The Art of Nature’s Nation: A Conversation with Alan C. Braddock
Over the past few decades, environmental history and literary studies of nature have grown extensively. Their rise has even given form to the environmental humanities, the humanistic balance to the weight of the physical and social sciences in much of environmental studies. Art, art history, and the exhibitions of art museums are, despite their centrality to the humanistic tradition, often missing from ecocritical discussions. This is especially true of art made before the modern environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The art historian and American studies scholar Alan Braddock is seeking to change this with his exhibition Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment (co-curated with the Princeton University Art Museum’s John Wilmerding Curator of American Art, Karl Kusserow).
Nature’s Nation appears at the Princeton University Art Museum (October 13, 2018-January 6, 2019), the Peabody Essex Museum (February 2-May 5, 2019), and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (May 25-September 9, 2019). The exhibition brings an ecocritical perspective to over one hundred works of American art spanning the past three hundred years.
On March 18, 2019, I sat down with Alan at the College of William & Mary to talk about his exhibition. We discuss the relevance, power, and implications of ecocritical art history, Alan’s vision for a global and inclusive art history in the environmental humanities, and the importance of environmental justice in all of this.
Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Chris Slaby: You’ve talked about the potential for ecocritical art history as a transnational, anti-colonial, and anti-imperial project for thinking about art and the environment. What’s the role for art history—and in particular ecocritical art history—for other fields of environmental studies as well as the growing environmental humanities?
Alan Braddock: I think one of the huge problems we face today—politically, and scientifically, and culturally—is wrestling with change wrought by human beings, especially in what many of scientists now call the Anthropocene. And how that change is unevenly distributed across different communities such that not everyone perceives an environment the same way nor does everyone have the same responsibility for the changes that have been taking place. Those of us in the West or in the industrialized world that have enjoyed certain economic and cultural privileges for centuries in many ways bear more responsibility because of the history of colonialism and capitalism. Environmental history and ecocriticism give us important critical lenses for understanding the changes that have occurred and posing tough questions about what we need to do moving forward—basically asking what the history of art has to tell us about the way in which artists can imagine, interpret, and bear witness to environmental change.
We have to ask ourselves whose particular vision of nature is under discussion.
I see art history as joining the environmental humanities discourse already set in motion by people in literature and history and joining the chorus of those who acknowledge environmental change as a fundamental fact of life that we must acknowledge and deal with ethically and fairly. It’s a phenomenon that artists have been acknowledging in various ways for centuries and to not make that part of the work of art history seems irresponsible. It seems like a great opportunity to invigorate the field of art history and make it part of a larger discourse in the environmental humanities. Ecocritical art history is a more wide-ranging environmentally informed way of doing art history that in many ways expands the meaning of historical context to include not just human social institutions and conditions but the larger environmental context in which these human activities have unfolded over time. I have also realized increasingly how important it is to take matters of environmental justice into account when pursuing ecocritical art history. We have to ask ourselves whose particular vision of nature is under discussion and how have certain people and nonhuman groups been excluded from the stories of not just art history but environmental history more broadly.
CS: I’d like to delve into the exhibition Nature’s Nation, currently at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts. Where did this idea for this exhibition come from and what was the process of putting it all together?
AB: The title Nature’s Nation comes from a 1967 edited collection of essays by Perry Miller, a literature scholar at Harvard University who was interested in the history of North American and primarily New England conceptions of nature going back to the Puritans. Miller had already identified what many scholars have since acknowledged as a dilemma in American cultural history around ideas about nature. On the one hand you have this deeply rooted spiritual belief in the divinity of nature as God’s creation and therefore a kind of reservoir of moral value. On the other hand, he recognized a competing impulse in American history rooted in colonialism—the desire to develop and transform and conquer. The phrase “nature’s nation” conveys an idea that America was supposedly an exceptional arena in which these forces played out. That idea of American exceptionalism is something that we attempted to problematize in our exhibition.
CS: One of the things that I was most excited to see in the exhibition was the accompanying website that talks about the ecology of the exhibition. Can you describe what this website is and why you’re asking these questions about the ecology of an exhibition itself?
AB: The website examines the exhibition itself as an environmental event of sorts, as a kind of institution with a material and environmental footprint that is not insignificant. This institutional critique of self-analysis in the art world goes back to the 1960s and 70s when certain artists were examining the museum as an institution that constructed knowledge in certain ways. Hans Haacke famously did his poll at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970 where he drew attention to the fact that members of the Board of Trustees had deep roots in the oil industry and were connected with the Vietnam War in various ways. His institutional critique made an impression on me, and I got the idea about four years ago that this Nature’s Nation exhibition should do its own ecological self-analysis where we gather information about the carbon footprint of all of the loans and transportation and the materials that go into producing an exhibition. Our idea was to alert viewers that the environmental story here is not just pictures on the wall, it’s the institutional operation itself.
CS: I wonder if we could turn towards some of the artworks themselves. One of the most striking juxtapositions that people will notice in the show is the comparison between Albert Bierstadt’s Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite from circa 1871-1873 and Valerie Hegarty’s Fallen Bierstadt from 2007. Can you talk about this pairing and how it is emblematic of the exhibition itself as well as this ecocritical art history impulse?
AB: As you said there is this pairing of a nineteenth-century Romantic landscape painting by Albert Bierstadt showing Bridal Veil Falls at Yosemite, a majestic and then already famous waterfall at a site—Yosemite—that became the first public state park in U.S. history and later one of the first national parks. There are no people in the picture and it’s a glorious celebration of what Bierstadt and many nineteenth-century Euro-Americans regarded as nature in its purest sense, an unblemished ideal of nature as a place far away in an untainted and untouched place. I think it’s important to recognize and even honor Bierstadt’s achievement on some level insofar as he and his fellow landscape painters in this Romantic tradition did help galvanize early and real environmental activism of a sort insofar as their work celebrated these places that governments then decided to protect and set aside from economic development. But there’s another side to this whole story that we don’t often recognize or see when we look at these beautiful paintings, and that is that they are premised on this belief that nature in its best sense is somehow pure and untouched and uninhabited, when in fact places like Yosemite had been inhabited by Native American people for millennia.
The environmental story here is not just pictures on the wall, it’s the institutional operation itself.
To imagine nature in its purest sense as removing not only those people but all people except for privileged tourists who can go and consume such places is an oversimplification of history. And it’s that complexity that Valerie Hegarty’s twenty-first-century work speaks to. She literally reproduces Bierstadt’s painting, but then she subjects it to a kind of violent deconstruction by bending the frame and perforating the canvas with a blowtorch and creating holes that look almost like bullet holes. What she’s trying to do with such a work is not really to damage the place so much as to make us recognize that many of us have a kind of illusion or dream about what nature is, and that in reality our environments are much more complicated. They have much longer histories that are often contested, and we can’t really begin to live and coexist fairly and justly in these places until we reckon with the history that they embody.
Featured Image: Alan Braddock. Photo courtesy of Alan Braddock.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Alan C. Braddock is the Ralph H. Wark Associate Professor of Art History & American Studies at the College of William & Mary. He is the author of Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity. He edited, with Christoph Irmscher, A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History. He published the field-assessing essay “From Nature to Ecology: The Emergence of Ecocritical Art History” in The Blackwell Companion to American Art (2015). Together with Karl Kusserow, he edited and substantially contributed to the exhibition catalogue for Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment. He is currently completing a new book project entitled Implication: Theory and Practice in Ecocritical Art History. Website. Contact.
Chris Slaby is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at the College of William & Mary. He is a historian and art historian working on questions of nature, the environment, and representation, primarily in the Native Northeast. His dissertation is an Indigenous and environmental history of a region now defined by the scenic road called the Mohawk Trail, in northwestern Massachusetts. He received his M.A. in art history from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a B.A. in art history and Asian studies from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He previously contributed to Edge Effects the essay “Listening to the Anthropocene: John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean” (February 2016). Twitter. Contact.
Subhankar Banerjee, Caribou Migration I, from the series Oil and the Caribou, 2002, digital chromogenic print, 84 x 65 7/8 in., Collection Lannan Foundation. ↩