Why Art?: A Statement from Beth Carruthers, Our Newest Environmental Arts Advisory Committee Member

Beth Carruthers is known internationally for her work in arts, sustainability and community engagement. Over more than a decade she has earned a reputation for building collaborative relationships among artists, their communities, the sciences, business and academia, creating innovative programming which engages families, communities, artists and students. Beth holds a BFA and an MA in Values and Environment. In 1997 she co-founded, and through 2002 programmed and co-directed, the first Canadian arts-science collaborative organization addressing habitat and sustainability in urban centres – with a focus on the Vancouver region.

She is now the newest member of the CACV Environmental Arts Advisory Committee. Below is a piece written by Beth exploring the connections between art, the environment, and action.

In the words of early U.S. conservationist Aldo Leopold, “We can be ethical in relation only with that which we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”  (The Land Ethic)

Cultural values and the role of the social in climate change, land use practices and sustainability has been generally overlooked or underplayed. Yet it is people, human communities, whose choices are based upon their understandings of what the human-world relationship is, which ultimately decide the kind of world we and our children will have. Eco-art praxis, as a kind of realised ethical vision and collaboration, embodies and reveals alternative ways of acting within human/world relations. The ethical engagement or awareness embodied in, and/or revealed by these works and practices, opens a space for a recognition and reinterpretation of human/world relations. These works, and our interactions with them, can be both revelatory and transformational.

Through connecting people with the greater ecological community of their environing world, and by revealing, or foregrounding these ecological relationships in ways that are emotional, embodied, and both intellectually and materially pragmatic, the artists and works engaged with land, community and sustainability aim to encourage a more caring and responsible role for people within that community.

An essential aspect of this process is aesthetic engagement (and I am also drawing here on the etymology of the word, which is “to perceive with the senses”). We are engaged by and in the work by way of our senses – by way of our embodied being in the world. This can provide a revelatory experience, from which can arise new understandings – and we may be forever altered.

To paraphrase UK curator Wallace Heim, “these works are often resolutely between conventional forms”. Yet from from Land Art to Social Sculpture, they share common ethical territory and intention.  To quote Suzi Gablik, artist, critic and theorist:

“If you are going to challenge the old Cartesian dualisms – like the one that separates art from life – with more participatory and engaged forms of consciousness, then you will also need a whole new language; one that expresses interdependence and reciprocity, so that the creative imagination can meet its new task. Changing paradigms is more than just a conceptual challenge…” (ecoventions)

Even in this day some eyebrows still rise, or concerns appear at the idea of art being pragmatic, functional and useful. I counter by saying that art is always active in the world. Art does something, it is not passive. Were that the case, it would not have been burned, banned and forbidden by dictators throughout history. While we always need the voice of art and artists, we need it now more than ever. This is critical, engaged and passionate praxis at a time of global ecocrisis.

–Beth Carruthers

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