THE DISCOVERY OF A NEW COLOUR: UNEARTHING AN ECOLOGICAL GENRE IN THE ARTS
The taxonomy of genre, which we use to classify drama, film, fine art, music and literature, can lead to greater cultural deductions but it can also be a restriction upon language and therefore understanding. By judging genre, we are subscribing to a certain kind of perspective, which should be questioned in order to give the system more flexibility. I keep my copy of Dawn of the Dead in amongst the family Christmas films, not only to put a cat amongst the pigeons, but also to give it a more intriguing interpretation as a satire of (literal) consumerism. Although all art forms do reinterpret genre, it is one of the theatre’s greatest strengths. Macbeth can be played as romance, horror, thriller, action, or fantasy. We learn new aspects to the story when it uses different flavours. Theatre finds its innovation in this deconstruction of stereotype and questioning of familiar tropes. Interpretative and thematic classifications add further layers of complexity to this wider issue and move away from creativity retardant labelling.
So if this is the case, let’s say there can be new frameworks in which to classify art, in genre, theme and interpretation, that allow insight into the existing material, which we have not yet seen due to the engrained perspectives we have established from classification systems. For sometimes the answer is in front of us, but we do not have the language to comprehend it. Perhaps the pursuit here is not so much to discover a new colour on the spectrum, but to realise a new shade given the existing relationships. The colour that I am going to focus on is green.
Ecology and the environment have a somewhat undefined connection to art. An environmentally driven theme can ere on the side of apocalyptic words of warning or self-righteous propaganda that tells us what we can and cannot throw in the bin. As awareness campaigns however, such activist messages have served a worthy duty in the crusade, as it has taken a long time to establish the environment as a moral issue. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is often cited as the pioneering text of the environmental movement in the 1960s. It was almost half a century later that Al Gore released An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. Gore’s film, although not solely responsible, could perhaps mark a moment in time when climate change was being engaged with more readily in the mainstream. As a film, An Inconvenient Truth is a curious blend of nature documentary, TED talk and PowerPoint presentation. Aside from a boiling frog analogy, there is little fictional or allegorical narrative employed to make the points – it is simply the sober facts without any frills.
A further ten years later, what is the next step, and can art play a role in moving forward? Much as reporting statistics is efficient and as objective as we can be in making evidence based arguments, it is important to remember, we need to think about the way factual arguments are presented and we need to innovate to find solutions to environmental issues. If the environment continues to be framed as simply a ‘thou shalt not’ statement then it will disengage the audience and lose its impact. And The Day After Tomorrow wasn’t even good as simply two hours of entertainment.
There are multiple new ways in which the arts can engage with ecology in order to make real change and help both environmental campaigns and artistic practices themselves: The arts can provide a range of views, change perspectives and empathise with environmental concerns in a positive, aspirational sense; they can imagine and design innovative, sustainable solutions to complex issues; they can help to organise multi-faceted problems in our mind; and they can use environmental tools and resources to produce new, ambitious work and modes of interpretation.
Academia has begun to address this latter point in the field of ecocriticism. Ecocriticism is the interpretation of art (primarily literature) with regard to its relationship with nature, environmental conservation, ecology, and sustainability. There are some more obvious examples, like Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick, White Fang, King Kong, or Into the Wild, which have natural or pastoral themes that suit this mode of interpretation. But ecocriticism suggests that all of art can be interpreted through green lenses.
This sapling area of criticism is good for the diversity of interpretation, sitting alongside the established schools of Freudians, Marxists, feminists etc. I think it is possible to stretch this further and say that ecocriticism can cross-pollinate with ideas concerning a sense of place, psychogeography and cultural landscape explored by architects, anthropologists, designers and geographers, which means there are poetic and creative links concerning the notion of being in any environment, not only natural; simply the psychological sensations of consciousness that respond to the enveloped space forever around us. A phenomenological, cerebral or emotional connection with landscape and place is not a new thematic area of artistic exploration by any means. It has been addressed by many throughout history, such as the Romantic poets of the late 18th and early 19th Century. Byron’s work is driven by sensation and the way in which the environment affects the spirit. Wordsworth discusses the nobility of engaging with landscape and using it as a means to learn - Nature as tutor. Going further back still, the pagan worshipping of nature in the medieval period or the environmental themes in Norse mythology use the natural landscape to conjure imaginative stories which helped understanding of the resources that nature provided. For instance, the Norse equivalent of Adam and Eve were Ask and Embla (or Ash and Elm) – by personifying the trees, their properties as wood became more memorable and important, practically and culturally.
But where does genre fit in to this puzzle? Ecocriticism suggests all art can be environmental but I would argue not all of art uses the environment (or we could specifically say the set design in reference to theatre or setting for literature) in an inventive way to directly affect the characters, the narrative and the artistic format. We need to look at the back catalogue of existing works to find the pieces, which use the environment, setting, landscape, place etc. as a device to affect the art form itself, and out of that form, birth a new genre.
This model for an ecological genre ties together some of the areas I have already mentioned. The image below shows the links between the different facets that make up the umbrella structure of the genre. Herein I shall use film as the example to elucidate the point.
In the outer circle, the films address the environment or architecture explicitly in the theme. These films intentionally explore ecological issues or they emphasise the setting as an important character. For instance, Wes Anderson’s 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel has an architectural character arc from the titular hotel’s 19th century grandiose, nostalgic style to its post-war Brutalist structure. The inner circle is concerned with psychological relationships with landscape. This is taken from the human perspective and the environment does not, in general, have an explicit role evident to the audience but the environment directly affects the narrative. Haunted house films such as The Shining or The Haunting are examples here that use aspects of the space and environment to imbue dread, insanity and terror in the characters. Stanley Kubrick filmed the Overlook Hotel so that it did not make spatial sense – there are architectural anomalies that could not exist, adding a subtle layer of disorientation. Tying these states together is the middle ring, which uses the environment as a formatting device to tell the story. For instance, Thomas Vinterberg’s 1999 film Festen (The Celebration) is a film created under the rules of Dogme 95, which is a manifesto created by Vinterberg and Lars von Trier. The manifesto rules do not allow film lighting, fake props, inauthentic settings, false sounds etc. in order to create a naturalistic, honest film i.e. the set design has been restricted to play with the way in which the film is made. Another example is Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes, which restricts each scene to one setting between only two or three characters.
The genre model presented seeks to show a scale from the state in which the importance of the setting is made explicit to the audience in its message to a state where the environment is used as an implicit mechanism to serve other purposes. Essentially, the further out of the circle, the more conscious of the environment the artwork becomes. In the centre, the psychological effects are reactive and the themes are not ecologically driven. In the mid-circle, the setting is used as a creative tool that does not have to affect the themes. In the outer ring, the setting and the themes are aligned.
There are of course exceptions to every rule and genre defying artworks that resist classification, much like any ecosystem. I do not wish for all art to be painted green nor do I want to impose more classifications and restrictions on creativity, but I believe the model that I have outlined is a foundation for an ecological guide to art which can be used in conjunction with other structures of organisation rather than as an attempt to supersede previous systems. For when we wish to reach a point we not only need to find where it is, we need to find where we are in relation to it, and a new direction on the compass will take us further towards a contemporary way in which we view the environment in art and the art in the environment.
© Hamish Muir 19th March 2018