We love art because we enjoy the beauty of what artists create, but art can also be appreciated as a record of human cultural values and beliefs. An excellent example of this approach is Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum available through May 5th, which uses art to show the evolving attitudes of Americans of European heritage toward nature and how different they were from those of Native Americans. Rachel Allen, a member of the Nez Perce tribe and one of the exhibition’s Curatorial Fellows, writes:
When you explore this exhibition, I hope you think about your walks, your sphere. What are the artists communicating about our environment? How do these works challenge your ideas about nature? How do you influence the world around you? Can we do better?Rachel Allen, “Not Separate from Nature,” Peabody Essex Museum, accessed April 18, 2019, https://www.pem.org/blog/not-separate-from-nature
In one of the exhibition’s first display cases, the museum goer can see a traditional Christian depiction of the universe.
This pictorial version of the universe as a Great Chain of Being was based on “a theory . . . which dominated cosmology from the Middle Ages to the dawn of modernity.”1 In this hierarchical order, spiritual and human realms exist above the creatures of air, sea and land. Below all is the underworld with Satan reigning over the damned. The greater the proximity of a being to the Creator and Ruler of the Universe, the greater its inherent goodness and value. This metaphysical distinction between human and natural worlds in Western thought has deeply influenced much of the Western religious and cultural imagination which sees the natural world as something that can be manipulated and controlled for humanity’s benefit.
In art, examples of early American painting on display in the exhibit include portraiture typical of the period where nature appears in the distance behind the portrait’s human subject as an ornamental background. But by the mid-19th century, painters of the Hudson River School like Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), inspired by the magnificent vistas they encountered, had introduced a more expansive and romanticized vision of the American landscape. Cole’s Home in the Woods (1847) shows an idealized image of family life available to those eager to move westward into new territories following the 19th-century Manifest Destiny doctrine justifying the nation’s expansion across the American continent.
Such idyllic scenes, while representing a deep feeling for the land the settlers may have had, were also leaving out quite a bit of the westward expansion story. Near the Cole painting are the following pair of artworks:
The painting on the left, Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt (about 1871-1873) is paired with a 2007 artwork, Fallen Bierstadt by Valerie Hegarty. According to the accompanying gallery text,
Paintings like this one [Bridal Veil Falls] legitimized U.S. land theft and violence against Indigenous people. Hegarty’s Fallen Bierstadt questions the way such traditional landscape painting idealizes nature as an untouched retreat or a tourist spectacle that ignores complex histories and fragile ecosystems.
But throughout the exhibit one encounters examples of a very different artistic imagination like this 19th century robe by a Tinglit artist.
According to an accompanying gallery text, the robe “embodies deeply help beliefs about humans and other beings in a shared environment, and asserts . . . values encompassing the natural world and the wider universe.” In Western art like the Cole painting above, the settlers established themselves and their farms within a pristine wilderness functioning like a theater stage for their activity. In the Tinglit robe, its design of a closely linked pattern of killer whales and human artifacts “vividly expresses Tinglit ideals of community and environmental reciprocity.”
The contemporary non-Native art selected for the exhibition doesn’t provide a new vision of a deeper relatedness between human and natural realms. Rather, it offers a sharp critique of our misuse of the environment like this piece:
The work captures the tragedy of seabirds who feed on the plastic material which forms the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. According to the artist, “Like the albatross, we first world humans find ourselves lacking the ability to discern anymore what is nourishing from what is toxic to our lives and to our spirits.” (From the accompanying gallery text.)
The painting below provides a Native American response to disruptions of their natural environment by non-Native activity:
According to the gallery text, Romero (Cochiti Pueblo, b. 1966) has painted a “declaration on the authority of the Pueblo world, achieved through intricate networks of relationships that keep the universe in balance through dance and ceremony.” In the Pueblo belief system, this balance is sustained by their spiritual practices despite being surrounded by a radically different culture. The two worlds of Pueblo ceremonial dancers and the F-15 Eagle fighter seem to be in completely different spatial zones with nothing to bridge the distance between them.
The exhibition’s final section is devoted to an installation marking a particular action which occurred during the 2016 protests on the Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota. The protests were against the construction of an oil pipeline across water and land sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The face-off between the Water Protectors (Native Americans and their supporters) and the police led the artist Cannupa Hanska Luger (b. 1979, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian, and Norwegian) to create the following installation of video and photos of the Mirror Shield Project.
According to Luger, the project was inspired by protesters in the Ukraine in 2014 who used mirrors to show the police what they looked like in their full riot gear. It was an appeal to their humanity that had been swallowed by all their armor. Luger adapted the Ukrainian’s approach:
I liked the idea of bringing these mirrored shields to the front line to create a barrier that actually unites rather than separates and remind the riot police that we’re trying to protect water for them and their children as well. So this was a way conceptually to put them on our front line as well and reflect that conversation back.Karen Kramer. “On Creating Solidarity: Cannupa Hanska Luger.” Peabody Essex Museum, accessed April 18, 2019,
In the installation area, visitors can view a drone video of protesters holding the mirror shields while walking in a procession which eventually coils into a circle they called a Water Serpent. The purpose of the video was to record the mirror holders practicing making the Water Serpent for the times when police airplanes and helicopters made their daily fly-over. (The video is available for streaming,)
In the weeks since viewing Nature’s Nation, I’ve been thinking about what this exhibition is saying to us, the Americans of European heritage. Given the evidence of climate change and global warming, the exhibition’s claim that we have distanced ourselves from our natural environment is on target. Of course that’s not the case for everyone, but so much of our collective life is governed by decisions made by corporations and industries with negative environmental consequences. If the dominant position of our leaders is that the economy and its metrics like GDP and stock market indices are what determine our society’s well being, then an important factor has been left out of the equation. “The economy and the environment are both two sides of the coin. If we cannot sustain the environment, we cannot sustain ourselves,” said Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.
Our notions of what makes our society healthy and vital must be radically revised. Perhaps indigenous mythologies and cosmologies can inspire us to rethink the ones we have inherited. Thomas Berry has argued that we are require a New Story (see related post). It’s clear from this exhibition of more than 100 pieces art on view in Nation’s Nature that we need new visions of how we are an integral part of the natural world we inhabit.
1 Maxim Khomiakov. “Hierarchy and Order.” New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, edited by Maryanne Cline Horowitz, vol. 3, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005, p. 990.