Balance: Art and Nature

An extract from a book by John K. Grande

For centuries we have assumed that history and art are a series of progressions inimically tied to the economic progress of Western civilization. Our cultural conception of nature, like
environmental art itself, has defined nature as “aesthetic real estate” – mere matter to be
manipulated, transposed and reformed in order to affirm our superiority over nature. Duchamp once said; “Man invented art. It wouldn’t exist without him.
Art has no biological source. Ifs addressed to a taste,”^ yet who could now deny that
art has always been a part of nature? Art is as necessary to society as the sun
is to nature, for it sheds light, to paraphrase Gauguin, on who we are, where we come from
and where we are going.

Contrary to popular opinion, human design and design in nature are not exclusive of, but complementary to one another. Any attempt to discover the dark heart of real creativity must involve a redefinition of human culture within the context of nature.
Meanwhile, nature remains oblivious, yet intensely affected by human endeavour. It is now up to us to regenerate our social and environmental landscape, to adapt ourselves to it in more provocative, new and varied ways. It is only by a radical reinterpretation of the terms nature and culture that art will find new avenues for regeneration.
To think, act and create “naturally” is not an easy task in a culture that emphasizes distraction,
distortion and decontextualization. It requires the awareness that everything does indeed matter. The solution is neither structural nor syntactic.
It involves a basic confidence in perception, intuition and the ritual of exploration of materials
with a sense of their potential power and magical properties.

We generally equate idealism with visible change, or we reject it in favour of nihilism. Both of these stances cripple the artist’s creative impulse, because they are based in an agenda for, not a feeling of, the inner self. It is as if by abandoning a vision based on individual achievement, we fear we could lose the very core of our being – the ego. There is a slow-moving transformation toward a more holistic state of culture, where resources, communications systems, technology and permaculture will work together. A morality of good and evil, right and wrong, imbued art and nature with a religious and ideological hierarchy. It is a hierarchy we must now leave behind.

To develop a stronger relation to nature, we now have to generate procreative models for human culture and civilization – our future depends on it. Reason alone cannot improve our quality of life. As Thomas Berry writes: “We consistently think of the human as primary
and the Earth as derivative rather than thinking of the Earth as primary and the human as derivative. This must change.”
The ebb and flow of energies that are part of the process of life in our biosphere are the procreative core of our desire to transform, enrich, express, improve.
We need an art that goes beyond merely treating nature as raw material for an environmental project, that reaffirms the universal experience of being alive and conceives of nature as the end, not the means, of the creative process.

The media’s sudden visual truncations of an implied greater reality are but a state of mind yet these images affect our daily lives more readily than works of art. Why?
Because these fractious phrases of visual discontinuity are part of the irony inherent in a culture that thrives on consumer values. In seeking a purist, postmodern version
of beauty, we deny the integral ethos that is the basis of our classic sense of beauty,
which has always implied that any part is the sum of the whole. In a culture where beauty must necessarily exclude ugliness, where oppositions between abstraction
and representation exist, yet are blurred in order to sustain a sense of order in disorder, the fragment can not include the whole, yet is perceived as an entirety.
The bits of information with which we construct our sense of the world are not archaic fragments attached to a mythological vision based in real, culture-specific experience, nor nostalgic echoes of a Romantic legacy, but instead recant the logic of a visual syntax based in maximal scale production and reproduction systems. The visual fragment represents truth as speed caught for a millisecond, the ghost in the machine.

Our modern-day vision is a techtopic one. We codify and process our responses to images, then we throw them away in preparation for the next. As a result, when we look at a painting, a sculpture, an installation or a video, our patience is minimal: We have become consumers of art, no longer appreciators. Likewise, when looking at a natural forest or landscape, we will generalize its elements visually. Seldom do we actually look at the diversity of camouflaged, co-dependent elements that exist within their specific microcosm – a mirror of the planet’s maximally scaled ecosystem. A forest is just a forest and a tree is just a tree. When we look at a tree, no different than the kind of tree our ancestors saw one thousand years ago, we say nature reproduces its own forms, when in fact nature procreates itself. It is we who invest nature with a purpose as a living object-container, an agent of endless reproduction, instead of seeing its essence as a virtually timeless catalyst of life. The same applies to art, where we conceive all materials objectively as contained or containing.
Our aesthetic assumptions reflect the hermetic tautologies of a history based on material progress. Principles of production measure content, symbol or material as evidence of an underlying rationale.
We preselect our responses to the eclectic wilderness on an a priori basis, simplifying its confusion of details in the same way we have been trained as consumers to do with our minimalist, media-saturated imagism. Our curiosity about the diverse elements that comprise it, or incredulity about its diversity of composite forms, have been deadened.
The urban environments in which many of us live, where nature’s presence has been reduced to tiny lots and geometrical parks caught between traffic and buildings, are experiential mono-realities, equally real environments whose lack of variation reinforces the sensory deprivation inherent to artificial media stimulation.

In what way do synthetic or technology-based expressions imply a commitment to the betterment of nature from whose limited resources all economies and materials derive? An art of arrested holistic development that reifies experiential deprivation and relies excessively on the formal syntax and structures of technology is indeed a weakness. These “egosystems” of expression can now be contrasted with an art whose vision is more subtle, but whose purpose and effect is longer lasting. The main premise of environmentallybased art is a profound respect for our ecosystem. Art can be a form of “experiential nutrition” for its audiences, and encourage us all to appreciate life more fully.

In seeking to bridge the great gap between the environment and humanity, many artists are now maintaining a guarded distance from the machinations of the market as they try to move beyond traditional forms of expression. Their concern lies with establishing new connections between humanity and the bio system on which our future depends. Universal concerns with the environment, a resurgence of interest in mythology, and attempts at rediscovering a basic self-sufficiency through the recognition of the value of bioregional culture are all part of this new non-movement. The need to replace outdated patriarchal models of society is equally being recognized.
In nurturing new approaches to the creative process, many artists will reject the history of art outright.
For these artists, culture is not perceived as a mutable membrane to be permeated by mega-corporations, but instead can determine the very shape of what an economy could be. The diverse spectrum of bioregional elements that are a part of our experience of the world around us – climate, geography, geology, other life forms – are now an inviolable part of, not distinct from, the creative process. In developing a nature-specific dialogue that is inter-active, rooted in actual experience in a given place and time, and giving these elements an equal voice in the creative process, we are ultimately respecting our integral connectedness to the environment. The inflexible stereotypes of art history and outmoded notions of avantgardism
could be replaced by a searching inquiry – one in which the maps of art’s legacy can no longer be a guiding principle. A synchronous development is occurring throughout the world at the same time, almost despite the media’s sublimely counterproductive message; this new imperative defies the classic stereotypes of an art based in formal language. As an approach, it no longer recognizes central market forces as all-important, but instead as demeaning.
This art takes its cue from specificity itself, an intense realization of the importance of nature where it exists, in each and every bioregion of the world. Its mutualist role uses art’s capacity to communicate through materials as a centring device that can help us reconnect with our place in the natural world. Our expendable taste for novelty is being rejected. Some of us have begun to realize that we are a part of the continual interaction, exchange and transformation of energies that is nature; nature has become the main substance for a new
art as nature. There is an essential freedom that comes when one identifies with the life process itself as art. It is the one chance we have to ensure a viable art of the future. Nature is the art of which we are a part.

John K. Grande
An extract from Balance: Art and Nature.

John K. Grande is a Canadian art critic with an abiding interest and numerous reviews and feature articles in the field of nature art, a winner of national and international awards. He is an organizer of Eco-Art with Peter Selz in Pori Art Museum, Finland, 2011, with Kathy Venter – Life in Gardiner Museum
of Ceramic Art, Toronto, 2013 and five editions of Earth Art in Royal Botanical Gardens and Van Dusen Gardens, Vancouver. A special guest to the International Symposium Gabrovtsi, ART–NATURE 2014.
This is his first translation in Bulgarian.

The translator, Zornitsa Hristova, was born in 1974. Graduated in English Philology from “St. Kliment Ohridski” Sofia University; specialized in Postcolonial Literature at Oxford; she has been focused mainly on contemporary Indian literature in English. Her translations include books by John Lanchester,
Julian Barnes, Jhumpa Lahiri, Martin Amis, Chesterton, John Irving, Thomas Wolfe, Don DeLillo, Tony Judt. Winner of the 2010 Literary Translation
Award of the Association of Interpreters and Translators in Bulgaria.

The translation in Bulgarian of “Balance: Art and Nature” by John K. Grande is financed onder the project SPIRIT of NATURE 2015.