Picture Ecology: Art and Ecocriticism in Planetary Perspective

We recently spoke with Karl Kusserow, co-curator of the Museumʼs groundbreaking 2018 exhibition Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment and editor of the forthcoming book Picture Ecology: Art and Ecocriticism in Planetary Perspective. The publication features essays by scholars who participated in a symposium convened during Nature’s Nation.

Anne McClintock (Born Harare, Zimbabwe; active United States), Coast Guard Skimmer with Oil and Corexit in the Macondo Prospect, Gulf of Mexico, July 19, 2010. © Anne McClintockQ: Tell us about Picture Ecology and how it relates to Nature’s Nation.

A: Nature’s Nation was a revisioning of American art through the lens of ecocriticism, offering a new, environmental way of understanding our visual culture over three centuries. Picture Ecology expands the scope of the exhibition to engage art of a variety of times and places beyond the geographic and temporal focus of Nature’s Nation. Its subjects range widely, from historical and contemporary Chinese landscape representation to seventeenth-century Mughal animal painting to—closer to home—twenty-first-century photography of California wildfires and a drowning Louisiana.

Q: You write that ecocriticism is difficult to precisely define. What is ecocriticism?

A: The humanities—including art history—have always been, as the term implies, a fundamentally anthropocentric enterprise which treats its objects from a human perspective, as determined by human interests, values, and needs. Ecocriticism seeks to broaden those concerns by acknowledging the existence, standing, and agency of the great diversity of life on earth, giving a moral and ethical purchase to other kinds of life in the analysis of culture. Ecocriticism looks at environmental attitudes and history—including the way environments have changed over time as a result of human influence—to understand how humans have differently construed the relationships of our species to the rest of creation, and the effects that this has had. A key part of much ecocritical work today is environmental justice, a focus on both the politics and ethical dimensions of interspecies and intra-species, or human, relations, acknowledging that people and other life-forms with different degrees of power experience “the environment” differently.

Q: In your introduction, you write that “science and economics alone cannot contend with problems that lie beyond routine understanding. . . . Here the lessons of history, morals, ethics, persuasion, and imagination are required. These are the purview of the humanities.” How can art address ecology in ways that science cannot?

A: With the current planetary crisis, we have to acknowledge that business as usual isn’t productive, or even possible, anymore and that our climate situation constitutes the greatest urgency among all urgencies. Because without a functioning planet, we as a species—and many others whose fate we have no right to determine—will cease to exist. So people who look at cultural artifacts ecocritically are seeking a way to relate to the great problem of our time. For generations, many people thought the earth was, in an ultimate sense, immutable. I guess you could say with the atomic bomb that changed, but until climate change I don’t think people have understood in a visceral way that we as a species have the power to destroy the world, and are in fact in the process of doing so. I think that realization makes what we do now as cultural critics of necessity different. Ecocriticism is seeking to find a path to address that new paradigm, using the traditional tool kit of the humanities: history, ethics, persuasion, the imagination.

Attributed to Giotto di Bondone (Italian, ca. 1266–1337) and workshop, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, ca. 1300. Fresco. Upper Church, Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi, Italy. Photo: DIOMEDIA/ Alinari / Roli, GhigoQ: Tell us about your own essay in the book.

A: It’s called “For the Birds: Pope Francis, Saint Francis, and Ecocritical Iconology”—a stretch for me as an Americanist! But one I wanted to try to make because I had read Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment and found it quite affecting. It seemed that one way to bring that appreciation to bear on the world of images is to look at how his namesake, Saint Francis, became someone the pope would want to invoke in an ecological context. Francis the saint was known initially for his care for the poor, and Pope Francis is very much concerned in that way too. But Saint Francis later became known for his care for nonhuman creation. Pope Francis is also, as his encyclical shows. So I wanted to look at the environmental positioning of our current pope in light of the evolving attributes of the saint. It wasn’t until the anthropocentrism of Western religion started to be questioned that Saint Francis was enabled to become a champion of ecology and care for things other than humans. This new, second attribute is a cultural creation of the age of environmentalism.

Q: Did any of the essays expand your own thinking?

A: They all did in one way or another. This was one of the benefits of a project that extends across often siloed art historical areas. The method the essays take is frequently similar to that of Nature’s Nation, but the particular focus is so different. I was especially affected by the essays that see ecology and the environment as utterly inseparable from human culture, socially, politically, economically. That seems to me a productive way to look at objects, because the one thing ecology knows is that everything is richly imbricated and enmeshed. The more that we can see things that way, the better an understanding of the whole we get.

Q: Tell us about the book’s title.

A: Picture Ecology is meant as a double entendre. If you think of the word picture as a verb, to picture something is to apprehend it, to assess it in a way. So in the book we’re exploring how to look at ecology. But if you consider picture as a noun—a visual image—then the meaning of picture ecology speaks to the way that pictures themselves have an ecology; they’re their own complete microcosms of whatever subject and forms they’re about. And so the title is meant to convey that the book is looking at images closely, looking at their internal ecology, so to speak, as a way to picture ecology, to apprehend the concepts of ecology itself.

Q: This work began before COVID-19 and before the racial reckonings of 2020, but do the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement make the book’s themes even more relevant?

A: Like it or not, COVID is a thing of nature. It’s ecological, not least in its dependence upon other things to, on its own terms, survive. And it shows no particular deference in whom it infects. Yet those who are affected by it are disproportionately those with less power and agency. Which brings us to race. The experience we have of something like COVID is greatly inflected by who we are, where we live, and how readily we can access the protective tools of science and medicine. Yet we’re all the same species. Wouldn’t it be good if we could all have the same chance in contending with such challenges?

Karl Kusserow, John Wilmerding Curator of American Art, spoke to

Gabrielle Langholtz, the Museum’s manager of marketing and PR.

Look for Picture Ecology in the Museum Store late summer 2021. This publication is made possible in part by support from the Barr Ferree Foundation Fund for Publications, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University. Additional support has been provided by Annette Merle-Smith.