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Art and the Environment

F. David Peat

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

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In 1997 and following the circulation of the essay Art and the Environment in Britain, a group of artists and environmentalists met for dinner in London to discuss the possibilities of a presence of British artists/environmentalists in the United States. For the following reasons the group felt that Britain could be presented as an indicator to the future in a country like the US:

  1. Britain is densely populated with few areas of natural wilderness remaining. The implications of cutting down a stand of ancient oak trees or building a motorway extension becomes enormously magnified.

  2. Only a small percentage of Britain's population lives in London yet its "footprint", in terms of the demands it makes upon the environment, is vast.

  3. A tension, or mutual lack of understanding and appreciation, exists between the three major groups of players - environmentalists, artists, and those concerned with inner spiritual matters. This may be more acutely focused in Britain.

Other aspects of the British experience appear relatively unique.

  1. A long history of stable rural populations having a deep connection to the landscape. Artists work sensitively in these communities.

  2. A history of social action in Britain combined with small scale democratic groups underlies environmental movements as Direct Action.

  3. Active cross-overs in the arts, a strong link between environmental issues and, for example, pop groups and awareness of urban environmental issues.

While a number of possibilities were discussed but the group settled upon two main areas:-

  1. Invite a group of, say, ten British artists /environmentalists to New York for a week. There they will engage in discussions, debates, lectures and performance before the general public. These events will be associated with an exhibition of British environmental art and performance.

  2. Invite a small group of US artists/ environmentalists to a rural area of Britain for a week. They will interact with British counterparts, participate in discussions, workshops and experience the process of British environmental art and action. In return the British group would be invited to a location in the United States.


David Peat: Organizer.

Mark Edwards: Probably the first photographer to specialize in environmental issues. United Nations Global 500 Environmental Award. Schumacher lecturer for 1996. His slide show and lecture on global environmental issues has been given in Cuba and many British Universities.

Susan Derges. Internationally known artist and photographer who employs minimal intervention within the environment. Currently she is recording a river in Devon from its source to mouth. (Susan works at night placing 6 foot pieces of photographic paper on the river bottom and exposing them to light. In this way the river reveals its inner life.)

Richard Wilson: Political cartoonist who has been dealing with environmental issues for over twenty years.

Herbie Giradet: A producer of environmental documentaries for TV. Originally an Art Historian, Giradet has become one of Britain's leading thinkers and writers on environmental issues.

Lise Autogena: An artist working on a variety of environmental commissions.

Nicholas Alberry: Eccentric founder of the Institute for Social Inventions. As an environmentalist Alberry is interested in the way new ideas can permeate and transform society. As an example, his creation of the Natural Death Foundation has led to the development of 56 woodland burial sites in Britain - areas which have now become permanent nature reserves. His emphasis is always on the practical.

Jay: A journalist who works extensively with and speaks for various Direct Action and environmental protest groups.

Kenny Young: Former rock star and song writer ("Under the Boardwalk") he is co-founder with Vic Coppersmith of the Earth-Love Foundation. Rock Stars donate tracks to the foundation which in this way has raised several million pounds in support of small environmental projects such as tree planting.

Vic Coppersmith: Music producer and co-founder of the Earth-Love Foundation.

John Vidal: Former art critic of The Guardian newspaper and now environmental correspondent. Vidal is a leading philosopher and thinker of the environmental movement in Britain. (Unfortunately Vidal could not be present at the dinner but had been consulted before and after the meeting.


The fact that the discussion began at 6pm and was still going on after 1 am attests to the level of interest and enthusiasm. All participants supported the idea of a British presence in the US but also felt it important that something should be left behind, or that a change should have been made, as the result of the encounter.

The group asked: Why Britain? The United States has artists who work with the environment. Environmentalism stretches back to John Muir. Landscape and wilderness has been celebrated from Thoreau to Garry Snyder. What have British artists and environmentalists to add?

The general feeling was that Britain is an indicator of the future, a magnifying glass for current issues. The United States was perceived as having vast wilderness areas - although some of these are now coming under threat. City dwellers can still travel to remote areas to enjoy nature directly. By contrast Britain has a high population density and little wilderness remaining. Even those areas of traditional escape, like the Lake District, are being destroyed by the density of tourists and weekend hikers.

For this reason building a motorway extension, or the cutting down of a stand of trees, is perceived as a major threat. It makes national news and engages not only professional environmentalists but ordinary folk who enjoy a Sunday's walk in the countryside.

To take one example, activists built a village of underground tunnels and tree houses at the site of the proposed Newbury bypass. "Swampy", one of the most persistent tunnellers, became something of a national hero.

The English experience arises out of a long history of connection to landscape, followed by the trauma of the Enclosures Act and the rapid rise of industrialism. Although many people now live in urban areas there is still a shared sense of heritage and connection to the land. There is also a strong tradition in Britain of grass root movements and what could be called "extended democracy" involving ordinary quiet, law-abiding people who are willing to defy to authority in order to maintain a public footpath or prevent a single tree being cut down.

British environmentalism means a wide range of possibilities, from direct action groups willing to take on the police, to traditional conservative rural organizations such as the Women's Institute. Extended democracy can also mean ordinary citizens who, frustrated by local government, decide to "liberate" a small area of London, clean up the streets, open and redecorate deserted building and plant gardens.

This is the atmosphere in which British artists are working. Some are strongly integrated into communities, growing trees, making furniture, repairing walls, etc. Others prefer to work alone, exhibiting a sensitive response to the landscape, creating earthworks and arranging stones.

The spectrum and intensity of these activities provides a model of the future and would be of interest to the US public, artists and environmentalists.

Three Agendas

While all the participants felt themselves to be aligned on the same side of the fence there was a sense that the various agendas - artist, environmentalist and what could perhaps be called, spiritual response - did not always appreciate each other's positions.

Some artists work in a gentle way, charting a river, pruning trees, arranging stones, repairing a sheep fold and allowing the landscape to speak to them. They are similar to medieval artists who remained relatively anonymous and considered themselves midwifes assisting nature to reveal herself. Such artists are not given to making major statements or attracting the limelight. Others are politically more active and international. Some favour massive works being placed in the remote areas of the landscape, such as Anthony Gormley and his Angel of the North.

Some environmentalists do not appreciate the artist's role. While agreeing that their work is beautiful, it sometimes appears marginal, not particularly relevant within the context of urgent environmental problems. Some believed artists should be brought in by communities to help get things done and come up with particular creative solutions. Some artists did not feel this was the best way to express their engagement with the landscape

Others who are in sympathy with the environment could be loosely grouped together as concerned with spiritual, religious and inner concerns. They acknowledge values that transcend the commercial, consumeristic and personally selfish; yet are perceived as more concerned with their own inner space than with the outer space of the commons. While environmentalists acknowledged the value of the "silent witness" or the approach of a Thich Nhat Hanh, some felt it was more important to "buy time" for the environment. Immediate environmental threats simply had to be met and this demanded the sort of direct action that was frowned upon by those of a more contemplative persuasion.

Amongst the environmentalists themselves there was division between those who support local action to protect a particular region and those who address global questions, public education and the infrastructure responsible for environmental degradation.

The British debate may be more acute and B in this respect. The response in the days following the dinner was remarkable as participants wrote or telephoned to say how valuable it had been to hold the dialogue and how they had welcomed the opportunity to talk with others who lay outside their immediate field of concerns. It is important to bring these differences to light and a British presence could catalyze active debate with US counterparts.


A) Organize a week long event in New York. Suggestions included an environmental opera, performance, musicians, public talks, debates, workshops and an exhibition of work (artworks, installations, photographs, videos, documentaries)

The size of the event depends on the budget available and would be tailored accordingly. Participants will include artists, environmental thinkers, performers and a representative of action movements. The event will be as a consciousness raising exercise, encourage debate and make issues more visible and immediate. It will also cross fertilize interaction between British and American artists who meet and respond to each other's work.

The events will be open to the general public with US environmentalists and artists being encouraged to engage in workshops and discussions.

B) A second proposal is for a small group of US artists and environmentalists to visit to a region of the British landscape. It was stressed that the "British Scene" in all its richness cannot really be exported. Artists work in a delicate and intimate way with a specific landscape and community may not want to be transplanted into Central Park. Neither is their art always appropriate for a gallery.

A valuable exercise will be for US artists and environmentalists visit one or more specific areas where British artists are working. This will enable visitors to appreciate the actual artistic process involved, which is sometimes more important than a by-product that is in some has an ephemeral existence. Considerable cross-fertilization can take place simply by artists hanging out together. In response a small group of British artists/environmentalists could then be invited to the US.

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