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Art and the Environment in Britain

F. David Peat

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A text only version of this essay is available to download.

This enquiry began as an investigation into the present relationship between environmentalism and the visual arts in Britain. However, the subject opened out so rapidly, exposing such a wide variety of interconnections, that it became necessary to exercise closure at a more or less arbitrary point and to present this essay as a preliminary overview rather than a considered summary. There is so much happening, and on such a wide diversity of fronts that this enquiry could have continued, in depth and extent, for many more weeks. The overall conclusion is that environmental concerns and artistic activity are closely tied to local community response and national movements as well as at the official "gallery" level. What is happening challenges many of our presuppositions about the role of art, its position in society as well as notions of separation, objectivity and control. It also has bearing on the directions being taken by the environmental movement and asks deep questions about just what is our relationship to the space around us.

Before undertaking this enquiry I had a presupposition in mind: That our "Western society" has, to a very large extent, lost its sense of shared meaning, or "Maps in the Head". While some environmental problems are highly complex and pose serious and immediate challenges, others can be resolved by good housekeeping and the exercise of common sense. It was also my feeling that long term solutions do not so much lie in yet more analysis, planning, problem solving and the application of technology but in an overall change in value and meaning for society - at the local, national and global levels. I wondered to what extent artists could play an important role in catalyzing this "change of meaning" and in suggesting new relationships to the environment and the sacred.

It now seems to me that, in England at least, all this may have been going on for a long time, as a counter-current to industrialization, unquestioned progress and environmental ignorance. There is something unique about the English situation. It rests on a shared myth of a time when life was lived in small communities in harmony with nature. I can't speak for other European countries but I did not detect that same sense of this history of shared connectedness in North America. In Canada, for example, most people's memories are only a couple of generations away from the farmers and homesteaders who carved out a life from "untamed nature". Their perception of nature includes mountains, desert and bush. In Britain, while the vast majority of the population are city dwellers who have had little connection with the land since the Industrial Revolution, they do have a shared memory of the countryside that goes back well over a thousand years.

(Footnote: As to that troublesome question of whether things are British or English; Scotland, Wales and Ireland have their own distinct identities, landscape, writers, poets and artist. On the other hand, despite many subtle and not-so-subtle differences, they also partake in aspects of a common culture with the English who are, themselves a far from homogeneous people and, today, are essentially multiracial. The term "English" in this essay is therefore used in a somewhat vague and ambiguous fashion to cover a certain aspect of shared culture.)

The flight from town into benevolent nature is present in the Forest of Arden of Shakespeare's "As you Like It" and the ballads of Robin Hood. It is evoked in the science fiction of writers like John Wyndham and John Christopher where some ecological disaster leads to the destruction of cities and "civilization", followed by the establishment of a small, close-knit, self-dependent rural community. Above all, the transformed land is present in the myths of Avalon, Glastonbury and Camelot as spiritual realms that coexisted in space with the physical landscape. Curiously this same dream appears to be present amongst city dwellers of today. This shared "Map in the Head" lies, I believe, at the heart of much of the art and ecology movement.

To take but a few examples; poetry, from the first works in the English language through Clare, Crabbe, the Lake poets and on to the giant oaks of our own time - Ted Hughes, Shamus Heaney and R.S. Thomas - is concerned with the relationship of the community to nature. In the novels of Hardy landscape, Egdon Heath for example, assumes the role of a leading character.

The Wilton Diptich (1395) presents Richard the Lion Heart to the Virgin and Child. Recently restored, the silver knob atop the flag of England in the painting can now be seen to depict England as an green island "set in a silver sea". Landscape is the theme of so much British art - through the mysticism of Samuel Palmer and Stanley Spencer, in Constable, Turner, Wilson and Crome to Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy. It is even present in the mysterious "Englishness" of English music. Who, listening to Elgar does not dream of the gently rolling Malvern Hills - even if they have never visited the area - or hearing Britten's Peter Grimes does not think of the English coast?

Yet the English countryside, as Huxley pointed out in his critical essay, "Wordsworth in the Tropics", is a landscape tamed. From neolithic times deforestation, extensive farming, grazing, enclosures, the creation of tracks and the coppicing of woodlands have radically transformed the landscape. The windswept environment of Charlotte Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" is the irreversible effect of overfarming and soil loss. The tension between the artificial and the natural was always present in the English landscape and today is being explored by a new generation of artists. One of the sculptor Antony Gormley's pieces alternates natural and artificial forms (each one cast in lead) asking if our own culture and technology can co-exist in a harmonious way with nature. Even the National Trust is beginning to question the whole nature of its mandate. What exactly is it conserving and why?

Within the English psyche, I believe, there a deep sense of loss for something half forgotten and the desire for return to a magical place and close-knit community. Yet, in another sense, such a landscape never really existed - Shakespeare's Forest of Arden, for example, is inhabited by shepherds and shepherdesses that are an entirely poetic conceit. Like the wood in A Midsummer Nights Dream that coexists as the domain of "rude mechanicals" and a "fairy band" the English countryside is both real and the stuff of myth, ballad, story, song and painting. Today this image is exploited in television advertising to sell bread and beer. But none of this can deny that "the landscape" is something people can feel passionate about and defend to the utmost. Its image is intimately connected with that sense of a return to community values, craft and fellowship. It was earlier present in the Arts and Crafts movement and associated with names like William Morris and Eric Gill.

Another English strand, that is very much active today, is the way that ordinary people band together, without the need for formal leadership to protest against intrusions into the landscape of roads and other constructions or exercise their right to the continuation of this English dream. Earlier this century similar ordinary people risked arrest and jail simply to assert their right to walk upon ancient rights of way and have access to common land. In doing so they were walking on tracks and pathways first laid down over three thousand years ago. Today perfectly ordinary people demonstrate against the destruction of a stand of trees, the planned path of a motorway or simply wish to reclaim the city streets that run though their neighborhood. Others turn their back on city life to become New Age Travellers. The history of all these movements goes back through English history to so many grass-roots movements led by "the common people", The Peasants Revolt, Levelers, Diggers and Luddites. Once Robin Hood and his Merry Men opposed the tyranny of King John from their refuge in Sherwood Forest. Today, groups erect dwellings in trees and form temporary villages and communities to oppose contractors who wish to extend a motorway; or close a region of London in order to organize a community party.

Without knowing it, art has returned to the community and concern about lifestyle and countryside is intimately tied to the arts. There is not so much an organization that could be identified as "the environmental movement" or "environmental art" but simply individuals, groups and alliances that express a variety of concerns.

In short, there seem to be the following characteristics associated with English/British art.

  1. An abiding concern with landscape.

  2. A handful of artists and poets with a deep mystical connection to the landscape and a celebration of the sacredness of ordinary life.

  3. A dream of a lost Golden age which leads to the preservation of ancient sites, place names, seasonal rituals, the diversity of plants, trees, fruits, rivers and many other elements of the environment.

  4. Grass roots movements, often concerned with the preservation of a way of life or an aspect of the environment, that give ordinary people the sense that they can make a difference.

Art within the environment was always an important part of English life, trimming hedge rows, decorating barges, whitewashing cottages, carving walking sticks, the annual cleaning of neolithic sites (such as the White Horse at Uffington), "beating the bounds" of the village, the celebration of seasonal rituals from Maypole Dancing in Spring to village bonfires at the onset of winter, cottage flower gardens, allotments for city dwellers, fruit, vegetables and baked goods exhibited at village fairs and, to top it all, the formal art of landscape painting. Indeed it was only in the middle of this century that "environmentalism" itself became a publicly defined issue. 1962 marked the publication of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and an increasing concern about the environment. It was also the year in which the Findhord Community was founded. By the mid 1960s there was already a recognizable British school of "environmental art" art led by Richard Long who trod out paths in the environment, arranged stones and brought back photographs and artifacts, to the art gallery.

Today, if we accept Joseph Beuys' definition of Social Sculpture, then environmental art is everywhere. It is present in Common Ground's desire to preserve old orchards and ancient varieties of fruits. It is river-cleaning projects, environmental sculpture, street parties, demonstrations against motorways, the importance now being given to the work of local craftspeople. That all this is now art is the position taken by several of the artists and critics I interviewed. John Vidal, former art critic and environmental correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, feels that almost all the art done in the United Kingdom today is touched by environmental concerns. Artist and critic, Suzi Gablik, in "Conversations before the End of Time" argues we are leaving the period of expert opinion and authoritative argument in favour of dialogue involving a multiplicity of different voices. Art's focus is leaving the gallery and joining the community, entering into landscape. The environmentalist Satish Kumar echoes this position, deploring the fragmentation of art, and of science, from everyday life and arguing that by abstracting art and placing the beautiful in galleries we have made our own lives and cities intolerably ugly. (It is the display of shocking images that reflect contemporary life within a gallery space that has earned Damian Hirst his controversial reputation.)

Environmental art in England is clearly active and varied:-

a. Traditional environmental art

Associated with names like Richard Long, Hamish Hamilton and several others this was dismissed by several interviewees as largely irrelevant to the artistic and environmental concerns of today. The movement has been criticized as too closely tied to the art gallery and collector. In addition, it has been pointed out that these artists are still perpetuating the Western tradition of intervention by collecting and ordering the environment. The environment is seen as something other, something to be manipulated and controlled. Other artists question this whole approach and produce works that question or confront the whole nature of the artistic experience. Some chose to work directly within a community and respond to its artistic needs. Some of Andy Goldwsorth's gentle interventions are, for example, associated with the group Common Ground.

Hooykas and Stansfield (Dutch/Scottish artists) call into question the way we distance ourselves from nature. The video "Eye of the Storm" analyzes the traditional Western desire to order and control nature though the metaphor of the botanical garden - exotic nature is brought into the center of the city for protection. More recent pieces seek to present sensations from the natural world directly, unfiltered through the medium of the artist.

One piece appears to be a radio telescope, mounted at the edge of the seacoast outside Amsterdam. The visitor climbs its steps and sits at the focus point of what is, in fact, a parabolic reflector gathering and amplifying the sounds of wind, sea and bird cries. A future project include broadcasting, over Dutch arts radio, live sound from microphones placed in various parts of the environment. Experiencing the natural world in a focussed but "un-ordered" way will, they hope, cause people to question certain of their presuppositions.

b. Environmental images

Traditional English landscape painting makes us aware of the idyllic nature of the countryside. It is also thanks to the image-making process itself (photography, television and film) that we learn about the serious nature of existing environmental problems. But a leading environmental photographer, Mark Edwards, notes how selective and, in a photographic sense, manufactured were these early graphic images. Today the nature of this selection has changed, reflecting changes within the environmental movement itself.

Edwards argues that such images enter our consciousness almost in the form of "memories". They become part of our shared perception of the world and are, in a sense, a "virtual reality" created by particular political needs. As, Edwards remarks, in several decades of environmental photography he has never been asked to shoot what he actually "sees", or to present the wider context in which an image is made. The whole debate, of the nature and role of photography, of interpretation versus documentation, is a very active one in the art world. It clearly relates to the power of human consciousness to distance, manipulate and control, the very same power that got us into this mess in the first place.

c. Space and Distance

Since the Renaissance, western art and science have always had this projective, distancing quality. Perspective in art manipulates nature, forcing it into a particular visual grid. Likewise, Bacon spoke of placing nature on the rack in order to obtain that knowledge which is power. The whole nature of the visual process, its distancing effects and the interval between viewer and work of art is being challenged and questioned by several of England's leading artists. Rachel Whiteread deals in negative space, the ghost presence left behind by familiar objects such as houses, floors and furniture. Antony Gormley is concerned with the body, its presence in space and the complex intervals that are created between viewer and the work. Mona Hartom explores the internal spaces of the body and the threat of external space. The recent Tate exhibition, "Rites of Passage" (which also included her work) stressed what could be termed an existential crisis in art - the nature of the object and our relationship to it. Artists working around these questions are, I believe, asking something of great importance about the way consciousness constructs and attempts to manifest the world.

d. Landscape and Community

While the above takes place in the focused laboratory of the gallery space other artists have chosen to work directly with landscape and community. Art reflects landscape and landscape art. Henry Moore, the father figure of English sculpture, wished his work to be placed in natural settings and saw the human body as landscape itself. Today's artists work directly with natural materials, celebrate the natural environment or clean polluted rivers. This can even happen in the heart of a city. As an example, a group in London work with sound prints. Rivers like the Fleet once ran though the center of the city but are now buried underground, their only manifestation is now the sound of their underground flow.

The sculptor Gormley's concern is very much about space, individual space and the space created by a community. His work "Field" consists of tens of thousands of small terra-cotta figures that act together to generate their own space. Of particular importance is the fact that these figures should be made by the local community. The impetus behind this aspect of Gormley's work is to return art to the community. But this is something that is already being done in so many informal ways across the country.

Some artists have chosen to become a part of a community - living in small rural villages, working with miners, organizing street decorations or manifestations in the heart of the city. Others are concerned with making furniture and reviving traditional crafts. Communities continue their seasonal ceremonies of processions, dressing the landscape, Morris dancing, folk music and such like. At the Findhorn Community in Scotland the practice of environmentally-friendly living has resulted in the development of new architectural forms and houses made of recycled materials, such as the large barrels used for blending whiskey.

Living and working in this way breaks down the division between artist, craftsperson and community. Some years ago, The Art Placement movement sought to place artists on the boards of Britain's companies and organizations - an interesting idea which faltered (probably as a result of individual personality conflicts) but which has not been totally abandoned. While some artists are now working in rural areas others can be found exercising a similar philosophy in the heart of the city where people contend daily with the ugliness, violence and poverty around them. It is at this point that the division between artists and community vanishes - just as it does in those traditional, but highly decorative societies that possess no word for "art".

A certain degree of social energy has been unleashed in reaction to the Criminal Justice Bill which seeks to prevent the congregation of large numbers of people, the act of travelling towards an assembly, and the playing of loud music; legislation strikingly similar to that used in the past to prevent "stout beggars" crossing parish boundaries and to curtail the activities of "hedge preachers" and dissident religious groups. There is also a harking back to the Ban the Bomb marches of the 1960s, the community of women who camped outside the U.S. Air Base at Greenham Common and the harsh treatment of New Age travellers. These contemporary manifestation have become transformed into street parties, raves, spontaneous events and the elevation of pleasure into a philosophy. Anti-motorway demonstrations merge into folk art and street theater, instant villages are created and the artist merges into the activity of the entire community. In turn other artists, actors and writers draw upon these manifestations to question the role and definition of art.

e. Sacred space

Some gallery artists are now concerned with exhibiting in the open air and reclaiming the connection to the landscape (part of the tradition of Hepworth and Moore.) Others work directly within the land itself, forming, arranging and sculpting. There is, of course, in English art a deep sense of mystical identification with the land. Stanley Spenser showed Christ preaching at the Thames village of Cookham. Samuel Palmer, influenced by Blake, painted landscapes charged with transcendental energy. This is as it should be for in pre-Roman times rivers were gods and the landscape was filled with sacred groves, wells, springs and hills. I believe that the same spirit is present today when artists become involved in a river cleaning project or working with living material. At some point they transcend their particular tasks and enter into a more direct communion. The artist then begins to acknowledge and serve the spirit of the landscape.

The English artist Anish Kapoor, whose extremely powerful work also has roots in sacred Hindu art, is particularly concerned with the creation of sacred spaces. His work involves powerful forms, voids to be inhabited by energies and powers, dark sculptural absences in which the mind can reach "endarkenment". His concern is with the dualities of the universe, yoni and lingnam, light and dark, presence and absence, the power for creation held by Kali, Goddess of destruction.


This investigation has exposed a number of deep and intriguing questions currently being explored in Britain. Formal artists are producing work that questions the nature and meaning of art, the way its practiced and its influence within society. At so many levels the division between art and society is breaking down. Quite ordinary people, who would not consider themselves artists, are renewing their relationships to the countryside and seeking community while, at the same time, rejecting ugliness and questioning needless technological progress and commercialism.

A marriage of art and environmentalism occurs in all classes and walks of life. On one level Prince Charles lectures at Findhorn, protests against the brutalizing effects of certain schools of architecture, and helps to design a model village. At the other the out-of-work organize street parties and simply to exit the Underground Station any weekend at Camden Town is to enter a thrilling multiracial carnival. It must be admitted, however, that in the main these concerns are presently being voiced by an interested and active minority and, beyond the odd nature program on television, or art review in a Sunday newspaper, they do not reach a wider population. Yet even at this point changes can be detected as people question the way the media presents significant issues. I feel it inevitable that these ideas will eventually permeate the general consciousness, yet it would certainly help to speed the process in some way.

What could an agency like the Nathan Cummings Foundation hope to achieve? Most of those I spoke to felt that it would be premature to organize an exhibition or even a conference. At present things are so diverse that they form a collage rather than an integrated approach. Indeed, this collage approach seems a useful model for the future involving, as it does, a free and open dialogue between many different viewpoints.

There were also suggestions that it may be a good idea to present an overview of "just what is going on". This could take the form of identifying various movements and activities as well as isolating and defining a number of questions. Such a survey, in the form of a book, article, video pr photo-record would be useful in giving artists, and environmentalists, something to react to or work from. Anish Kapoor, for example, believes that such a book, provided that it went deeply into some of the questions currently being raised about the nature and future of art would spark off creative work by other artists. A book or report would also be helpful to the large number of informal groups operating in Britain both as a resource and simply to enable them to learn of each others' existence.

While a book has considerable didactic power for exploring ideas, it is important to present something of the visual impact of what is happening. A balance between text, interviews and photographic records would therefore be appropriate. A variation of this would be a video-montage built out of still shots, voices and narration. Such an approach could also be the preliminary step towards a conference, extended dialogue, or exhibition.

Resource People Interviewed:

  • Annely Juda Gallery (Staff)

  • Bright, Richard (Artist and organizer of "Interalia" art and science conferences. Bristol)

  • D'Offay Gallery (Staff)

  • Edwards, Mark (Environmental Photographer, Schumacher Lecturer (1995))

  • Evans, Joan (Therapist and therapist training in the psychosynthesis movement)

  • Findhorn, Scotland (Members of the Findhorn Community)

  • Gablik, Suzi (Art critic an environmentalist, Virginia - correspondence and telephone)

  • Gormley, Antony (Sculptor)

  • Hauke, Christopher (Jungian Analyst)

  • Hooykaas, Madelon (Sculptor, Video Artist. Amsterdam)

  • Kapoor, Anish (Sculptor)

  • Klatt, Jack (writer, actor)

  • Kumar, Satish (Director Schumacher College, Editor "Resurgence")

  • Latham, John (Artist, founded of Art Placement)

  • Munroe, Ian (Painter, Conceptual Engineer)

  • Plante, David (Writer)

  • Pylkkanen, Paavo (Philosopher)

  • Rowan, John (Guardian Environmental editor, former art critic.)

  • Smith, Brydon (Curator, National Gallery of Canada)

  • Standsfield, Elsa (Video artist, Sculptor. Amsterdam)

  • Truscott, Nicola (organizer of "The Arts Catalyst")

  • Whiteread, Rachel (Sculptor) telephone interview.

  • Zohar, Dana (writer)

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