Notes from Anna: The Mailroom as Landscape
I am immensely grateful to those of you who took the time to respond to "Notes" and enlarge the discussion of environmentalism and culture that has begun to take shape on this page. I see the goal of this column as facilitating the discourse that already goes on in the environmental community, as it became clear to me from the last week's e-mail. In the interests of space, I condensed some of the quotes below while trying not to truncate the writing style or opinions you've shared.
Ren Willis-Frances from Phoenix, Arizona, writes in a way that resonates with my own intuitions about the role of culture in the preservation of environment. "I write as a person privileged to live in both art and environmental camps. I sculpt and paint at night and work for an environmental regulator by day... Our species is careening down the path of self-destruction. The only thing that will motivate us to change our course is an appreciation of our world and our place within it. We can't save the world by changing minds, but only by changing hearts. That, I believe, is the role of culture. The arts are of immense importance because they can give us context and perspective on our individual and collective role in the world. I do not select environmental subjects for my pieces. Nonetheless, I think that any artist who is truly present cannot help but express in some degree the pervasive environmental angst that I believe we all experience at a subconscious level."
Ren, I agree that art can speak directly to our awareness of the world and nature, in ways that are not confined to explicit environmental messages. When our best faculties are engaged by the presence of powerful art, we are moved to think more broadly, and to care passionately for the world that has been illuminated by a work of beauty.
My personal choice of an artist of such extraordinary power would be Pieter Bruegel, a 16th century Dutch Renaissance painter, who produced just a few more than fifty paintings, which are now housed in museums around the world. My first exposure to Bruegel was a cinematic quote. In his Solaris, Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky dwells for several minutes on a painting that struck me as sublime, when I watched that film. The score -- an excerpt from Bach -- only deepened the effect. Still, I had not the first clue about the identity of the painter.
About a month ago, I was driving to Western Massachusetts with my friend, Vlad Buldyrev. Vlad is a lover of nature, and a great eccentric, who selects music to play in his depending on the time of year, the weather, and the landscape. It was a bright, warm winter day, and his choice was Mozart. "Wait a minute, " I said, "let's try this." I put on Schubert's "Trout Quintet." The exercise seemed silly, and yet, the landscape took on a new, sparkling mood. That's when I remembered to ask if Vlad remembered the painting quoted in Solaris. At the expense of hearing him exclaim incredulously, "You don't know Bruegel?" I learned at last who my favorite painter was.
Bruegel's painting "Hunters in the Snow" is described wonderfully by Darcy C., a 3rd grade student from Tempe, Arizona, on her school's webpage dedicated to art masters.
Jim Adams, a teacher from Olympia, Washington, wrote to me about his own students, and the values that shape their awareness of the world and their place in it. Jim, I admire your choice of vocation. I feel deeply indebted to my own schoolteachers in Moscow, whose chief reward seemed to be their own love of teaching. Here, I share Jim's observation from his classroom. "I have been exploring the interface between nature and culture for most of my life. Now, and for the last twenty years, I teach. I have observed a continuously growing chasm between the young people I have worked with and their knowledge, and appreciation for the natural world that sustains them. Part of this is pop culture and urbanization, and part seems to be the result of our loss of community connections. What defines a person's success in more closely knit groups has been the perception of value that an individual contributes to the group. What passes for success and happiness in contemporary "developed" cultures appears to be the level of immediate gratification an individual can gain from the efforts of others..."
The floor is open. I look forward to hear from you, and to cover more unexplored territory between the arts and ecological thinking. Please email me your thoughts.
All my best,