Estelle Zhong what can art do in the face of the ecological crisis? Le Théâtre est dans la rue de Wolf stell : Manifeste pour un public artiste ?

Hartung Bergman Foundation, Seminar August 2015

A former student at the École Normale Supérieure of Lyon, Estelle Zhong holds a PhD in Art History. Her thesis at Sciences-Po Paris under the supervision of Laurence Bertrand Dorléac investigated the artistic and political issues involved in Participatory Art today. She currently is working on the ways in which contemporary art can help to enrich our relationships with and our sensitivity to living beings within the context of the ecological crisis. She is coeditor of a work, Reclaiming Art (Presses du Réel), that is forthcoming in the United States in the Spring of 2016.

enriching our sensitivity to living beings through art: the ecological crisis as a crisis of sensibility

          What can art do in the face of the contemporary systemic ecological crisis? This question may seem incongruous, almost irrelevant: On what grounds is one to ask art to play a role in a situation that appears first of all political, economic, or a matter for activists? And how is one to think that art might have some positive effect on this crisis that encompasses such grand dimensions and involves so many different issues?
          Our hypothesis is the following: The ecological crisis is to be understood, first, as a crisis of sensibility, and for this reason, art can play a decisive role therein by enriching and transforming our relationship to nature and to living beings.

From Critical Art to the Art of Reconciliation

          To start out, one might think that art has a role to play in this crisis mainly on account of its special capacity to raise people’s consciousnesses. Indeed, a whole form of engaged art is devoted to the creation of “critical procedure[s]” that are aimed at having “a dual effect: an awareness of the hidden reality and a feeling of guilt about the denied reality.”1 Martha Rosler’s series Bringing the War Home (1969-1972) is a good example of this. Yet, as Jacques Rancière underscores in The Emancipated Spectator (2008), the guilt born of this raised consciousness is not easily expressed in the spectator as a change in representations and as a decision to act. Most of the time, the guilt generated endures simply as a diffuse state that, combined with a feeling of impotence, leads one to turn away from those issues. What is to be aimed at is not guilt-inducing raised consciousness. We are all aware, to varying degrees, of the irremediable destruction of old-growth forests, of ocean pollution, and of the disappearance of countless animal and plant species, but that does not lead to changes in our ties with nature.
          In other words, faced with guilt’s inability to reconstruct our relationships with living beings, it is another kind of art of which we have need: an art of reconciliation, as there exists a “reconciliation ecology” (Rosenzweig, 2003). It is a matter of inquiring into what art can do—not of denouncing but of bringing things out in our sensibility and in our real relationships with living beings (Shepard, 1996), thanks to its reconstructive powers. If the ecological crisis is, first of all, a crisis of sensibility, art constitutes the major force for acting in this field of individual and collective existence.

The Ecological Crisis is a Crisis of Sensibility

          By crisis of sensibility is meant that our taste and our most sensitive receptiveness to the world, as well as to works, have been in part mutilated by the reification of nature that has accompanied Modernity (Latour, 2015). Mutilated is meant here in the sense that a subtle range of percepts and affects that connected us to the world of sensations in all its richness and its emotional intensity has gradually been reduced in scope. Deemed by Modernity to be a secondary or negligible quality and impoverished by our contemporary modes of existence which remove us from everyday relationships with nature, our sensitivity [sensibilité] to living beings has been dulled (Kahn, 2002). And it is this dulling of one’s sensitivity to nature and this impoverishment of taste that, in all likelihood, constitute our most palpable experience of the ecological crisis, which appears all that much more distant and abstract. Having a more intimate, more sensitive, and richer relationship with living beings is perhaps an attainable way of breaking with the deleterious modern reduction of Nature to inanimate matter (Descola, 2005) and of bringing out healthier and richer relationships. Now, what could be better than art to enrich, render more complex, and refine our sensibility (Saito, 2010)? What could be better than art to deposit within us new representations, new symbols, new imaginaries of living beings, ones capable of enriching our taste and our receptiveness to the living world?
Art Without Living Beings

          This call to the new is not arbitrary. Indeed, a whole section of artistic representations and imaginaries we already have at our disposal cannot help us to forge this ecosensibility. Numerous works in the history of art are of their time, that is to say, they offer a resolutely modern sensitivity to living beings, of which we are the heirs. In this context, living beings are a nature that is external to man, a landscape emptied of all nonhuman inhabitants, an echo chamber for all human interiority.
          Basing himself on Erwin Panofsky, Philippe Descola brings out the extent to which the invention of linear perspective (in the first half of the fifteenth century), as a new symbolic form, created a new relation between the subject and the world that involves a face-to-face encounter and a new positioning of the gaze but also a new ideological relationship to nature. Indeed, with the space of the canvas being centered around and constructed on the basis of the supposed observer, it is the human being that brings out the world of perception and reason. The world arises only through the human’s point of view. This is what Panofsky calls an “objectification of the subjective.” This objectification of an “outside” as opposed to an “inside” identified with human interiority, which can appear to us as a given of experience, is in reality extremely singular: among the Cree Indians of Canada, for example, the animistic referential system renders impossible any form, even unconscious, of objectification of the outside world, as Tim Ingold (Ingold, 2000) has brought to light. The world is never outside itself. This relation of exteriority and of an overhanging suspension of the world that has become nature, characteristic of an entire landscape-painting tradition from Bruegel to the Hudson River School, is part and parcel of the invention of our habitual ways of perceiving, conceiving, and acting toward living beings. One’s living milieu as encompassing and immersive environment has become nature, which has become landscape, that is to say, something constructed by the subject, something that is on the outside, is objectified, and exists and has value only through and for humans.
          Another outstanding fact to note is the extent to which representations of nature are emptied of all wildlife: very few animals populate these landscapes, and no animal life is perceived therein. Nature is without any life of its own, in the sense that what is lacking are the processes and relationships that are the essence of living beings when men are absent therefrom. The rare animals one paints are dead—in the tradition of hunting paintings (from eighteenth-century English painting to Courbet)—or domesticated—in portraits or domestic representations wherein animals are there to describe the qualities of the humans represented (from eighteenth-century genre scenes to Impressionism). It will be noted that the main link established between humans and animals is their common finitude: both are destined to die. Death is represented as shared; life, on the other hand, is not. It is only at the moment of dying, that is to say, of becoming once again matter with no more interiority, that the animal and the human are reunited from an existential point of view. In Western art, the concept of life, now so incredibly enhanced by scientific ecology and the theory of evolution, barely constitutes at all a place shared with nonhuman beings.
          The trajectory of modern art and contemporary art has followed a progressive detachment from figuration, which undoubtedly has accentuated a relative disinterest in living beings. The case of Land Art, often interpreted as a renewal of interest in nature, could instead be identified as a direct heir of modern naturalistic forms of representation. Nature is of interest above all for its mineral qualities, that is to say, as lifeless matter (a distinction rendered invisible through naturalism, Descola thinks). What is at stake in the majority of Land Art works (in the work of Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt, for example) is a tension between the human being’s capacity to transform such matter and such matter’s indifference to human transformations. Thus, in no case are living beings in their ecosystemic richness, their complexity, and their own vitality at the center of this sort of contemporary artistic practice; instead, they once again reestablish the boundary between human beings and a kind of nature that appears to be ever more cut off from human beings, inasmuch as such practice no longer sends back to them even their own image. In Romantic landscape painting, nature was a mirror, a source for thoughts and feelings; in Land Art, nature has become mute and indifferent: the breaking of the bonds between humans and living beings has been consummated. Everything happens as if the condemnation of the projections of Romanticism had not given rise to a renewal of our relation to living beings but instead to a new form of impoverishment: instead of an anthropocentrized connection, there is no longer anything at all.

In Search of Eco-Sensitive Works

          Nevertheless, it would be quite erroneous to think that all works of the past are devoid of a sensibility that has been enriched by living beings: such a sensibility is resonant in numerous works, but this aspect has not often been seen; it has not often been analyzed as such, in as much as it was rendered virtually impossible by the mental representations of nature forged by Modernity (Shepard, 1967).
          In order to face up to this familiar crisis of sensibility, one will have to go out in search of past and contemporary works which, through their strengths, would be capable of substituting themselves for the modern imaginary of nature and for the “extinction of the experience” of nature (Pyle, 1975). Let us provisionally call these artistic experiments eco-sensitive: works capable of forging new relationships with living beings and of enriching, with emotions, symbols, forms of knowledge, and imaginaries, our range of sensitivity to the living world in all its irreducibility and its complexity.
          The emancipation of forms experienced in contemporary art makes art all the better equipped to take up this challenge. Artists today create works that can take the form of habitats shared by human beings and the nonhuman realm (Fritz Haeg, Lynne Hull), spiritual relationships (Marcus Coates), urban landscape planning and development (Alan Sonfist), unexpected encounters with living beings in museums (Pierre Huyghe, Mark Dion), and films that allow us to see the world through the eyes of other animals (Sam Easterson). These are so many occasions for an imaginary, symbolic, and cognitive enrichment of our relation to nature (Carlson, 2009).


1. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (2008), trans. Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2009): 27.

General Bibliographical Survey

CARLSON, Allen. Nature & Landscape: An Introduction to Environmental Aesthetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

DESCOLA, Philippe. Beyond Nature and Culture (2005). Trans. Janet Lloyd. Foreword Marshall Sahlins. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

DEWEY, John. Art as Experience (1934). New York: Perigee Books, 2005.

GIBSON, James J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979).Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986.

KAHN, Peter H., Jr. and Stephen Kellert. Children and Nature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

INGOLD, Tim. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling & Skill. London: Routledge, 2000.

KWON, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

LATOUR, Bruno. Face à Gaïa. Huit conférences sur le Nouveau Régime Climatique. Paris: La Découverte, 2015.

PYLE, Robert Michael. The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland (1993). Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001.

ROSENZWEIG, Michael. “Reconciliation Ecology and the Future of Species Diversity.” Oryx, 37 (2003): 194–206.

SAITO, Yuriko. Everyday Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

SHEPARD, Paul. Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Esthetics of Nature (1967). Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.

TIBERGHIEN, Gilles A. Nature, Art, Paysage. Arles: Actes Sud, 2001.