In a World Deprived of Nature, Artists No Longer Starve

This is a headline I can easily imagine will appear in the next decade or so.

As skyscrapers replace skylines and concrete replaces trees, I believe art is going to play an ever-greater role in society.

We know that nature has psychological benefits. Studies show that spending time in natural environments can 1) reduce stress and 2) focus attention (hence all the hoods in the woods programs). There is no doubt that art also has similar benefits*.

It is not just that film, theatre, and paintings are an urban phenomenon. They are an urban phenomenon in part because the urban environment lacks visual inspiration normally provide by Mother Nature (and also, not to be overlooked, because cities have a disproportionate amount of wealth).

When I recently visited Berlin and walked the monotonous street of Karl Marx-Allee (below) I sensed two things: 1) any social system that denies beauty will not survive and 2) that therein lied one reason that Berlin was a major art center in Germany.


Sure, the tangible divide in the city (Berlin Wall below) and the oppression by the Stasi** undoubtedly led to a creative boon. But also the starkness of parts of the city (a byproduct of Communist ideals) must have contributed, too.


Thus, I predict a positive correlation and perhaps even causation between urbanization and the production of artwork.

*However, I might argue that art is incapable of being as potent of a therapy due to its human origins. When is the last time that you had the feeling of total insignificance while engaging with artwork? The exhilarating feeling of grandeur and total unimportance one finds on the summits of high peaks or floating in the middle of a blue ocean is almost unparalleled. I would say the only other time I have had that feeling (which is far more fleeting) is through science, where I occasionally understand the gravity of life's miracles and mysteries. If you need proof, read Oliver Morton's latest book Eating the Sun all about photosynthesis. What a wonderful world...

**One of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in the world, no one in East Germany knew who belonged to the Stasi and who did not. The Stasi Museum in Berlin houses a number of the less offensive Stasi tools, such as this button camera:


More like this

But what about the in-between environment of suburban landscapes? These landscapes have nature, but it is carefully organized and maintained, living in a garden. The typical tract home subdivision is built by razing a field or forest and throwing up timber-frames, then planting Bradford pear trees and making as much money as possible. I have seen too many suburbs where only ornamental trees are planted, where no one wants to rake after oak or elm or maple. To me, these environments are worse on the human spirit than cities because of their bland, fat homogeneity. Cities at least are filled with life more than just sun-wrinkled housewives and barbeque beers.

Dandelions are beautiful, but so are fire escapes.

I'm not so sure art is an urban phenomenon, since it predates civilization. But it certainly proliferated once we stopped spending all our time looking for food and shelter.

well, it certainly explains the absurd amount of graffiti in Berlin... tho I very much doubt anyone is making any money off that ;-)

from what I understand though, the lack of trees in East Berlin (and other Eastern Block cities) had more to do with paranoia, and less with lack of appreciation of beauty: it's harder to hide from the all-seeing government when there's no trees.

I recently wrote a piece in which I argued that we might be satisfied letting art substitute for Nature - if only because it's easier than conservation. My editor expressed disbelief that anyone would be okay with that, and the idea got cut. But my point wasn't so much that we're "okay" with art replacing nature, so much as we're starting to become accustomed to it. . . I'm glad to see I maybe wasn't so crazy after all. :)

First, gillt is correct: art predates civilization, and the major artforms originated and flourished in times when the audience and creators were much more in touch with the natural world than most First World peoples are today: The audience at the Great Dionysia saw the Aegean stretching away in the distance behind Oedipus, Medea, Clytemnestra, and Dionysus.

Second, most people engaged with art have indeed had the "feeling of total insignificance" in the face of a work of art -- King Lear, a work of Mozart, . . .

This post posits a totally specious conflict between artists and -- I'm not even sure what your standpoint should be called: "science"? "love of nature"? pointless cogitation?

Graffiti is nothing more than a human's desire to express onselves when no other outlet is available. As an artist I would say it will be up to us to help the world remember nature- as the world is moving away from it rapidly.

What everyone forgets is we humans are a part of nature. As we morph into digital humans - half animal /half technology beasts we will loose what little awarness we have left of it (as it looks from my perspective). I have been working on a book about nature titled "Rethinking the Natural" you can see an online version here:

oops...that would be ourselves not

Graffiti is also basic communication, as in gang signs marking territory.

I'm not sure what half-technology beasts are (do pacemakers achieve this?), but I'm inclined to think of human habitats as not altogether different than ant colonies in the way we manipulate our natural surroundings to fit our short term needs.

I question your thesis, considering the antiquity of artistic expression and its continuing vitality over countless generations and in all sorts of environments. Art dates back to the primeval discovery of the useful plasticity of clay and the decorative values of ocher, soot and berry juices by ancient man in his caves. The wellsprings of art predate urbanism by millennia. Art does not depend on flight from city life to the mountains and valleys for its strength. It has thrived everywhere, but especially in cities. Look at the city's effect on the works of architects and designers, on music, on writing, on theatre, photography and film. Itâs universal.

It's natural to be repelled by the communist banalities of the Karl Marx Allee and the brutalities of the Stasi. Who wouldnât? They are anti-art, anti-life. But next time you take a walk, go down the Boul' Mich in Paris or the Rambla in Barcelona or the West Village in Manhattan and feel the vitality of those urban spaces. They are alive with creativity. I agree with you on the sublime feeling of the mountain top and the ocean in a small boat where you feel you can almost - almost - touch infinity. But human beings are social animals and often at their best in an urban environment where they can feel their collective energy. Art is showmanship. It requires an audience. Thatâs why we have concert halls. museums and galleries.

Where is art better served than in the city?

I live 100 meters from the depicted corner, and that very area is in fact quite beautiful. From that street sign its 200 meters to two little parks. The depicted houses look much better from a different angle, the entrence and staircase are made of marble. Built shortly after the war, this area was a model project, and when I look out of the window, sometimes I see sightseeing groups of architecture students roaming the neighbourhood.

By torve der trog (not verified) on 13 May 2009 #permalink

I think I am correct in guessing that you have never played a musical instrument or painted a picture. As a musician, I have had numerous experiences of the "exhilarating feeling of grandeur and total unimportance." Both as a performer and as an listener and audience member. Just one example: my body, some thirty years later can still experience some of this oceanic feelings that I felt during my years playing in a Samba percussion band. When I improvise on the flute, I, quite often, lose all sense of place.
There are many more examples.
One more point; nature does not have a gender, so please stop with the Mother Nature mystical nonsense.

It's an interesting thought, art replacing nature. I'll be mulling that over for a bit, so thanks for a thought-provoking post, Jennifer.

I agree with some of the other commenters here though - I remember the first time I saw Grimshaw's painting Iris when it toured here to Toronto. I sat down on the floor of the gallery, and explored it. The sheen of the rainbow that cannot be seen in reproductions, the arc of Iris. A sublime moment.

Similar feelings have happened to me looking up at the stars and spying the tiny light of the space station, or occasionally when painting and the image is just flowing out as your muscles mind and idea are all lined up in synch.

For me, the depth of feeling I've had in the face of nature has occurred while viewing art -albeit rarely- and a little more often while creating it. The humbling of self due to vast tracts of ideas that will never be real.