Art

Aa 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

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

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.

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

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. 

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.

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.

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

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

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