Utilization of Artists and Art in Societal and Environmental Maintenance

In her 1907 essay, “Utilization of Women in City Government”, renowned social reformer and influential public administrator Jane Addams wrote, “may we not say that city housekeeping has failed partly because women, the traditional housekeepers, have not been consulted as to its multiform activities?”

Addams noted that many social issues and the governance of modern cities are not completely unlike the concerns and maintenance of a household. She revealed that numerous facets of government, such as sanitation and education have roots in work traditionally spearheaded by women. Addams, who was a staunch supporter of immigrants and immigration, also reflected how both in past and present eras, migrant workers have performed many of the essential tasks that sustained the order and well-being within society, and therefore should be treated with greater respect and given egalitarian benefits.

Furthermore, Addams, an advocate for the Arts and Crafts movement, addressed her concern that industrialization and bureaucratic influences on commerce have diminished the overall value of culture and multiculturalism within the arts. Addams expounded on the value that making and viewing art has on multicultural communities. The artistic process is a great way for different cultural identities to be expressed. It also illuminates the possibilities of forming democratic and empathetic relationships between diverse individuals.

Addams describes one particular endeavor she facilitated at Hull House (a settlement house in Chicago that she co-founded with Ellen Gates Starr in 1889) which alludes to art’s humane and civic impact:

“We have made an effort at Hull-House to recover something of the early industries from an immigrant neighborhood, and in a little exhibit called a labor museum, we have placed in historic sequence and order methods of spinning and weaving from a dozen nationalities in Asia Minor and Europe. The result has been a striking exhibition of the unity and similarity of the earlier industrial processes. Within the narrow confines of one room, the Syrian, the Greek, the Italian, the Russian, the Norwegian, the Dutch, and the Irish’ find that the differences in their spinning have been merely putting the distaff upon a frame or placing the old hand-spindle in a horizontal position. A group of women representing vast differences in religion, in language, in tradition, and in nationality, exhibit practically no difference in the daily arts by which, for a thousand generations, they have clothed their families” (Addams, 1907, pp. 203-204).

Contemporary artists have clearly reflected and expounded on Addams’ early twentieth century ideologies regarding the nurturing ethics of homemaking, educating and artisan labor. Through artistic processes that combine materials-based explorations, pedagogy, conservation and cooperative labor, artists like Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Agnes Denes, Sol Aramendi and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg manifest transformative results regarding how we see, interact with and value our natural and manufactured spaces. Their art practices exemplify Addams’ thesis about how the caring roles women assume are intrinsic to ensuring a smoothly run and functional society.

Excerpt from Not Just Garbage, a documentary about maintenance artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles

Ukeles is the founder of a genre that she calls “maintenance art.” Her work focuses on the connections between the art world, the natural world, human labor and caregiving. Ukeles states that a “maintenance artist” is someone who performs a variety of domestic and civic tasks. She declared: “I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother. (Random order) I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also, (up to now separately) I ‘do’ Art. Now I will simply do these everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art […] MY WORKING WILL BE THE WORK.”

As a result of this ideology, she blurred the line between her artistic practice and quotidian experience. Instead of traditional displays of her art, she performed the domestic tasks she carried out in her personal life, as well as physically maintaining the art spaces where she was exhibiting. A 1972 performance called Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Outside, included cleaning the large stone steps in front of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Beginning in 1977, Ukeles became the first (unpaid) artist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation where she performed one of her most notable artworks, Touch Sanitation (1979-1980), in collaboration with more than 8,000 sanitation workers across the city.

Denes also takes on environmental concerns in a performative and utilitarian practice that combines art with ecological science and physics. Her 1982 endeavor, Wheatfield — A Confrontation was an artistic intervention, utilizing an empty two-acre landfill next to the World Trade Center buildings in Manhattan’s financial district, to create a thriving wheatfield. The site she chose nearby Wall Street, one of the world’s largest financial hubs, was deliberate to communicate a message about the disconnect between the economy and the environment. Wheat and other natural commodities are literally traded there, providing select and exclusive groups and individuals with great wealth, while large portions of the world experience famine due to untenable agricultural conditions.

Denes (quoted in Hoban, 2019) stated, “my decision to plant a wheat field in Manhattan instead of designing just another public sculpture, grew out of the longstanding concern and need to call attention to our misplaced priorities and deteriorating human values….It represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns.” Arts writer Phoebe Hoban writes that Denes’ artwork was prophetic and remains all too relevant. She states that: “whether it’s her cerebral conceptual pieces mining her deep understanding of mathematics and philosophy, or her literally down-to-earth land art, has always had a prophetic quality. And her prescient 1982 Wheatfield – A Confrontation, an environmental piece in which she planted a two-acre amber field of grain in the shadow of the Twin Towers, is now more relevant than ever, in the wake of climate change and the dramatic divide between the 1 percent and the rest of the planet’s population” (Hoban, 2019).

Ginsberg is another contemporary artist who works with natural resources in order to raise awareness about their ongoing disappearance. She creates living works of art in the form of botanical gardens, in order to raise a collective awareness around the need to preserve our current ecosystems. One of these artworks is Pollinator Pathmaker. While the Pollinator Pathmaker was planted and maintained by humans, the main goal is to attract a variety of pollinating species who are vital for our collective ecosystem. According to the artist, the aim of Pollinator Pathmaker is “to transform how we see gardens and who we make them for.” In fact, the project, which was commissioned by the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK, is considered to be an interspecies artwork. It is both aesthetically pleasing to humans and insects (who make up the majority of pollinators) alike, while also providing tangible benefits to support the wellness of both species. The overall interconnectivity of the artwork raises our awareness about local ecosystems by fostering a symbiotic relationship between humans and pollinators in a vibrant and welcoming setting. 

Ginsberg’s artist statement for Pollinator Pathmaker aptly explains the overarching impetus behind the artwork: “Bees, hoverflies, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles and other pollinators are essential for many plant species to reproduce and for ecosystems to flourish. But human-made habitat loss, pesticides, invasive species and climate change are causing a terrifying decline in pollinator populations around the world. Without pollinators, many plants can’t reproduce and make seeds. Without seeds, many of the trees, flowers and crops we rely on simply wouldn’t exist. Plants are vital to the survival of life on Earth, including us. How and what we plant matters.” The enduring questions that inspired the development of these artful gardens were: “what would a garden look like if it were designed from a pollinator’s perspective, rather than ours?” She notes that “because pollinators see color differently from us, forage in different ways and emerge in different seasons to each other,” the Pollinator Pathmaker garden is aesthetically and functionally unique and in contrast with other gardens, which are typically made for human consumption.

In addition to physical gardens, the artist has created an interactive website with educational resources and an exercise prompting visitors to design their own garden for pollinators.

Sol Aramendi, Apple Eco Power. Courtesy of Eva Mayhabal Davis.

Jane Addams’ concerns about the dehumanization of the labor force and her advocacy for immigrant women are reflected in Sol Aramendi’s social practice artwork made in collaboration with immigrant populations. Aramandi facilitates artistic partnerships with immigrant women who are often considered essential workers. This means that they hold jobs that are necessary for society and the economy to function. Despite their importance, these workers are often burdened by exploitative conditions such as wage theft, unsafe working environments and long hours that impact their work-life balance.

Aramendi’s project, the Workers’ Studio, documents the essential immigrant-driven workforce, through creating works of art and ephemera that are indicative of the workers’ diversity and ingenuity. Under the auspices of the Workers’ Studio, art making is also a potent vehicle for raising awareness in support of equal, equitable and justice driven labor systems. The work created through the Workers’ Studio supports the reciprocity of ideas, resources and agency, in order to benefit all members of the essential workforce. It is as much of a mutual aid project as it is an artistic one. The personal stories that are expressed through the creative process informs us of the power that can be achieved by coming together. The imagery and narratives also raise our consciousness regarding the importance of advocating for worker’s rights.

I have previously written several posts about my thoughts on how art and maintenance are intrinsic. My investigation into the interdisciplinary relationship between art and education is largely centered around ways we can sustain and expand healthy and empowering relationships with each other and our surrounding social structures and ecosystems.

The world is changing at a rapid pace, both on an ecological and sociocultural level; and discipline-specific experts have been providing supporting evidence that our current ways of living are unsustainable. Caring for one another and the natural environment should not be a divisive issue. I am certain that we all want to be safe, valued and understood, and to live in a world where we have clean and renewable natural resources. I believe that one of the reasons we are experiencing such a partisan divide is due to the inability to express empathy and creative responses to issues that are universally impacting us. It might not be as visible to certain people at the moment, but we will all suffer from outstanding social, cultural and environmental issues, including (but not limited to), racism and bigotry, gender inequality, economic inequity, climate change and capitalist driven reliance on non-renewable energy. Most of us have strong opinions and experiences which influence our viewpoints about these issues. In order to find common solutions, we need to develop tangible processes for contextualizing our emotions so that they can guide us towards rational and compassionate forms of communication and action; instead of letting things boil over into fear, anger and irrational reactions. The fact that you are reading this blog, likely means you will agree that art can offer a way of passionately responding to issues in a critical and careful manner.

As an artist, educator and art historian my concerns are about symbolically visualizing and accurately documenting experiences that prompt us to consider taking steps towards bettering ourselves and our surroundings. Although art is often symbolic and abstract in its function, it can certainly bring about transformative changes that benefit humanity and ecology alike. The laborious, creative process itself is an act of perpetuation, which is a main tenet of maintenance. Prior to a work of art entering society, the artist develops an idea behind their work and must nurture that concept by fashioning it into a tangible object or experience. Once the artwork leaves their studio it takes on a new purpose. Whether it is intended for public reflection or the white walls of a gallery, the artwork also requires significant care.

Countless amounts of money and human resources are spent to insure that artworks are displayed and stored properly so that they can be viewed by generation after generation. The natural environment does not often get this “white glove” treatment. While most people would not object to an artwork being behind glass for its protection and are comfortable with the idea of it being accessible and viewable in museums for years on end, the same logic is not typically reflected in how we act towards our vulnerable ecosystems. We take them for granted thinking that they too will be here year after year, in pristine condition like the works of art in the Louvre et al. However, in a world where the hardships of environmental crisis are currently being felt by millions of people and other species, and only will get worse (see: Negin, 2020), shouldn’t it behoove us and become our cultural responsibility to value, repair and maintain our ecological systems with the esteemed attention and resources that priceless works of art receive? 

Just Stop Oil Supporters throw Soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

Realizing this, is why I don’t find any irony or absurdity behind the recent trend of climate activists splashing liquids onto classic paintings in museum galleries. Some of my colleagues in the arts have responded in exasperation to these acts, and many have questioned the legitimacy of whether throwing tomato soup on a Vincent Van Gogh painting is a suitable response to the environmental crisis. But as art historian and educator Rebecca Zorach writes in her editorial piece “The Van Gogh is Fine; You Won’t Be,” the paintings are in fact a good way of calling our attention to the message of climate activism. These paintings are only relevant if we are able to enjoy the privilege and comfort that viewing art in museums provides. This experience is already not universal and it is becoming increasingly clear that we all might not have such luxuries in the near future. The environmental crisis is spreading and impacting places that had enjoyed relative solitude. Wildfires and floods caused by climate change have already been detrimental to property, including works of art and invaluable cultural sites.

Zorach (2022) posits: “What else should we expect? Populations of plant and animal life are collapsing through ongoing ecocide. Dramatic climate events — drought, fires, flooding — have become our daily reality, and they continue to worsen. We should all be more upset by this than by a little water-soluble soup on the protective glass over a painting. Young people are fighting for their own future. The two activists didn’t damage the painting, but even if they had, is a single painting actually worth all the ongoing destruction caused by anthropogenic climate change? The exorbitant monetary value attributed to Van Gogh’s painting is ironic, given that he was paid for exactly one painting (not this one) in his entire life. Perhaps it is priceless. But as Just Stop Oil spokesperson Emma Brown said in an interview with Owen Jones, ‘We’re not going to have any sunflowers, at this rate. We’re not going to have any plants; we’re not going to have any water.'” 

Ad hoc activism and acts of “destructive” protest have worked in the past. The early twentieth century suffragette movement under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst was notorious for public disruptions that sometimes resulted in property damage and vandalism. Nevertheless, Pankhurst received significant support both during her era and in the years after her death. Today she is considered one of the most important individuals in modern British history, and her tactics led to widespread social transformations including the right for women to vote. Zorach (2022) cites more recent examples of activist-led interventions that have raised collective consciousness across the culture, such as the time in 2011 when activists climbed the smokestack at Fisk coal plant in Chicago and painted “Quit Coal” on it. The action was part of a long advocacy campaign to put pressure on local political figures, in order to persuade them to close the plant, which was causing significant environmental damage. Sure enough, the plant closed a year later. Another example was artist Bree Newsome’s scaling of the flagpole at the South Carolina state capitol to remove the Confederate flag on June 27, 2015. The act was in response to the racially driven mass murders perpetrated in a Black church by white supremacist Dylann Roof. Although Newsome was arrested for her activism, she faced no charges and ultimately achieved her goal: she raised collective consciousness about the flag’s racist symbolism. Furthermore, South Carolina removed the flag for good less than a month later.

Zorach muses that: “It might be argued that these actions were more precisely targeted than soup thrown on a painting. They specifically attacked the source of the problem, rather than an artwork unrelated to their demands. Unlike other protests that have targeted museums’ ties to oil corporations, this one didn’t come with a demand directed at the institution. But museums present themselves as civic spaces. They are repositories of cultural value and visibility, where violations of prescribed behavior have the potential to draw public attention. Just Stop Oil has been doing daily actions that could be described as more “appropriately” targeted — blocking roads, climbing bridges, and throwing soup on government buildings. Which of these is the one we are all talking about?”

Another important point Zorach makes is that many of the activist movements are youth-driven, asserting that “no one should be surprised that young people are performing interventions like this one.” The fact that younger generations are leading the current fight to reverse our detrimental course towards social and ecological injustice, means that the resourceful skills and mindfulness that art provides might help to advance their efforts. Art is not all about creating beautiful things. But since expressing beauty is strongly associated with many different forms of art, wouldn’t it make sense to harness those qualities and focus on creative ways of restoring and retaining the sublime beauty of the natural world?

The multidisciplinary benefits of artistic endeavors are aptly summarized by art educator Elliot Eisner who advocated for the inclusion of art as a “core subject” in schools. Eisner (2002) said that experience making, viewing and interpreting art will be necessary for students to attain a high quality of life. “Engagement with the arts supports students to be able to discern what is important for them with regard to quality of life.” Clearly one of these pressing issues on the youth’s minds is the environment. A good quality of life should center around ensuring that we have a livable ecosystem so that we can continue to enjoy seeing works of art in person.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Jane Addams. 1907. “Utilization of Women in City Government”, Chapter 7 in Newer Ideals of Peace, New York: Macmillan. pp. 180-208.

Hoban, Phoebe. “Agnes Denes’s Prophetic Wheatfield Remains As Relevant As Ever,” Architectural Digest, 6 November 2019. https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/agnes-denes-prophetic-wheatfield-remains-as-relevant-as-ever

Negin, Elliot. “Ask a Scientist: 2030 or Bust? What is the Importance of the Year 2030 Climatewise?” The Equation, 9 April 2020. https://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/2030-or-bust-what-is-the-importance-of-the-year-2030-climatewise/

Zorach, Rebecca. “The Van Gogh Is Fine; You Won’t Be,” Hyperallergic, 19 October 2022. https://hyperallergic.com/771575/the-van-gogh-is-fine-you-wont-be/

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