I love going to events at the Johnson Museum, especially at night. It’s an excuse to check out new exhibitions, free food and have some good wholesome fun. Last Friday’s “The Museum Rocks . . . Late Night!” was no exception. Hosted by the Museum Club and Student Educators: Art & the Museum, the event explored the relationship between art and geology through a variety of events and activities such as live rock music (pun intended) and a “bad geology movie” screening by the Earth and Atmospheric Science Student Association.
One of my favorite parts of the event was getting to see the special exhibition Past Time: Geology in European and American Art. Drawings, sketchbooks, paintings and watercolors made by American and European artists from the late 18th to 19th centuries reflect new scientific explorations into geology and discoveries about the Earth and its history. Many of these works display a sense of awe at the grandeur of nature and man’s relative smallness, both physically and on a chronological scale. For example, Frederic Church’s Königssee, Bavaria, 1886, depicts a small boat on a river flowing between two huge mountains that loom above. All of this is done using an earthy palette. In the words of Jane Austen’s beloved heroine Elizabeth Bennet: “What are men to rocks and mountains?”
However, one gets the sense that man is at once removed from nature and above it. In his Critique of Judgement, Immanuel Kant puts forward the idea of the dynamical sublime as “nature considered in an aesthetic judgement as might that has no dominion over us.” In contemplating nature as the aesthetic object of our judgement, the human subject must be both overwhelmed by nature while also retaining the distance to reflect on it. With this view, the human subject is made necessarily superior, then.
Like the titular wanderer in Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog — a work that has since come to be emblematic of the Romantic movement — these paintings also express man’s desire to conquer and overpower nature, that nature’s might indeed “has no dominion over us.” Thus, exploration contains an implicit understanding of man’s eventual mastery over nature. I also think it’s interesting to note that most of these works are by men and typically employ men when human subjects are depicted.
Around the same time as these paintings were created, science and technology were being used as tools to exploit natural resources for human gain. The Industrial Revolution, with its heavy reliance on coal and fossil fuels, was starting to take its toll on the environment, resulting in air and water pollution, as well as soil contamination and habitat destruction.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope asks a disguised Odysseus about his origins, stating, “for you are not from anciently spoken oak or rock,” which becomes reconstrued later by Plato in the Apology as an opposition between human beings and “oak or rock.” I would argue that in light of recent knowledge of our impact on the environment, we can no longer keep up this illusion of distance, of ourselves as subject and nature as object. Moving forward, there seems to be a need to reevaluate our own relationship with nature and the environments we live in, especially as represented through art.
Kirsten Kurtz, an artist and soil scientist at Cornell, demonstrated the evolving nature of this relationship during the event through a soil painting activity that blurred this divide between art and nature. Rather than simply depicting geological forms, soil painting transforms the geology into the art itself. In order to make her soil paints, Kurtz mixes soil with water and gesso, creating colors ranging from white to grey to black to various shades of brown. This is by no means a limited palette — Kurtz’ own work is vibrant and joyful and all the more admirable considering how much trouble I myself had in trying to make anything coherent out of the rich textures of the soil paints.
On the way back from the Johnson, my friends and I stopped next to some dirt by the edge of a sidewalk, and though we didn’t exactly pick up some paintbrushes and go at it, it was a surprising reminder of the ways in which art pulls us out of our usual patterns of thinking and re-configures our worldview, even if just for a brief moment.
Ramya Yandava is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.