Civic Realism: Art Meets Ecology
—By David Waldstreicher, Editor
Alan Braddock with Temple Undergraduates at the Museum of Modern Art
A Conversation with Alan C. Braddock, Assistant Professor, Tyler School of Art
On April 7-8, Temple will host GRID + Flow: Mapping and Reimagining Urban Ecologies through the Arts and Humanities,
an interdisciplinary conference that is one of the results of a Provost’s seed grant proposed by Tyler School of Art’s Alan C.
Braddock, SCT’s Film and Media Arts professor Peter D’Agostino, and historian Andrew Isenberg. Noted scholar of literature and environmental studies Timothy Morton (University of California,
Davis) will give the keynote address, “Ecology and Philosophy in the Time of Hyperobjects,” Thursday evening, April 7, at 7pm in KIVA Auditorium, to be followed by a preview of D’Agostino’s exhibition, “World-Wide-Walks / between earth & water / Rivers,” a digital media event intended to demonstrate new ways of disseminating information about environmental issues in an interdisciplinary way. Friday’s day-long program will include papers by historians, art historians, environmental scientists, sociologists and geographers, among others. (For the complete program see http://www.temple.edu/institutes/gridflow/schedule.html)
I asked Alan how he came to reach out to colleagues in other disciplines to create this exciting project, which he hopes will lead to a book as well as D’Agostino’s digital media project. He said that the grant was D’Agostino’s idea , but that he had initiated a meeting in Spring 2010 after seeing a Temple Times news blurb about D’Agostino’s worldwide video climate walks. At that time, Alan invited D’Agostino to join a seminar discussion with visiting speaker Subhankar Banerjee, an important conservationist and photographer whose work highlights Arctic environmental issues. That
occasion led to an ongoing conversation about ethics and aesthetics at the intersection of art and ecology.
With regard to his own intellectual evolution, Alan told me that he has long believed that “knowledge of environmental history can put art and other cultural products of any period or place in a new light.” He calls this perspective “ecocriticism” and opposes it to the conventional human-centered
methods used by scholars in his field of art history.
Environmental concerns aren’t at first evident in Alan’s Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity (University of California Press, 2009). Most of the book is devoted to arguing that despite his interest in a variety of human types in his work, Eakins was no proponent of multiculturalism: his
perspective on diversity was mainly premodern, dividing humanity by civilizations (really, races) that had experienced a variety of stages of “progress.” It is a careful, and fascinating, analysis that utilizes manuscript sources and the writings of people Eakins knew and studied with to limn understandings of the culture concept as they played out in Eakins’ paintings and contemporaries’ responses to them.
But Braddock’s growing interest in environment jumps off the page in a scintillating middle chapter on Eakins’ “local color” paintings. In this chapter, Braddock argues that the artist’s realism was not absolutely empirical, as some art historians have said, but rather a selective form of “civic realism”
that filtered out the troubling signs of modernity in Philadelphia. Eakins gets a lot of praise for his rowing scenes, such as The Champion Single Sculls, but Braddock points out what Eakins was avoiding: a crisis in water pollution that occupied Philadelphians and killed many of them, including
his sister, who (like Abraham Lincoln’s son in the White House two decades earlier) died of typhus contracted from unclean drinking water. The less successful painting Swimming, which shocked Eakins’ boss at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, idealizes Eakins and friends skinny-dipping at a clean suburban retreat that was notably whiter than it had been before when Eakins painted it, at a time when the city’s prosperous folks were fleeing the industrial, increasingly polluted zones. Even the famous Gross Clinic, recently transferred across town from Jefferson Medical College to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, can be reinterpreted in light of civic realism. The heroic surgeon wielding his scalpel in front of the medical students disdains sanitary measures that were already being used by other surgeons, especially in Europe, where antiseptic principles in surgery had been promoted by Joseph Lister in an important article in The Lancet in 1867. It was not until 1889, in his second great medical portrait The Agnew Clinic, that Eakins acknowledged such principles.
For his next major art history project Alan is investigating the “gun vision” of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century avant-garde (itself a term adapted from the military language). Titled Gun Vision: The Ballistic Imagination in American Art, this new project explores interrelationships
between art and arms, seeing and shooting, in American painting and visual culture around 1900. I asked Alan how this inquiry fits his hope that art historians might“reassess and redirect scholarly inquiry itself on some level, in the hope that this move would foster solutions through a transformation of environmental perception and historical understanding,” as he and co-editor Christopher Irmscher put it in the introduction to their collection of essays, A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History (University of Alabama Press, 2009. In response to that question, Alan says that environmental history will play an important role in Gun Vision, in a chapter exploring photojournalistic media coverage of a sensational case of Buffalo poaching at Yellowstone, leading to the first U.S. endangered species legislation. Events such as that highlight an important late nineteenth-century semantic phenomenon: the migration of metaphors about “shooting” from the world of hunting into the world of photography and aesthetics.
Braddock and Irmscher’s book itself provides something of an answer to the question of how scholars might put ecocriticism into practice. A note in the front matter tells readers that as part of a “Green Press Initiative,” the volume is 30% printed on recycled paper, saving “4 Trees… 1845 Gallons of Wastewater, 1 million BTUs of Total Energy, 112 Pounds of Solid
Waste, [and] 383 Pounds of Greenhouse Gases.”