Art History in the Anthropocene

By Edward S. Christie

"There is at least a risk that there will be no more human history unless humanity undertakes a radical reconsideration of itself…We need new social and aesthetic practices, new practices of the self in relation to the other, to the foreign, the strange — a whole programme that seems far removed from current concerns"
– Felix Guattari, The Three Ecologies, 1989

The discipline of art history — associated, as it continues to be by many, with elitism, prestige and connoisseurship — might seem entirely alien from climate activism and some of the other content in this issue of Anthroposphere.  This perception may be particularly strong in the light of recent events such as COP24 and the Extinction Rebellion protests, which rightly emphasised the need for dramatic and imminent shifts in governmental policy in order to effectively respond to climate change, but which lacked focus on the cultural implications of the Anthropocene.


Against this view, Andrew Patrizio’s new book The Ecological Eye: Assembling an Ecocritical Art History maintains that the history of art may be reformed to contribute towards an effective response to the planetary challenges that we currently face.  As Patrizio summarises: ‘art historians in their work might postulate original and constructive imaginaries about global ecological crisis in parallel with the artists they write about and other humanities specialists they work alongside’.  This conviction reverberates throughout the text, and echoes Guattari by implying that art history might support the innovation of dynamic, collaborative and sustainable ways of being — a requirement if we are to adequately react to the climate crisis.


The Ecological Eye is dedicated to illuminating and defining a plethora of ways in which art history might be reformed to support the fight against climate change.  It realises this ambition by providing a blueprint for an ‘ecocritical art history’, which draws together a wealth of ideas to form a complex and multifarious vision of how the discipline might develop ecologically.  

The book is divided into three parts, which overlap and interlock rather than provide a linear structure.  The first section sketches a ‘proto-ecocritical art history’, which outlines how a number of established writers have contributed towards an ecological approach to the subject, whether intentionally or not.  Traditional art history largely overlooked or rejected ecological ideas, and instead favoured anthropocentric methodologies in line with the discipline’s humanist foundations. Despite this background, the chapter starts by performing unorthodox analyses of works by canonical writers such as Erwin Panofsky, Michael Baxandall and Henri Focillon, which reveal the presence of implicitly ecological perspectives within early art history.  This historical insight is broadened by considering how closely related disciplines such as technical art history and environmental aesthetics have responded to climatic conditions and demands. In a similar vein, the chapter assesses the art historical methods and techniques used to discuss land art and other environmental art that was produced in the 1960s and 70s. Lastly, Patrizio outlines several major contributions to queer studies and ecofeminism, to sketch out how ecocritical art history might effectively develop according to concepts such as decentralisation, expansivity and attentiveness, which guide these disciplines and their commitments to challenging hegemony.


This dialogue continues in the second part of the text, which focuses on the ecological eye by exploring its political dimensions in greater depth.  Specifically, Patrizio draws attention to the ecological potential contained within important works of anarchist and social ecologist thought. The chapter begins by introducing significant anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin, Murray Bookchin and Patrick Geddes, and outlining how they analysed the organisation of the biosphere as a way of validating a stateless system.


This discussion is then focused through a commentary on the ecocritical ideas explored by the anarchist art historian Herbert Read, who is remembered as one of the founders of the Institute for Contemporary Art in London.  Next, Patrizio draws upon concepts expressed by an array of ecological thinkers such as Bruno Latour, Arne Naess and Karl Marx, emphasising that art historians must critically consider how they conceive of growth and interconnectivity in order to develop outlooks that promote sustainable ways of being.

Completing the triad, Patrizio enmeshes ideas from scholarship on new materialism and posthumanism, and considers how they might be used to widen the methodological range and repertoire of art history.  This section overturns the traditional idea of the ‘sole art historian’ or the ‘individual artist genius’ in favour of an understanding of the ecological or interconnected nature of any enterprise. Patrizio starts by outlining the visual aspects of works by contemporary theorists such as Karen Barad, Jane Bennett and Donna Haraway, which point towards ways in which the materiality of art might be rethought in ways that would be sympathetic to ecological perspectives.  The next chapter begins by critiquing the humanist foundations of art history, which the cultural theorist Rosi Braidotti has condemned as an epistemology of violence that has its roots in the European colonial project. From this standpoint, the text explores to what extent the history of art might be conceived of as a ‘posthumanities’ subject, which would involve avoiding a focus on humanity and reformulating subjectivity as plural, and involving our social and environmental contexts rather than denoting a monolithic self.  Finally, the section closes by taking inspiration from critical animal and plant studies to consider the role of nonhumans in the production and analysis of artworks.


As this overview indicates, The Ecological Eye is vast in scope and ambition, and offers many points of departure which might be taken up by art historians to develop ecocritical approaches to the discipline.  Although the density of the text demands attentive reading, the book is united and made more accessible as a result of its central concern for ecology. This is understood in two interconnected ways: as denoting a commitment to environmentalism, and as referring to a fundamental investment in what it is described as ‘non-hierarchy’.  This latter conception refers to the idea of a network, or rhizome, and functions in two main ways. Firstly, it operates structurally as a means of bringing together a wide array of material; this reflects the breadth of ecological ideas that might be incorporated within ecocritical art histories. Secondly, this orientation provides a political framing, as it grounds the book’s ambition to oppose the ‘narratives, ideologies and structures of hierarchy, domination, elitism and power’ that are viewed as riddling art history and the planet at large.


Beyond the fragments of ecological thinking that are scattered through the history of art history, The Ecological Eye might be situated within the wider ecocritical humanities.  In particular, Patrizio provides a brief survey of the wealth of studies in English Literature from the 1990s which pursued ecological methodologies, and suggests that art history might develop according to comparable terms today.  Likewise, the text follows a wide array of art historical studies that have been published in recent years and which have analysed the theme of ecology in contemporary art. Prominent contributions to this rich discussion have come from scholars based across the globe which include T. J. Demos, Etienne Turpin and Heather Davis.  These insights have reflected a widespread rise in artistic engagements with the climate crisis, which has been promoted by both prominent and emerging artists. Equally, it has been promising to see an increase in exhibitions taking ecological and environmentalist stances. Not least, Future Knowledge which took place at Modern Art Oxford last year explored the role of visual culture in raising awareness of climate change.


I have already discussed the value of The Ecological Eye to art history, which centres on its significance as a resource that might inspire the development of diverse ecological approaches to the discipline.  The wider utility of the text, I believe, lies within its central concept of non-hierarchy. Although Patrizio emphasises that the approach he advocates embraces antagonism and maintains a radical openness, the content of the book reveals its sympathy for anti-capitalist theory and practice.  In this way, it subtly supports the contention that the conditions of modern capitalism constitute the fundamental cause of climate change — a belief which has been widely and ardently argued by thinkers in recent years such as Naomi Klein, Jason W. Moore and Andreas Malm. It is beyond the scope of this article to assess this perspective, but future issues of the Anthroposphere will provide further opportunities to discuss and act upon the political circumstances which define our climatic condition.  More immediately, I believe that we might view the pages of this issue — filled, as they are, with content written from a variety of perspectives — as supportive of The Ecological Eye’s conviction that the conditions of the Anthropocene require us to critically consider all aspects of existence.  Taking this further, we are reminded that in order to effectively respond to climate change, we must nurture collaboration — both with each other, and beyond, with the wider human and non-human world.

Edward Christie is an art historian, gallerist, curator, and painter based in London. He graduated with an MA in History of Art at The Courtauld Institute of Art, where he explored how contemporary documentary filmmakers, videographers, and photographers critically respond to the escalation of climate change. Before that, he received a BA in History of Art from University College London, developing in his thesis an expansive approach to art history that considered the significance of arcadianism, community, and resistance in William Morris’ News from Nowhere, referencing ideas from Roland Barthes’ S/Z. From September, he will continue his research at doctoral level.  Alongside a thesis which will imbricate art history and political ecology, he will encourage the development of ecological art history by organising exhibitions, contributing to journals, and supporting university teaching.

This article first appeared in the print edition of Anthroposphere Issue III. If you like what you've just read, please support Anthroposphere by buying one of our beautifully designed physical copies here. All proceeds go towards printing, designing and maintaining our publication, and your contributions will help keep our climate journalism interdisciplinary and accessible for all.

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