A Look Into Sustainability In Art

By Amina Diakite, Niamh McCrohan, Abby Ritz, Corinne Scanlon, Abbie Sorrell, Brian Vargas, Brooke Ward, and Helen Warfle

Sustainability is the balance of three systems: the economy, society, and the environment. The idea of sustainability is that you need to meet the needs of people at present without compromising a possible future for other generations. The Urban Garden piece created by Steve Prince and the students and faculty at SUNY Geneseo is an example of society trying to gain such a balance. In this piece, we brainstormed about the three systems under sustainability and how they can intertwine with one another to either create enormous huge problems that we should be addressing or successes that we appreciate. One half of the Urban Garden showed the unsustainable aspects of how we currently live; but the positive half showed hope—the seeds for how balance can be restored.

Pictures taken by Helen

Urban Garden has many links to past and current environmental artistic practices. In doing research on art and sustainability, we came across an exhibit called Radical Nature, which took place at the Barbican Gallery in London. The focus of this exhibit was a history of environmental and sustainable art from 1969 to 2009. A description of one piece invokes the disappearance of the border between mental and physical landscapes, which is a lot of what Prince’s work grapples with—as mentioned before, he uses real-life events and influences such as Hurricane Katrina and stylizes them as his own, allowing him to show the external factors he sees in these events, thus turning physical reality into his own mental map. These mental maps depict not just what happened but also the societal influences that caused it and the future impacts it might have, allowing him to engage in larger concepts. However, much of what is talked about in an article from the Guggenheim about Radical Nature and some of the characteristics of modern environmental art reminded us of Urban Garden: “[Some of the participating artists] work is instrumental in character, designed to promote awareness of the relationship between nature and the urban environment and often involves community participation and affirmative action.” Sound familiar? Urban Garden both in its title and the actual execution of the work embodies the tenets named: through its design it shows the relationship between urban environments and nature, the actual creation of the piece involves the community, and the subject is based on what we, as a community, want to see affirmed and altered in our society.

Sustainability is present in Prince’s art through his constant recycling of material from other works, specifically older compositions by artists who have effectively presented certain ideas with their compositions. Prince is recycling features from these older pieces into his own work in order to present similar ideas for those interpreting the art—subsequently, Prince is also effectively maintaining these technical aspects of old art, which enable the strong representation of certain ideas, and maintaining the tradition of these techniques in art with his utilization of these details in modern art. One example of a message inducing feature would be body position and the connotation it offers. The “crucifix”  position from Francisco Goya’s The Third of May is one particular body position that Prince samples in his piece Veil Stand at Gretna Bridge, which subtly impacts the interpretation of the piece.

The open-armed position of the central figure in The Third of May stands in contrast to the mechanical line of French soldiers; Prince mirrors the positions of the victims and aggressors of Third of May in Stand at Gretna Bridge, highlighting the connections between the historical contexts behind each piece. Prince represents families trying to leave New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in order to avoid the destructive natural disaster and stay alive, ultimately being stopped and confronted by the police who will not let them leave the city; Goya’s work is a visualization of the French invasion of Spain and their indiscriminate murdering of the Spanish people. Both pieces utilize a “peaceful” figure in opposition to a threatening force, but they handle the representations of the opposing forces slightly different. While Goya hides the faces of the soldiers to show their indiscriminate attack under the orders of Napoleon, Prince reveals the faces of the aggressors to show that people are responsible for negativity and evil that affects others.

Another piece that incorporates other work is Job: Take Me to the Water, which borrows the casual posture of the man from the painting Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer. Prince’s piece is set in the aftermath of Katrina; in Homer’s piece, bloodthirsty sharks surround a man on a sail-less raft. In both paintings, the black man is surrounded by potential death, and by dangerous water, but his languorous posture implies cool confidence and bravery in the face of calamity. Prince’s message in Job is that loss is part of life, and can be seen as a point of transition. That loss can be seen as a point of transition is especially relevant in terms of ecological issues, as much has been lost and much will be lost, but hopefully, this can motivate positive change.

In Judges: Delilah Didn’t Do It Prince repeats the pietà pose of Jesus in Mary’s lap. Prince incorporates the African-American experience within the legacy of Western culture and religion through the use of these visual references. African Americans are not often shown exhibiting love or tenderness in art; yet, they have been part of American culture for hundreds of years and are thus entitled to full artistic representation in culture and full claim to the history of European and American art. Additionally, in Salt of the Earth, 1960 Prince borrows the indecisive waitress’ body language from the pose of the contemplative woman in New York Movie by Edward Hopper because this waitress has to make the decision of whether to serve the peaceful protesters. Similarly, The Last Lunch: Autodeification at Columbine uses DaVinci’s Last Supper and elements of Guernica by Pablo Picasso to deal with the tragedy represented. In this way, the components of older art are sustained as the discipline moves forward and develops; Prince is a modern artist who maintains the subtle components of older art which create a substantial impact in the art’s perception by others.

The Souls of Black Folk and Du Bois’ idea of the veil relates it to Katrina’s Veil and the idea of society being split between what could be labeled as the haves or the have nots, whether what they have (or don’t have) is in relation to access to resources, or education, or money. When we think about a veil we think of a sheer barrier that hinders each side from completely seeing beyond said divider. Each opposition has no clear view of the other and that creates not only misconceptions about each side but can also in a sense create a hierarchy with the side that has much more money, resources, or education is placed on top. This, yet again, could be connected to Katrina’s Veil as the piece illustrates the resistance of one group of people trying to cross the metaphorical Veil oft-discussed by Du Bois. This concept connects to sustainability because the three systems deem themselves almost like a checks and balances system; we could say that in order to properly function, the systems playing off of one another have to be equally balanced within themselves just as sustainability must maintain a balancing system.

As the blog post where Old Lady in the Upper Room is found says, the piece was created for a public reading of the apology from the U.S. government to Native American peoples three years after HR 3326, the bill containing the apology, was signed by the Obama administration. When it was published, the part of the bill contained the apology was not well-publicized, and the apology actually became buried in a defense appropriations bill, not even being published on its own. The language of the bill itself is not strong or even particularly sincere; it did not make “a direct apology from the government, but rather apologizing ‘on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native peoples by citizens of the United States.’” Thus, the reading of the bill and the presentation of the artwork inspired by it three years after the fact is quite possibly the first public acknowledgment of this amendment to HR 3326 in Washington D.C.

Like the “apology” from the U.S. Government to the Native American people, Old Lady in the Upper Room is difficult to grapple with. The ever-present and vexing appearance of the Four Horsemen is something that always seems to complicate Prince’s work, and as he mentioned in his lecture, the Horsemen play multiple roles in his art, so unlike the Holy Spirit or dove/handkerchief images that often appear, their presence doesn’t necessarily indicate one particular thing in the way these other symbols do. However, the body language of the horsemen gives us a hint as to what might be going on. For example, in Old Lady in the Upper Room, the horseman on the far left (the one wearing the headpiece) is staring right at the viewer. Its expression is intense and unrelenting as if forcing the viewer to think about the wrongdoings they have committed, not only in terms of the Native Americans but in terms of how we are still doing wrong in so many other aspects pertaining to sustainability. What is especially interesting is that Native American tribal organizations are often concerned with sustainability, something that is talked about in Native American studies classes that some of us have taken.

For example, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have a specific program dedicated to sustainability that offers Native American perspectives on a national and global problem. One publication of theirs, written by Stuart Harris, states that “My people recognize that there are two types of infrastructure: ecological infrastructure that depends on a natural resource base (food, transportation, shelter), and cultural infrastructure that depends on a base of cognitive resources (technology, creativity, data), ethical resources (religion, stewardship, responsibility) and institutional resources (decision processes, stakeholder ownership of the problem, commitment, laws, education),” which addresses some of the different aspects of sustainability outside of the environment that we mentioned before. This idea of sustainability and the urgency of creating sustainable practices is reinforced by the fact that this horseman is holding a timepiece as if to say that time is up and we need to change our ways. It is also significant that this horseman is wearing a headpiece reminiscent of those that certain tribes wear, perhaps referencing this same idea of sustainability as it relates to Native American communities. This is especially significant considering that environmental disaster tends to affect minority communities, especially Native Americans, more than others due to the significant vulnerability of these communities.

The other three horsemen are equally intriguing. The two in the middle seem to serve a similar purpose to the first in that they contribute to the menacing mood of the piece, and the horseman that is holding the chain has been a subject of conversation and dispute for our group. Chains have many symbolic meanings and most of them probably apply here. One interpretation points out that chains are associated with mortality, which indicates that the old lady is close to death, which would make sense considering that they are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of which is literally Death. However, other readings point out that chains are symbolic of the brutalities committed against Native Americans throughout U.S. history. The chains are both literal, as Native Americans were often put in prison camps prior to forced relocations and symbolic, as forced assimilation took away the identities and heritage of Native American youth, putting them in a psychological prison. Like most of the symbols in Prince’s work, all of these interpretations have their basis in validity and exist in our favorite state, the realm of the “both-and.”

The last horseman, who is peeking out the window, serves a different purpose from the other three. When considering the composition of the piece, the young girl is all the way on the left-hand side, while the old lady is on the right. Windows are a tool to see something that is outside the viewers’ current space, and since the window is placed behind the old lady this lead us to believe that it is a passageway to the old lady’s past that the horseman is so intently viewing. As previously stated, the horseman on the left is like a call to action for the future, so it could be said that the horseman on the left is emphasizing the importance of remembering the past. This can be related to sustainability because in order for humanity to live in a sustainable balance in this world we have to recognize and remember the unsustainable acts that were committed in the past. This will allow us the chance to resolve them and live sustainably in the future.

Prince frequently works with the footwear of the subjects in his art. For example, the horsemen seem to always wear dress shoes adorned in spikes and thorns. Whether these spikes and thorns represent protection or destruction is up for the audience’s interpretation. However, this creates a juxtaposition between the horsemen’s’ and the little girl’s feet in the work, which are connected to a shadow that appears shaky. One of my classmates in my group pointed out that her shoes look like smoke stacks, which begs the question what are the implications of smokestacks replacing where the little girl is standing? Is her life becoming the replacement with the growing American economy? We also thought about the possibility that the little girl is the younger version of the old lady. This painting is deeply saddening, but especially when you think about the little girl seeing her own future as the place she stands is replaced by smokestacks and other buildings that forced their way onto her home, and destroying the land where she once stood.

In terms of sustainability, The Old Lady in The Upper Room has a relationship with the political climate that is both currently, and historically in the United States. Even the name of the piece insights a tragedy of systematic oppression. To us, “The Lady in the Upper Room” sounds as though she has been hidden away as have the injustices done to her people. She is dying as a little girl watches and we, the audience, have to worry: that girl is not going to be okay unless we take action to create a sustainable world for her to live in.

Urban Stations by Steve Prince
Panel One of Urban Stations

Urban Stations creates ties between contemporary issues (e.g. the prison-industrial complex, racism, class) and the story of Jesus’ resurrection; these chronological connections make the themes of Christ’s death and resurrection (sacrifice for the greater good, wrongful conviction, hatred based on identity)  relevant to the issues which Prince is representing in Stations.  Initially, the name Urban Stations could bring to mind the concept of transportation, a Metro station in the city or a bus station; however, in the context of the content this piece—Jesus as a man who is wrongfully charged and lethally injected in the present day—the title, as a combination of the modern conception of urbanity and Jesus’ fourteen Stations of the Cross, positions this piece as an intersection between seemingly separate stories and events. Prince’s tendency to draw upon other works in the manner seen in Urban Stations, whether they be other paintings (e.g. Goya, Homer), biblical stories, fictional stories, or historical events, helps him to create narratives which address both the issues represented and the themes of stories, art, and events that have laid the groundwork for our societal narratives. Thus, Urban Stations reflects Prince’s ability to draw upon the issues and themes of old events in order to create a narrative and commentary about contemporary social justice issues; as social justice movements are inherently driving toward sustainability (creating a better world for future generations), Prince’s melding together of the contemporary with the fictional and the historical reinforces this drive for sustainability.

When looking at Station 1, it became clear at how vital it was to our connection to not only Prince’s work and its connection to our exploration of relationships and institutions but how then those structures relate to sustainability. Sustainability being the balance between, society, environment, and the economy, If we are to look at Prince’s works, we would see that many represent the imbalance in the societal aspect of sustainability. Prince, in essence, creates his artwork in order to comment on different societal issues, one of those issues being the lack of confrontation practiced by African Americans and those who are not, when it comes to societal, and historical injustices. Simply because the basis of his artwork is in fact to illuminate issues, it is safe to say that we have not achieved such balance in society. Can we realistically achieve such sustainability? And if we can, what would that look like? In Prince’s Urban Station 1 we see that Prince explains the piece of work to be a prayer for all the injustices and issues impeded within ourselves and the community to finally be ridden.

Urban Stations is grounded in the practice of prison reform and abolitionism, which reminded us of an article some of us had read two semesters ago: “Free Us All: Participatory defense campaigns as abolitionist organizing,” by Mariame Kaba. This article argues that in the case of prison reform, long term acts of care are necessary to make true and lasting reform. Acts of short term care, such as campaigns to help individuals that were wrongfully sentenced for various reasons, including self-defense, and while these do help those individuals, it is the system itself that is broken. However, Kaba maintains that, while these acts are necessary and good, they don’t really help to fix the system as a whole. Thus, “these short-term strategies need to be placed within a longer-term vision for justice rather than as a substitute for that vision.” Urban Stations can be considered as an act of long-term care for a couple of reasons. The first is that it deals with the heart of the issue of prison reform and wrongful convictions, not a specific case but rather all of the people that have suffered because of the brokenness of our justice system. The work also ties into a larger religious tradition which brings it into a larger conversation with a larger audience who may not otherwise care about prison reform; however, seeing it as linked to the crucifixion of Jesus may make them realize how big of an issue prison reform is, thus, raising awareness and creating new activists, which ties into the idea of sustainability. Sustainability, as we mentioned before, is not just about the environment but about creating long-lasting communities that support each other and help each other. Thus, by raising awareness and creating new activists, Urban Stations helps to support a sustainable prison reform movement that will hopefully lead to creating a more just, more accepting society for all.

Sustainability of all kinds and within all movements is essential to ensure not only the survival but the betterment of humanity, society, and our connections with the world and one another. This includes not just environmental sustainability but also the creation of sustainable communities that ensure everyone is welcome in the world and the future we are creating for ourselves.

So then why should we be considering sustainability in all contexts, not just in this classroom but in all aspects of our education? It is all well and good to talk about sustainability in the classroom, but in order to apply the concepts we have learned about through this class and Prince’s art to the wider world, we have to talk about sustainability holistically, not just as an abstract concept in art and other forms of media. The need for sustainability permeates every aspect of not only of our education but the lives of communities that are disproportionately affected by unsustainable practices in communities just like ours. Art absolutely helps to raise awareness, such as the work of Prince, but it needs to serve as a catalyst for something greater. This art cannot effect change without people taking the ideas found within and translating them into real-world strategies for change.

Something that our group has been asking ourselves is: is sustainability something we can even achieve? We believe that one potential solution is allowing and fostering the creation of sustainable movements within grassroots communities in order to create a myriad of intersectional movements that will support future generations. Perhaps art is one of the ways to encourage these movements to form and take the ideas of Prince and other artists and translate them into reality.

Sustainability is needed in order to create harmony between human nature and the environment. Striving for sustainability is so important because the way we as humans are treating not just the environment, but each other, is causing problems that not only affect our present day world, but also the future of it. It’s going to be a constant battle to achieve sustainability, but regardless we need to fight to make it happen for the future, otherwise, there will be no future.

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