Earth Art

A2 is a work of art as well as an educational charity.

If the global environment is to be protected and climate change halted, the skills of our most critical and creative people will have to be engaged. For that reason, Anthropocene Alliance is a work of art as well as an educational charity. Though “Art” is found in our drop-down menu, and throughout the website, we expect its ethos —imagination, good design, experimentation, expressive freedom and risk — to suffuse everything we are involved in.

The Anthropocene In Pictures

Detail from The Last Judgment, Gislebertus, West Tympanum at Autun Cathedral, c. 1130

Detail from The Last Judgment, Gislebertus, West Tympanum at Autun Cathedral, c. 1130

On the Day of Judgement, according to Christian eschatology (the study of last days), all human souls will be weighed to determine which will ascend to heaven, and which will descend to hell. This is the subject of a large, semi-circular relief sculpture (“tympanum”) over the West (main) entrance to the 12th Century pilgrimage church at Autun in France. The main figure in the full sculpture is naturally Christ, his arms extended at his waist in a gesture that says: “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world….You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Mathew 25:34; Matthew 25: 41) The detail illustrated here shows the weighing of souls by angels at left, and demons at right. Note that one leering demon is cheating; he is pulling down the balance to make sure the tormented soul within the basket is cast down to hell. That figure was likely guilty of greed or pride, considered by early Christian churchmen the worst of the seven cardinal or deadly sins. Greed was generally personified as a demon, as shown here, deformed by his single minded pursuit of money or Mammon: “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” (Matthew 6: 24).

That final injunction became one of several bases for the modern, environmental movement. Nineteenth century philosophers and critics such as Thomas Carlyle, Karl Marx, John Ruskin and William Morris all invoked the phrase in order to describe the impoverishment of the many, the enrichment of the few and plunder of the earth under the aegis of industrial capitalism. In the mid twentieth century, the ecologist Rachel Carson in her essential book, Silent Spring described the ignorance and greed that allowed government and business to unleash a barrage of insecticides on the earth that not only destroyed agricultural pests, but birds, animals and human health along with them. Recently, 16 y.o. environmental activist Greta Thunberg in a speech at the United Nations decried the drive for mammon that enabled corporations and their government sponsors to destroy the very future of civilized human life on earth: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words….We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.” The language is biblical, and the imagery – theft, dreams, the eternal and money – recalls the representation of last days on the tympanum at Autun.

According to the Book of Genesis (11:1-9), humans once spoke a common language. Believing themselves both clever and invincible, they decided to build a great city with "a tower whose top is in the heavens." But God punished them for their hubris by confusing their languages and scattering them “over the face of all the earth.”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder,Tower of Babel, c. 1563, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel, c. 1563, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

In Pieter Bruegel’s painting, King Nimrod of Shinar, surrounded by his retinue, oversees the work of thousands of engineers, masons, carpenters and unskilled laborers. Partly made from brick and stone and partly from the mountain itself, the Tower resembles the ancient Roman Colosseum, symbol of corruption and violence. But unlike the ancient amphitheater, the Tower is a spiral with its arches irregular and unstable. In addition, the sea at lower right is perilously close to the base of the tower. When a storm surges, the foundation of the tower will be inundated and the edifice will collapse.

Bruegel’s allegory was a warning against greed and pride directed at the rich and powerful Antwerp bankers and merchants of his day. (Their ships are anchored in the harbor, and stevedores are shown unloading bricks from barges.)  But his picture also addresses the boomerang of nature – the idea that exploitation of the environment for purposes of vanity or profit will finally lead to humanity’s own destruction. When natural surplus is exhausted, nature takes its revenge. The painting thus anticipates the essential lesson of the epoch of the Anthropocene.

Frans Hals, The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Home in Haarlem,1663, The Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem.

Frans Hals was a painter who lived in the 17th Century during what has been called the “Dutch Golden Age.” It’s called that because The Netherlands at the time had greater economic and political power than any other country in the world, excepting China. It was in short, hegemonic. That means its manufactured goods were cheaper and of higher quality than those of any other country, allowing them to penetrate and dominate the global market. In addition, its merchants controlled trade with the resource-rich Baltic states , and exercised a monopoly on exchange with Asia. Hegemony however is hard to attain and even harder to keep, and by the time of Hals picture, England and France had begun to challenge Dutch military power and undercut its economic dominance.

Frans Hals, The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Home in Haarlem,1663, The Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem.

Dutch men and women of the age used some of their wealth to buy paintings, leading to a flourishing of the art form as almost never before. Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals were the three greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age, though only one of them, Rembrandt, was fully recognized at the time for his genius. What he, Vermeer and Hals did in different ways was to recognize that Dutch Capitalism (they wouldn’t have used that word) generated poverty as well as wealth, and that the unyielding desire for profit took a toll on the body and soul.

Consider the painting above. It represents the women who run an alms house (a kind of retirement home for the destitute) of the sort the 80 year-old Hals himself depended on at the end of his life. He shows them in their typical costume – black gowns with starched collars and cuffs, and lace caps — in a dark interior. The artist reveals their dignity and perhaps kindness too. Note the faint smile (is it benevolence?) of the third woman from the left. Hals clearly wanted to please his sitters – after all, they were paying for the picture. But he can’t help also depicting the emotional distance between the women and the artist/observer, the sense that they look at him as a subject of charity. See particularly the haughty regard of the second woman from the right. And what are we to make of the landscape picture in the background – decidedly un-Dutch in its topography? It represents a place of escape, a realm in which the conflict between rich and poor, power and powerless are to an extent absent or obviated. The world of the Dutch Golden Age – with its harsh inequalities and hierarchies — is still very much our own. And we too receive solace from the ideal of freedom offered by natural places. But the threats to nature in the age of the Anthropocene – whose economic foundations were laid in the 17th century — make that dream increasingly fantastic and unrealizable, bringing us back to sober confrontation with every day ineqaulity.

Philip James de Loutherbourg,Coalbrookdale at Night, 1801, London, Science Museum

Philip James de Loutherbourg, Coalbrookdale at Night, 1801, London, Science Museum

Coalbrookdale is a village in Shropshire, England famous for its ironworks. Prior to about 1700, iron was smelted there using charcoal made from burning wood. After that, coke (derived from locally mined coal) was used, permitting greatly increased production. And it was iron – used for building steam engines, trains, rails, ships and farm machinery – that created the Industrial revolution. Most of the ironworks at Coalbrookdale are now closed but the Iron Bridge (1777) crossing the River Severn remains as testimony to the industrial ambitions of the era.

De Loutherbourg’s painting of Coalbrookdale at Night is at once a celebration of the energy unleashed by a coke-fired blast furnace and an early reckoning with its environmental consequences.  The orange flames from the furnace suggest a natural cataclysm like the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, described then as “sublime.” But the adjacent landscape is shown as blighted – largely emptied of trees, shrubs, meadows and any other traces of what William Blake at the time called England’s “green and pleasant land.” Wood and coal fires remain a major source of air pollution in London and its environs, as well as Beijing, New Delhi and other global cities. Their smoke and particulates irritate eyes, mouths and lungs and are among the most potent sources of carbon dioxide and global warming.

“Les mystères de l’Infini", J.J. Grandville, Un Autre Monde, (Paris: H. Fournier), 1844

“Les mystères de l’Infini", J.J. Grandville, Un Autre Monde, (Paris: H. Fournier), 1844

“Les mystères de l’Infini", J.J. Grandville, Un Autre Monde, (Paris: H. Fournier), 1844

Grandville was among the most imaginative artists of the 19th Century. His first successful book, Metamorphosis of Days (1828-29; see below) illustrated animals in human costume enacting what the novelist Balzac called “The Human Comedy.” It was probably unfair of him to depict animals as vain and selfish — humans alone are guilty of those sins. But in doing so, he revealed the corruption of his times better than any conventional journalist could have. Soon in fact, he became a kind of a journalist, a political caricaturist, and one so effective he caught the attention of the state censors who put a stop to his work. After that, and until his premature death in 1847 at the age of 44, he was a book illustrator of an unusually creative kind: he at once faithfully illustrated the texts he was given (Don Quixote,Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Fables of la Fontaine, etc), and took such license that the images stand free of the texts that surround them, as if they were free renderings of dreams. If Freud had been alive in France in the 1840s, he would have asked Grandville to be his collaborator! “I don’t invent,” Grandville wrote, “I just juxtapose dissimilar things and interweave discordant and incongruous forms.”

image001 (3)

Grandville’s next to last book, Un Autre Monde (Another World) was not an illustration of another writer’s work – it was his own, extended dream. The story is barely coherent. It concerns three people: a con man, a sailor and a composer who set off, like the crew of the Starship Enterprise to discover new worlds. And they do, but each is a kind of inversion of Earth. In one, trans culture is the rule; in another, women ogle men; and in a third, it is the French who are considered exotic beings while the Chinese are the metropolitan elite. (This was during a period of virulent, European racism.) In the plate shown above, the various worlds are tied together by a modern bridge. The universe has become a single community composed of interlinked member-chapters that stretch on into infinity. In this book, Grandville was not only a satirist, he was a utopian, imagining better worlds in which imaginations ran free, and nations and people joined together despite differences in space, time and character. “Another world is possible” was the slogan of anti-globalist and anti-capitalist protestors beginning in the 1990s, and climate activists today. Grandville would have stood shoulder to shoulder with them

Currier and Ives, Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, 1868.

Currier and Ives, Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, 1868.

Nathaniel Currier and James Ives were not artists but entrepreneurs who styled themselves “the Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints”. Their business, begun 1835, consisted of acquiring the rights to existing paintings or commissioning new works, reproducing them via lithography (a relatively new reproductive technology), and selling them as cheaply as possible to as many people as possible consistent with a reasonable profit. They were enormously successful, and by the time their firm folded in 1907, they had published at least 7,500 lithographs.  Currier died in 1888 and Ives in 1895.

Their subjects of Currier and Ives prints were generally popular and easily understood: fires, battle scenes, (the Civil War made them rich), sporting events, natural disasters, crimes and patriotic subjects. One of their most successful and best known prints was Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way (1868), representing a stop in the Pacific  (sometimes called Trans-Continental) Railroad.  As the coal-powered train at right belches smoke, men at lower left harvest timber, women hold babies, children go to school, and covered wagons at left depart to establish additional settler communities. All the while, the Native Americans at right (they probably represent Great Plains tribes, including Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyanne, and Arapaho), watch from a respectful distance. The completion of the railroad a year later was understood at the time and often still today, as a milestone in the establishment of a fully continental United States. But in the light of the Anthropocene, the picture must be understood as  representing a catastrophe. The completion of the railroad enabled the rapid exploitation of western water, timber, mineral and soil resources, and the decimation or extinction of countless plant and animal species. Moreover, the traditional culture and society of the Native Americans shown in the lithograph was nearly destroyed by an industrial capitalist order that demanded the ruthless expropriation of nature and exploitation of labor.2

Finally, the completion of the railroad fostered the attitude, inimical to the traditional beliefs of the Native Americans in the picture, that nature’s bounty was limitless and that fortune and fame lay just around the next bend in the tracks. That was of course true for some, but even in the 19th Century, great wealth often engendered great poverty as well as the ravishing of the landscape. Today, the failure to live sustainable — to restore to the land the nutrients taken from it, protect the purity of air and water, and respect native populations – has created a crisis that threatens the survival of human civilization itself. Currier and Ives “Westward the Course of Empire” – a token of “Manifest Destiny”, the idea that white men were fated to control the American continent — is at the very least, a quaint image; it may amore properly be considered a  tragic picture, connoting a future that is deeply imperiled.

Wheatfield in Rain, Vincent van Gogh, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1889

Wheatfield in Rain, Vincent van Gogh, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1889

Wheatfield in Rain, Vincent van Gogh, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1889

Van Gogh excelled at the conventional genres of art (portraits, still lives and landscapes) but he painted in an unconventional manner. He selected his colors based not so much upon their relation to the thing seen, but to the world felt. As a result, his landscapes are highly expressive and even abstract, like the landscape shown here, painted from the artist’s window in the asylum of St-Paul-de-Mausole in St. Remy, (Provence) France in November 1889. The rain is depicted with long strokes of grey-black paint set against the blue-grey sky and hills above, or as diagonal strokes of blue-grey against the green and aqua of the rows of plants in the walled garden below. The rain falls in sheets, as if it were the biblical Deluge.

Because of his institutionalization at St. Remy and subsequent suicide, Van Gogh is often considered to have been mentally ill and a solitary genius. The first proposition is unlikely, though evidence permitting a firm diagnosis is absent. (He may have suffered from a type of epilepsy or temporal lobe seizures.) But the second is demonstrably untrue; he sought to create a community of artists to realize his dreams of community and mutual support. That was his goal of coming to Provence in the first place in the fall of 1888 – to create in collaboration with the artist Paul Gauguin and others, a “Studio of the South”. Together, they would constitute a team or council, fighting for their right to fair treatment by the art establishment in Paris and for adequate resources – food, housing, artist’s materials – with which to thrive.

Wheatfield in the Rain is in part a concession of the failure of that collective dream. But the elevated perspective — the view from “higher ground” — announces that it may be possible to see beyond the current darkness to a new order in the future. The riot of greens and blues in the walled field, and the exuberant paint handling, suggests a dream of future abundance.

The Fourth Estate, Also known as "The Path of Workers", Giuseppe Pelizza da Volpedo, Museo del Novecento, Milan, 1901

The Fourth Estate, Also known as "The Path of Workers", Giuseppe Pelizza da Volpedo, Museo del Novecento, Milan, 1901

The Fourth Estate, Also known as "The Path of Workers", Giuseppe Pelizza da Volpedo, Museo del Novecento, Milan, 1901

Volpedo’s grand picture (almost 10’ high by 18’ long) was painted as a response to Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand-Jatte (1886, The Art Institute of Chicago). Whereas the latter was concerned with the middle and lower middle-classes, the former was focused on workers. And whereas Seurat used small, bright points of complementary colors to celebrate the relaxation of men, women and children on their single, weekly day of rest, Pelizza deployed color dots to highlight the solidarity of industrial workers (all dressed in drab brown and grey) on a day when they have walked off the job, striking for better wages and working conditions, or perhaps for ownership of the business enterprise itself. A number of the people depicted in the imagined scene were family or friends of the artist, including at right, Teresa Bidone, the wife of the artist, holding their baby.

Because of its incendiary subject matter, conservative Italian arts officials for decades refused to exhibit the picture, but after World War II, it was taken out of storage and displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in Milan. Today, it is one of the best known of all modern paintings and is understood to represent the aspiration – if not the reality – of modern workers banding together to challenge the greed and frequent violence of modern, capitalist production. More broadly, it is seen as an expression of the very idea of solidarity – of the sacrifice of individual ego for the good of the community. That’s why the picture has so often been copied, imitated and adapted by progressive movements — women, indigenous or marginalized communities, and workers all over the world, as in the two examples here from Volpedo, Italy, and the Dominican Republic.

Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge: Fog Effect, 1903, St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum

Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge: Fog Effect, 1903, St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum

In the winter of 1900, the Impressionist artist Claude Monet made a series of trips to London to paint Waterloo Bridge, Charing Cross Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. He loved the city and its monuments, he wrote: “but what I love, above all, is the fog.” In all, he completed 37 pictures of London includingWaterloo Bridge: Fog Effect, which is one of his most abstract and nebulous.

Despite the Gershwin song, (“A foggy day”), London is not naturally foggy. Its murky reputation is derived from the fact that until passage of the Clean Air Act in 1956, the city was heated mostly with low-grade, sulfurous coal. The resulting smoke, combined with countercyclonic winter winds and moisture, produced a thick burning smog that chocked eyes and mouths and could even be fatal, as it was for more than 10,000 people during the Great Smog of early December 1952.

The weather during Monet’s visit in the Winter of 1900 was especially damp, contributing to the formation of smog that at its heaviest, obscured the contours of the Houses of Parliament, Charing Cross and Waterloo Bridge. No wonder Monet loved the fog – it was an Impressionist landscape even before he painted it! Waterloo Bridge illustrates what may be called the “pre-Anthropocene,” when local ecologies were transformed and degraded by human activity, but the climate of the earth as a whole remained out of human reach.

“From every Southern town, migrants left by the hundreds to travel North.”, The Migration Series, No. 3, Jacob Lawrence
1940-41, The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., Acquired 1942

“From every Southern town, migrants left by the hundreds to travel North.”, The Migration Series, No. 3, Jacob Lawrence
1940-41, The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., Acquired 1942

“From every Southern town, migrants left by the hundreds to travel North.”, The Migration Series, No. 3, Jacob Lawrence
1940-41, The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., Acquired 1942

Lawrence’s series of 60 painted panels tells the story of the migration of African Americans from the South to the North from about 1910 to 1940. The migrants fled crop failure, unemployment, poverty and most of all racism and violence. Though lynching peaked in the 1890s, it continued well into the 20th Century, and in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan was revived, following its positive depiction in D.W. Griffith’s epic film, The Birth of a Nation. 25 years later, as Lawrence was contemplating his series (and completing sets of paintings dedicated to Harriet Tubman and Frederic Douglas), Gone with the Wind (directed by Victor Fleming), was given an Academy Award, helping perpetuate the myth that the Civil War was a noble “Lost Cause” waged by Southerners to protect a way of life, instead of a war to perpetuate slavery. Lawrence’s series was cinematic in its own way. Each vividly colored panel follows the next like shots in a movie, and the narrative pivots between past and present, rural and urban, agriculture and industry, and oppression and liberation.

The panel shown here represents the Migration as a force of nature. The migrants form a pyramid, echoing the shape of the hills beyond them and the migrating birds above. The panel thus also reminds us that the Migration was both a response to an existing ecological crisis and precipitated a new one. Reliance by southern land holders upon just a few crops, especially cotton, led to a crash when the weevil devastated cotton crops during the first two decades of the 20th century, increasing Black migration. On the other hand, the movement north, permitted acceleration of the fossil fuel economy – coal, oil and gas extraction, and concrete, steel, and automobile manufactures – that set the stage for the Anthropocene, the present age when release of greenhouse gases (especially CO2 and methane) has warmed the planet to the point of catastrophe. We are already seeing a new “great migration” of climate refugees, from the southern to the northern hemisphere, and in the U.S. from flooded areas on the coasts to higher ground inland.

Marian Anderson, opera singer, singing with hands clasped and wearing a pin in the shape of the Royal Canadian Air Force pilot’s wing pin badge (detail), Photographer Unknown, 1942

Marian Anderson, opera singer, singing with hands clasped and wearing a pin in the shape of the Royal Canadian Air Force pilot’s wing pin badge (detail), Photographer Unknown, 1942

Marian Anderson, opera singer, singing with hands clasped and wearing a pin in the shape of the Royal Canadian Air Force pilot’s wing pin badge (detail), Photographer Unknown, 1942

The child of working-class parents and the granddaughter of an enslaved man, Marian Anderson’s early life in Philadelphia was marked by hardship and discrimination. Despite possessing extraordinary vocal talents, she was denied a place in a local music academy due to the color of her skin.  She nevertheless persevered, and with the love and support of family, friends, her Baptist Church, and later benefactors including Julius Rosenwald and Eleanor Roosevelt, she attracted the attention of major composers, conductors, and impresarios. By the late 1930s, she was generally considered among the greatest vocalists in the world.

Nevertheless, Anderson continued to face prejudice at home. In 1939, the racist Daughters of the American Revolution denied her the opportunity to sing at Constitution Hall in segregated Washington D.C. The refusal led to mass demonstrations and the hasty organization of a triumphant recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 people. That event was partially reprised 24 years later when Anderson sang on the same spot as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, best known as the civil rights rally at which Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Anderson performed an immensely moving version of the Black spiritual, "He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands.”

He’s got everybody here in His hands
He’s got you and me, brother, in His hands
He’s got you and me, sister, in His hands
He’s got everybody here in His hands
He’s got the whole world
He’s got the whole world in His hands

Though the pronoun “He” refers to God or Jesus Christ, the imagery is not so much of divine munificence as of human unity and mutual aid, conveyed by the imagery of cradling hands. That same message was reiterated a little later of course, by King when he said he dreamed that: “one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

The photo of Marian Anderson, part of the U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., shows the singer frontally and nearly half-length, with hands clasped together, the better to sing from the chest or diaphragm. But the gesture of interlocked hands, a motif with a long history in art, was not only about vocal discipline. It also suggests prayer, hopefulness, interdependence, and mutuality. Mutual aid is not charity – the bestowal of something of value by the rich to the poor. It’s an expression of the idea, also expressed in King’s speech, that “we cannot walk alone,” and that the freedom of one is dependent upon the freedom of all. That sentiment is even more essential today as we confront a global environmental and climate crisis.

Haverstraw, New York. Interracial activities at Camp Christmas Seals, where children are aided by the Methodist Camp Service. Camp buddies, Gordon Parks, Library of Congress, August (?) 1943

Haverstraw, New York. Interracial activities at Camp Christmas Seals, where children are aided by the Methodist Camp Service. Camp buddies, Gordon Parks, Library of Congress, August (?) 1943

Haverstraw, New York. Interracial activities at Camp Christmas Seals, where children are aided by the Methodist Camp Service. Camp buddies, Gordon Parks, Library of Congress, August (?) 1943

Gordon Parks was one of the great, photographic chroniclers of mid and later 20th Century American life. After World War II, he worked for Life, where his photo essays on a gang leader in Harlem (1948) and segregated black life in Alabama (1956) earned him international renown. He went on to photograph celebrities and political leaders including Marilyn Monroe, Stokely Carmichael, Malcom X, Muhammed Ali, and Barbara Streisand, compose music, write an autobiography (The Learning Tree, 1963; made into a film in 1969), and direct the classic, “blaxploitation” film, Shaft, (1971) starring Richard Roundtree.

Parks took up photography in 1937 at the age of 25, and three years later was asked to join the Farm Service Administration (FSA) and work alongside Walker Evans, Dorothea Lang. Carl Mydans and others to document the nation’s dire economic and social conditions. These were the last years of the Great Depression, and as bad as conditions were for white Americans, they were even worse for African Americans who suffered from violence, employment and housing discrimination, and legal segregation across the U.S. South. Parks himself suffered from race-based abuse during his time with the FSA in Washington, D.C. from 1942-1945. “In this radiant, historic place,” he wrote, “racism was rampant.”

In 1943, just after the FSA was disbanded, Parks was assigned by the Office of War Information to travel to upstate New York to take pictures at an experimental, integrated Boys Scouts of America camp. The results are some of the most optimistic and poignant of Park’s long life. Black and white children are shown together swimming, playing sports, eating and just enjoying each other’s company. The photograph shown here is remarkable for its low perspective, making the two girls at the center of it appear heroic. The white child gazes out with an appraising glance while the black child at right offers a penetrating gaze into the camera-eye. Nearly all the photos of children and adults at Camp Christmas Seals reveal a casual, physical and emotional closeness between black and white that Parks rarely saw elsewhere.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1962

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1962

Andy Warhol is as widely recognized as any artist who ever lived. The reason is that he helped establish the very cult of celebrity that made him famous and ultimately helped elect the current US president! In addition to his portraits of Jackie, Elvis and Marilyn (no last names needed), Warhol depicted consumer products like Campbell’s soup. The 32 cans shown here are all individually hand painted, an ironic allusion to the mass production that was the real basis of capitalist production and consumption. (Later in 1962, Warhol embraced the silkscreen process and dropped the irony.)

Warhol was perhaps the first artist of the Anthropocene. He began his career in advertising, the archetypal industry of the new epoch because it stimulated vastly increased demand for consumer products – new homes, automobiles, appliances, electronics, entertainment and air travel — that relied upon fossil fuels.

In the decades after 1950, a period named by US climate researcher Will Steffen, “The Great Acceleration,” energy and water consumption, population, tourism, fertilizer use, and transportation all grew by orders of magnitude. At the same time, atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane, stratospheric ozone, tropical forest loss, and ocean acidification grew in lockstep. And the last few years have seen a succession of record breaking global temperatures. Warhol depicted the commodity culture that more than anything else accelerates climate change.

Bill Anders, Earthrise, NASA, 1968

Bill Anders, Earthrise, NASA, 1968

The homepage of Anthropocene Alliance features a dramatic, color photograph called Earthrise.  It was one of several taken on December 24, 1968 by astronaut Bill Anders as part of the NASA Apollo 8 mission to circle the moon and return safely to Earth. Anders described the picture’s genesis:

After the first two-and-a-half to three orbits… we rolled [the lunar capsule] over, heads up and turned around, going forward, like you would be driving a car around the moon. I don’t know who said it, maybe all of us said, ‘Oh my God. Look at that!’ And up came the Earth. We had had no discussion on the ground, no briefing, no instructions on what to do. I jokingly said, ‘well it’s not on the flight plan,’ and the other two guys were yelling at me to give them cameras….and we started snapping away.

Though photographers on piloted balloons and airplanes had long taken photos of the land from the sky, nobody had ever before taken a photo of the Earth from the moon. Seeing the Earth in this way – its living colors suspended over the bleak grey-brown of the surface of the moon – told a story that had been gathering force since the late 18th Century: that planetary life was a rare and precious thing, and that it must be protected and nurtured.

The modern environmental movement is often said to have been started by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which described how uncontrolled pesticide and herbicide use had decimated bird populations and created springtimes without any songs. It also specified the toll on human health of chemical pesticides. But the Christmas Eve, 1968 Apollo 8 photograph from the moon may have had an even bigger impact. Two years later, the US Environmental Protection Agency was formed and two years after that, the UK Department of the Environment. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 and Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were established in 1971.

Today, in the age of climate change, the photograph has gained even greater poignancy. It reminds us that the fate of life on Earth is now in human hands and that people everywhere have the capacity and responsibility to join together to protect it in all its diversity. Anthropocene Alliance is part of that global effort.

Stephen F. Eisenman

The Fourth Estate, Settimio Bendusi, Dominican Republic, 2012

The Fourth Estate, Settimio Bendusi, Dominican Republic, 2012

The Fourth Estate, Settimio Bendusi, Dominican Republic, 2012

The recent Climate Strikes – student-led walkouts to protest the continuing poisoning and warming of the planet – are perhaps the most vivid, contemporary expressions of solidarity like that shown in The Fourth Estate. They are the first, mass responses to the global, climate crisis, and portend even greater action in future. A2 is engaged in grass roots organizing, helping people who face the greatest environmental challenges, particularly lower income and communities of color, achieve solidarity in the response to the greatest challenge humans have ever faced.

The Migrants of Vopledo, Federica Castellana, 2015

The Migrants of Vopledo, Federica Castellana, 2015