Sussi on Kusserow and Braddock, 'Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment'
Karl Kusserow, Alan C. Braddock. Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment. Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum, 2018. 447 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-23700-9.
Reviewed by Joseph Sussi (University of Oregon) Published on H-Environment (May, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56735
Joseph Sussi on Karl Kusserow and Alan C. Braddock, eds., Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment
Alan C. Braddock and Karl Kusserow's edited volume, Nature's Nation: American Art and Environment (2018), begins by asking "how artists have reflected and shaped environmental understanding while contributing to the emergence of modern ecological consciousness" (p. 12) within the North American context through what the authors establish as an ecocritical art historical lens. The authors define ecocritical art history as an approach that "considers artifacts of every category as embodying environmental conditions, beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions of one sort or another including art materials." In the introduction, Braddock and Kusserow establish the concerns of ecocritical art history and, through several case studies, show how this framework "demands we look askance today at idealistic interpretations" of various cultural objects. For example, their reading of landscape painting reveals how ideas of the environment also relate to social, cultural, and political issues, many of which have gone unnoticed in previous readings of these works of art. The author's analysis of Thomas Moran's The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872) serves as a stunning example of how an ecocritical art historical lens enhances the understanding of works of art within the tradition of nineteenth-century landscape painting; beyond such "idealistic interpretations" that fail to question how aesthetics are political. Illuminating observations emerge in this analysis, especially those that connect how the painting reflected and contributed to concepts of wilderness, the privileging of the sublime landscape, and embodied influential environmental theories of the day. The book presents two arguments: the first is to show how an ecocritical lens can deepen scholars' understanding of visual and material culture and the second is to argue that the North American context uniquely demonstrates how aesthetics played a foundational role in the development of environmental thought over the past several centuries.
Furthermore, the analysis demonstrates how landscape paintings, like Moran's and those of his contemporaries, contributed to establishing Western white male settler-colonial perspectives that furthered the erasure of indigenous, place-based ways of knowing. The argument convincingly stated and researched is that art and artists have played a significant role in the formation, reception, and understanding of environmental thought. Environment is not a fixed or static category but has been contested and debated throughout history. Thus, the environment is a discursive and material space where social, cultural, and political concerns converge. Artistic practices have often been excluded from conversations about the environment.
The three body sections correspond to three epochs of North American history. The first section, "Colonization and Empire," spans roughly from the sixteenth century to the turn of the nineteenth century; the second, "Industrialization and Conservation," covers the nineteenth century; and the last section, "Ecology and Environmentalism," stretches from the beginning of the twentieth into the twenty-first century. Each "epoch" is introduced with essays by the editors that frame the convergence of societal forces and the corresponding understanding of environmental thought that emerged within each period. The volume includes essays by art historians and visual studies scholars (Anna McClintock, Rachael Z. DeLue, Kimia Shahi, Robin Kelsey), curators (Laura Turner Igoe, Jeffrey Richmon-Moll, Miranda Belarde-Lewis), artists/designers (Mark Dion, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Fonna Forman, and Teddy Cruz), and leading theorists in the fields of contemporary ecocritical thought (Timothy Morton and Rob Nixon). These essays offer meaningful contributions to scholarship that shows the entwinement between visual representation and environmental thinking.
In the first section, "Colonization and Empire," the authors establish how imperialism shaped understandings of nature alongside the violent mission of colonization. The ordering of the natural world through scientific categorization and landscape paintings, as Braddock and Kusserow argue in their respective essays, emerged as imperial forces began to colonize land for its instrumentalization. The German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt is a central character here due to his theory of the Great Chain of Being, which categorized the living and nonliving matter of the world into hierarchies. Braddock finds deep connections between von Humboldt and the work of the painter and museum founder Charles Wilson Peale. In Peale's museum, the first natural history museum established in the United States, species categories mirrored von Humboldt's hierarchy. In doing so, Peale sought to prioritize humanist interests and perspectives, which, according to Braddock, contributed to a constellation of scientific, artistic, and cultural practices that aimed to order and control nature. Conversely, Braddock shows how new ways of analysis emerged in the work of the ornithologist John James Audobon. Whereas Peale retained, although at times ambiguously, an interest in the organizing hierarchy of being, Audobon disrupted conventional means of categorizing and gathering environmental information through his attention to nonterrestrial, avian life.
Throughout the eighteenth century, organizational systems and knowledge production centered on Western anthropocentric worldviews. These practices privileged the institutionalization of scientific rationalism and legitimized colonization. Karl Kusserow, in his two essays, establishes how the ordering of the natural world developed through aesthetic considerations of representation in portraiture and landscape painting. Celebrated landscape painters from the Hudson River School are each analyzed for their varying contributions to the ordering of the landscape. Kusserow compellingly concludes his chapter by considering a landscape representation aesthetic that emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century, known as Luminism, that breaks away from the categorical ordering of the landscape. This shift emphasized "observing relations among multiple areas or subjects" and offered "a system of perceptual equality that is inherently ecological" (pp. 130, 135). Relationality and entanglement as ecological are discussed in more detail in other essays in this section and beyond, in particular in Jeffrey Richmond-Moll's essay on the still-life painter Raphaelle Peale, son of Charles Peale, as well as Kimia Shahi's essay on Martin Johnson Head's series of marsh landscape paintings.
Two other essential essays in this section, "Creative Matter: Tracing the Environmental Context of Materials in American Art," by Laura Turner Igoe, and "Wearing the Wealth of the Land: Chilkat Robes and Their Connection to Place," by Miranda Belarde-Lewis (Zuni and Tlingit), both supplement a vital contribution of ecocritical art history that considers the connections between aesthetic objects and "their chains of production" (p. 140), in the former, and their role in linking indigenous communities and place, in the latter. Belarde-Lewis argues that the Chilkat Robe crafting practice "requires consideration of both the technical mastery it entails as an art form and its direct embodiment of Indigenous peoples' physical connection to the land of the Northwest Coast" (pp. 179-180).
The tension between the transformation of the landscape in the wake of accelerating industrialization and the reactive impulse to develop nature conservation practices as an antidote for the human destruction of the environment frames the second section of Nature's Nation. Here, the concept of "wilderness," the notion that proliferated at the time that purposely erased Indigenous peoples' presence and, as discussed above, instrumentalized nature, took on aesthetic dimensions. The desire for a bucolic paradise conflicted with the violence caused by industrialization, which Braddock frames through the processes and repercussions of the harvesting and extraction of two materials: cotton and petroleum. Braddock argues that the production of these materials relates to increased racial and environmental violence through two significant events occurring at the time, the Civil War and Manifest Destiny. Braddock identifies how artists at the turn of the twentieth century sought new methods of representation that made previous Edenic visions of landscape no longer tenable, while many still contributed to a perceived dignity in the wilderness through the very erasure of such violence.
The visual culture scholar Anne McClintock's essay, "Ghostscapes from the Forever War," remarkably argues photography's role in what she calls the "administration of forgetting" or "the calculated, administered, and often brutal amnesias by which a state or political entity seeks to erase its violence" (p. 273). Framed by several "ghostscapes," case studies in which "phantoms of disappeared violence may appear as environmental scars, ecological disturbances, and accusatory apparitions on the landscape itself" (p. 274), McClintock shows the connections between US imperialism and the politics of in/visibility. The inclusion of McClintock's essay adds dimension to the arguments laid out by Braddock and Kusserow, where absences found in artistic representation are both strategic and intentional—for example, Thomas Cole's bucolic imaginings of the Catskills and Thomas Eakins's depictions of ideal urban transformations. McClintock widens the aperture of the analysis by showing how such forms of erasure contribute to a more extensive system of "imperial ghosting." To show this, McClintock explores the process of erasure and concealment in the photographs of Edward S. Curtis. In these photographs, Curtis intentionally concealed modern technology intruding into his fantasy of Native Americans. McClintock triangulates multiple "alchemies of erasure," including Curtis's erasure of settler violence in his photographs, alongside the more present-day erasure of environmental violence by BP through their use of Coexist, an oil disperser, after the Deep Horizon Oil spill. McClintock's essay concludes with a call "to learn to speak with ghosts" (p. 285), which urges the reader to consider how innocence is made simpler by conveniently forgetting.
The final section, "Ecology and Environmentalism," turns toward the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and focuses on the emergence of popular environmentalist thinking. Braddock, borrowing from the theorist Jane Bennet, identifies an emerging interest in "vital forms," marked by a growing awareness of more-than-human agencies, in the works of artists such as Georgia O'Keefe and Thomas Lawrence. One of the most compelling analyses in the book comes in Braddock's ecocritical reading of Samuel Joseph Brown's watercolor, The Lynching (1934). Braddock argues that the piece "exposes the absurdity of racism ... as anything by natural" (p. 337) through the painting's graphic content and deliberate separation from formal and visual precedents. This analysis builds on the author's readings of landscapes represented in idealized forms by white settler-colonial artists and previous chapters' arguments of how order, categorization of the natural world, and environmental thought are intertwined with the legitimization of racial violence. Through these types of analyses, racial injustice and environmental injustice connect. This type of analysis is a critical scholarly contribution that still does not get enough attention, despite mounting evidence from other fields. Environmental history must account for aesthetic considerations, including analyzing artistic practice. Deepening our understanding of artistic production can help identify how and why particular landscapes are desirable and accessible and, in doing so, define what landscapes, persons, and more-than-human life-forms are expendable. Notably, the book concludes with an essay by Fonna Forman and Teddy Cruz, which focuses on the hope of forging a "transnational environmental commons" through inspiring and generating local, community-based activism in response to climate devastation. The work of Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman, a political research-based architecture and design firm, reflects a growing body of contemporary artistic practices that integrate the knowledge learned from environmental justice scholarship. Design and community engagement are brought together to, in the words of Forma and Cruz, "deepen public knowledge and sustain meaningful cross-border citizenship culture over time" (p. 426).
Nearly all art historians will find value in Nature's Nation's mapping of critical methodological and theoretical contributions from an ecocritical art historical perspective. For scholars who do not see themselves as "ecocritical art historians," it may be advantageous to read sections specific to that scholar's corresponding specialty as each section demonstrates, without the necessary knowledge of previous sections, how an ecocritical art historical lens may enhance already existing readings of familiar case studies. The editors highlight preexisting scholarship about various works of art and historical events while refreshing those readings with ecocritical perspectives. This text also speaks to a broader audience. In language accessible to nonspecialists, it argues for the potential contributions of art history to the growing body of environmental studies scholarship. Nature’s Nation demonstrates that art history can help us understand showing how the environment is shaped by the ways cultures express and visualize natural phenomena. Artists, as Nature’s Nation eloquently argues, have a crucial impact on how people live with the world. The artists’ role is now more pertinent than ever, as they continue to reveal how violence against people and the environment is connected and to imagine and forge communities of the future in a time of climate breakdown.
Citation: Joseph Sussi. Review of Kusserow, Karl; Braddock, Alan C., Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. May, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56735This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.