/economy under the cruelties of survivalism, adaptation, and aesthetics. We now live in a world without animals, John Berger noticed decades ago. Paintings of horses may have once been “horses,” but between 1848 and 1968, partially due to Fordism and deskilling, the “horses” became “paintings.”
The language of discovery that once implied nature, now applies to readymades. People discover things like quinoa, heroin, or artists (at fairs). Speculative Realists lampoon Bruno Latour’s “Microbes didn’t exist until Pasteur.” A tree falling in the woods wouldn’t preclude an observer, which in this hypothetical forest occupies a pre-subjective space not unlike what we used to mean by experience.
Aesthetics is too much the currency of social engineering today for us to ignore. Ecology is not simply a system update for the pastoral, a question of indoors and outdoors. Culture became definitive when transcendentalists “discovered” nature’s luminism, which only foreshadowed nature’s inevitable loss. Their landscape was nature’s vanishing point.
Romantic irony envisions a disappearance of the self into nature, an aesthetic turn—the lingering perfume of social atomization. Gesundtheit! If we can see aesthetic camouflage, hidden in passive “ecomimesis,” then even a greasy painting of a landscape can emerge as a different kind of location technology—whose parameters of illusion and materiality converge over a permeable surface between outside and in: a fluid window.
TOM MCGRATH is a painter who lives and works in Brooklyn. His most recent project, a 1,200 square foot ceiling installation, opened last winter at the Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando, Florida.