Book Review: Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment

By Karl Kusserow and Alan C. Braddock. Princeton University Art Museum, 2018

When is a landscape painting not a landscape painting? When viewed from the present vantage point in the Anthropocene.

As we all who have read this stunning work report, Karl Kusserow and Alan Braddock have rewritten American art history, doing so deeply, broadly, beautifully and honestly. James Christen Steward, Director of the Princeton University Art Museum writes in his Foreword that this is a re-examination of “the history of American art in light of ecology and environmental history.”

Nature’s Nation: American Art and the Environment is an overtly-interdisciplinary approach to examining the human relationship with nature, in what many now call the United States. It is ecocriticism the study of the ecological significance in artistic practices. It examines, in this case, how visual art is viewed, interpreted, and managed, all through, and in, artistic depictions of the land, people, and their unequal relationship, from the time of the English colonies until now with the recognition of the climate crisis.

The scholarly work is also the catalog for the exhibit Nature’s Nation that opened at Princeton University Art Museum in 2018, and has traveled to the Peabody Essex Museum and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in 2019. Reading it is a chance to see the exhibit if you missed it. And, if you want to know more about how a self-aware team assesses ecological impact of its own work, then check out Ecology of an Exhibition!

I craved reading Nature’s Nation for its case that art and art history can be allies to scientists and climate change activists seeking engage a broader public in recognizing the Anthropocene (and the need to shift the narrative from destruction regeneration). Others will be drawn to the stunning art historical record revealed and reinterpreted here, and the precedent-setting case for ecocriticism’s value in recognizing man’s critically complex relationship with nature.

Each of the study’s three sections, Colonization and Empires, Industrialization and Conservation, and Ecology and Environmentalism, opens with two or three absorbing scholarly essays by the Kusserow and/or Braddock. They are followed by focus essays from among the nine contributors to the volume. The broad ranging research of each of Kusserow and Braddock’s essays makes each worthy of a stand-alone publication. The deep-dives by their contributors provide reinforcements in high relief.

Kusserow and Braddock’s Introduction, is a tutorial on ecocriticism is an art history/ecology/environmental humanities (because that’s what ecocriticism rolls up together) essay that every student from now forward will, and must, read to prepare them for their work as curators, art historians, and environmental humanists. Here is a micro example of that: in an exploration of two comparative, late nineteenth-century works by Thomas Moran and Grafton Taylor Brown depicting scenes in Yellowstone National Park, they write:

…the Anthropocene prompts reevaluation of long trajectories of human activity. …the National Park Services acknowledges growing evidence of climate change at Yellowstone as a vector already altering seasonal temperatures, annual snow accumulation water flows, plant and animal growth, and more. Indian removal brought an end to the Indigenous peoples’ historical efforts of managing forests and wildlife through periodic burning, resulting now in the dense growth that has exacerbated wildfires. Human and other biotic traffic through the park over decades since 1872 has introduced numerous exotic species that have transformed the Yellowstone ecosystem in other ways. Wildlife regulation and management during the park’s history has entailed protection of species such as bison and wolves, where were deliberately exterminated by rangers in the early twentieth century only to be reintroduced later. Though not manifested in Moran’s or Brown’s pictures, these manifold ongoing changes further debunk the pristine myth about Yellowstone and other parks.”

Kusserow and Braddock conclude that we must “look askance today at idealistic interpretations that read Moran’s work simply as a neutral document of Yellowstone’s timeless purity. Given the scale of ecological challenges moving forward – and their entanglement with issues of visuality, materiality, and creativity – we foresee ecocritical art history playing an increasingly important role in scholarship and public discourse.”

Now, just try and tell me yet again that climate change issues don’t make sense for art museums.

C’mon, try me.

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