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My amazing advisor, Alan C. Braddock, co-curated a massive exhibition, Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment. We talked a bit about it, but I wanted to know more. Thankfully, he agreed to record this conversation with me for @edgeeffectsmag! #envhist #envhum

We ended up talking for almost an hour and a half, which is no record for us, but might be for @edgeeffectsmag, even edited down to an hour and fifteen minutes. Nevertheless, there was still so much more for us to talk about. I also had so much to reflect on.
Only later did I realize that Twitter could be a resource here. Our interview was done and recorded. I couldn’t go back and phrase something better, or say that thing I thought of later, or ask that set of questions. But I can now.
So, if you have any interest in learning even more about the art exhibition Nature’s Nation—which first opened @PUArtMuseum, is currently on view @peabodyessex, and will finish @crystalbridges—or ecocritical art history more generally, follow along! #artandecology
Alan doesn’t Twitter, but he might even show up in this thread (with me quoting him); or perhaps later, so if you have any questions for him, feel free to ask and I can try to get some more answers.
There was so much that I wanted to talk about here, but let me state a few things up front. I approach this exhibition from multiple perspectives. This is my field of study. This is part of who I am more generally. Alan is my advisor, so I’m exactly unbiased.
I do, of course, have my own questions or concerns, but that was not the purpose of my conversation with Alan. The key takeaway here for people is, I hope, awareness of ecocritical art history as a thing and the opportunity to see it in practice in this exhibition.
As I said, there’s so much more to talk about, but I’m going to focus, at varying degrees of length, on a few topics: Indigenous art and artists; land acknowledgements; nonhuman animals; and the relationship between protest, controversy, and the various entanglements of museums.
I have only seen the show @PUArtMuseum, so I’ll make reference to that iteration. I hope to possibly get to @peabodyessex and maybe even @crystalbridges, but we’ll have to see. The show’s gotten lots of coverage, so look for reviews online.
As a historian and art historian working at the intersection of the Indigenous and environmental, I was pretty pleasantly surprised when I first entered the show. From the outside, looking straight in, you saw the title, the introductory wall text, and a beautiful Moran painting.
Spectacular! But pretty conventional. A great C19 landscape painting (Lower Falls) by a great C19 landscape painter (Moran). This first room is a rectangle, basically with the central section of one of the long walls pushed back to make the entrance (the Moran & text were here).
In order to physically enter the exhibition, though, then you could either go right or left, and either way, you immediately encountered Indigenous art and artists. Wham! From Moran right to a Tlingit Naaxein (Chilkat robe) and a Nanticoke-Lenape wampum.
(Note, by the way, that message about an Indigenous Land Acknowledgement under the wampum. I will return to this later, but this is an important thing to notice.)
It is so important, I think, to have Indigenous works of art front and center in such an exhibition as this. And the aesthetic and epistemic shift is so great, from the “conventional” landscape painting to these two other works.
Subhankar Banerjee’s large, spectacular photograph is just around the corner from the robe and the pairing of Valery Hegarty and her muse Bierstadt beyond the wampum. These works, too, in their own ways draw attention to the Indigenous in American environmental history.
And then on the other edge of the corner of the Hegarty is Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s The Browning of America (2000), one of her many powerful map paintings forcing us to reconsider American space & place (no photos, so see either the catalogue or here: crockerart.org/collections/am…).
Overall, it’s such a powerful statement to foreground this story with so many works of Indigenous art and works that in various ways engage Indigenous history. For more on the works, again, see the catalogue or the various exhibition websites.
(By the way, just a quick remark on the Bierstadt-Hegarty pairing, which I love. It is perhaps the best visual distillation of the important essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” by Bill Cronon (@wcronon) that I’ve ever seen; for his essay, see here: williamcronon.net/writing/Troubl…)
The Indigenous presence loomed particularly large in another room, in the middle of the show, dedicated to bison. There was a Catlin painting of a dying bison (1832–1833), a centennial vase with buffalo (1876), a Bierstadt photogravure of The Last of the Buffalo (1891)…
…and in one corner, a small photograph, which you can’t quite make out until you get real close, when you then realize it’s a massive pile of buffalo skulls (1892).
Note: everything that I’ve just mentioned is non-Indigenous art. It’s the art and artifacts of Euro-American colonizers, who often blamed Indigenous peoples for the decrease in the bison population. Important, but what’s so great is how much that doesn’t stand out in this room.
What stand out are the Indigenous artists and Indigenous artworks: George Beaver’s double-sided drum (c. 1890), (my fav!) @KentMonkman’s The Fourth World (2012), and an absolutely massive Lakota robe (1882). These are very different meditations on buffalo.
I’m going to fanboy a bit here. Monkman is such a great artist. If you’re not familiar with his work, take a look! kentmonkman.com
Monkman’s work speaks to the history of art and the colonizer-Indigenous relationship, and it does so with great seriousness, humor, and amazing aesthetics. This is one of his more tame images, but there’s still a little bit of sexualization here.
I love how he combines all of this so neatly into one painting: the C19 Euro-American landscape aesthetic, the sexualized whites playing Indian, and then the buffalo, moving through a Richard Serra sculpture. The juxtapositions! It’s just such rich, good art! I love it!
As much as I found this to be a spectacular room, it did raise a question for me. The first room of the exhibition did a good job, I think, of embedding Indigenous presence more generally in the art and the show. And this room did a great job focusing on it.
But that, in turn, made the lack of an Indigenous presence in other parts of the show stand out. Again, the show was filled with Indigenous art. But I wonder if it could have been more seamlessly integrated throughout the show. (Perhaps it’s different at the other venues, too.)
This also made me think about a major intervention @metmuseum, whereby Indigenous artists, scholars, intellectuals, and activists have been invited to offer commentary on Euro-American art that’s then posted next to the original labels.
Here are two examples.
Again, though, so much of this is a work in progress. Many of us are still figuring out the best ways forward. I don’t wish to ignore what could be done better, but I think part of the difficulties here are that we’re still very much figuring out what “better” is.
There's plenty to read on this, by the way. Amy Lonetree's Decolonizing Museums, Susan Sleeper-Smith's edited collection Contesting Knowledge, and the rich collection of essays on the National Museum of the American Indian edited by Lonetree and Amanda Cobb are all great.
Another move that certainly deserves some praise is the use of a land acknowledgement at the beginning of the show. You might remember it appearing under the wampum work.
I have so many thoughts about land acknowledgements. I need to do an entire thread—or even a full on conference paper or even article—but I’ll just briefly include this from American Indian and Indigenous Studies at Michigan State University: aisp.msu.edu/about/land/
For me, here are the key takeaways. One point of a land acknowledgement is to, well, acknowledge the relationship between a particular place and (an) Indigenous community (communities). In the U.S., especially, this is about basic ignorance.
This is also about asking: what are our responsibilities to those relationships between a particular place and (an) Indigenous community (communities)? If it’s just something we say, even if it does fulfill an educational purpose, is that enough? Is that the purpose?
Look back at Princeton’s land acknowledgement. In many ways, it’s a powerful document. In other ways, it’s not.
I’m not saying it’s an empty gesture. I have no idea what else is going on. But to put it very bluntly, they acknowledge it’s Lenape land, so when are they going to give it back? And if they’re not planning on doing that, what (else) are they doing?
This is one way that land acknowledgements are tricky. People often want to do “the right thing,” but “the right thing” exists on their terms. Is it possible to acknowledge that you occupy someone else’s land and still somehow justify not giving it back? That’s the question.
I've been thinking about land acknowledgements for some time now, but this exhibition has very much helped me to continue to think more deeply about them. See here, e.g.,
Abrupt shift (I don't have a good transition): let’s talk about nonhuman animals. Considering nonhuman animals has become a key part of environmental inquiry, and this should be no less at play in art. We already encountered buffalo. What else have we here?
Some of my favorite works & juxtapositions in this show related to nonhuman animals. While humans & nonhuman animals interact throughout parts of the show, e.g., in Charles Willson Peale’s The Artist in His Museum (1822), let’s turn to a section dedicated to nonhuman animals.
I'd love to a have a long, complex conversation here about nonhuman animals, art, and the environment, but this is Twitter and sometimes that's hard to do, so instead I just want to briefly bring to your attention some of these works.
Perhaps the most visually compelling image in this section of the show is Alexis Rockman's Aviary (1992). It's big, it's bright, it's very red, it's somewhat disturbing, it's shiny.
For me this is a great image to explore the question of art and the environment. Is this a pleasant image? I think it's certainly captivating and interesting. Is this a good example of the power of the visual, especially, to convey complex and even dark realities, aesthetically?
One of my favorite, if not actually my favorite, pairings in the entire show is these two works of art: Walton Ford's Dying Words (2005) and Chris Jordan's CF000668 (2009). They're such different works, speaking to different impulses, but they make such a great comparison.
Ostensibly they're both images of dead/dying birds, but other than that, they're very different. Jordan's viscerally demonstrates the toll of our plastic consumption via the carcass of an albatross that died from eating so much plastic. Ford's birds reproduce an iconic painting.
Ford's work is humorous, silly, but also serious. The painting that it's referencing, West's The Death of General Wolf, is certainly serious subject matter, but, as Jordan shows above, so is the fate of birds (also reminiscent of Rachel Carson, no?).
And with this art historical reference and humor Ford also suggests, of course, nonhuman animals as actors (in this case literally acting out the scene of a famous painting). What if we did think of birds as we do ourselves?
What if, Jordan seems to be saying, we were confronted with the harsh end results of the ecological webs of which we are a part? To me, both of these are compelling visually, but they're also so powerful for what they "talk" about, for what the visual can say and do.
I'll end my highlights tour of nonhuman animals with another set of images, ones that are, in fact, highly related. Well, the images are less related than the artists. It's a wall with three generations of Wyeths!
I don't have as much to say about these three works of art, but I find it a fascinating opportunity to consider three generations of artists in one family producing representations of nonhuman animals. Any thoughts on similarities or differences? A shift from labor to leisure?
One final thing to consider at the intersection of nonhuman animals & art: nonhuman animals as art producers. (If they can be dying British generals, they can be artists, no?) Kidding aside, this is actually an important part of the conversation on the agency of nonhuman animals.
We now more than ever recognize nonhuman animals and humans as belonging to the same interconnected webs of existence. Nonhuman animals impact us, and the rest of the world. Perhaps some of them have language, and culture. But what about art, aesthetics, beauty?
Certainly many of us might recognize displays of beauty, aesthetics, and even craft among the nonhuman animal world. But would we call that art? Should we? I don't have a hard and fast answer here, other than to say it's not so simple as "no, of course that's not art."
Many might remember the recent case of the "monkey selfie," where the macaque Naruto took a photographer's camera in Indonesia, snapped a selfie, and then PETA asserted copyright on behalf of Naruto against the photographer. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monkey_se…
Now a number of people dismissed this all as silly. However this did bring up extremely important questions of the rights of nonhuman animals. And more generally it certainly demonstrates the complex realities of our intertwined lives. The world is not just human.
From Naruto's selfie to the relationship between protest, controversy, & the various entanglements of museums, art, and the art world (again, sorry, terrible transition). This is a hot topic at the moment, as there are at least two major art world protests taking place right now.
The first is the campaign of photographer @nangoldin1's organization PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) Sackler. Goldin, who was addicted to OxyContin, has led the charge against the involvement of members of the Sackler (drug) family in the art and museum worlds.
Goldin gained success during the ‘80s with her intimate photos of her life & friends, often depicting various sub/counter cultures and the gritty realities of life. PAIN Sackler recently experienced a number of big wins in their protest; e.g., see here: nytimes.com/2019/03/25/art…
Another protest concerns the fact that the Vice Chair of the Whitney Museum, Warren Kanders, is the CEO of a company that makes tear gas that has been used at Standing Rock, the U.S.-Mexico border, and in Gaza; see here: hyperallergic.com/493808/the-ins… and here: hyperallergic.com/493611/over-12…
While these campaigns are perhaps not overtly environmental, they do raise important broader questions about the potential implications of cultural institutions. And there really are specific environmental aspects to these concerns (e.g., health, borders, etc.).
There is, however, a very clear example of an environmental entanglement between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one of its donors, the industrialist David Koch. He gave $65 million to renovate the plaza and they put his name on it, sparking protests; hyperallergic.com/148627/three-a…
Koch is a notorious polluter, anti-environmentalist, and contributor to climate change denial. So what are museums (and we) to do? Here are the thoughts of one critic: washingtonpost.com/entertainment/…
Here are the thoughts of another art critic: And another: nytimes.com/2018/03/02/nyr…
Had we had the time, I would have also asked Alan for his thoughts. And also whether they considered this with their exhibition.
The Ecology of an Exhibition (see link) is a powerful move of environmental self reflection & self awareness. But what about other institutional entanglements? artmuseum.princeton.edu/ecologyofanexh…
There’s so much more I could say about this exhibition, but I'll end by simply saying how captivating and compelling it is. As a historian and art historian working on the environment, it was just so good. There’s so much here for the eye and the mind. Go see it if you can!
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