What I am interested in outlining is a proposal toward visual eco-criticism, a methodology that draws on literary eco-criticism and visual culture studies to consider cultural production from an eco-centric perspective.
In an essay about visual culture, W.J.T. Mitchell (editor, Critical Inquiry) suggests that, “…the questions to ask about images are not just, ‘what do they mean?’ or ‘what do they do?’ but ‘what do they want?’” The question of what images want sets up the proposition for a more ethical reading of images, one that reveals the social, cultural, and political entanglements embedded therein. So what does a photograph of a polar bear stranded on a melting ice cap want?
While there is a long legacy of landscape art and a more recent tradition of land and environmental art, the fact of climate change ushers in a whole new paradigm in which to consider representations of nature. The effects of both man’s intervention into the environment coupled with the ways climate change contribute to land loss and species extinction were not typical considerations for early landscape painters or Land Art artists.
A newer strain in environmentally related art records man’s abuses of the environment. Given the popularity of such photographers as Chris Jordan, we seem to be becoming more interested in mountains of throwaway objects than in Mount Fuji. Considered retrospectively, representations of nature -– paintings, photographs, and film –- now act as a kind of preservation, visually archiving sites and habitats before they disappear forever.
While visual eco-criticism borrows from some of the strategies of literary eco-criticism, the argument is located within the field of visual culture, allowing for an interdisciplinary examination of a fuller spectrum of images about the environment – of both artworks and mainstream imagery such as advertising and photographs accompanying news stories. As a starting point, I propose that visual eco-criticism:
1. Revisits both art and non-art representations of nature and the environment with an eco-critical lens.
2. Interprets contemporary art and media through an eco-conscious framework.
3. Recognizes the role of race, class, gender, and sexuality as critical components to any examination of visual culture and that visual eco-criticism has a stake in addressing these issues.
4. Encourages a dialogue between cultural producers and the environmental community in order to advance an ecological agenda.
5. Considers the sustainability of the process and materials in a work’s production.
Through visual eco-criticism, an object or image is interpreted not only in terms of its political, social and cultural meaning but also for its environmental implications.