When recently I was frantically trying to see all 10 movies that had been nominated for best Picture, I never realized that the Oscars ceremony would so closely mirror the films and life. After they award show was over where Will Smith walked up to Chris Rock who was introducing an award and made a poor joke about his wife I was amazed. It is amazing how much we can learn about life from art and about art from life.
I had noticed from the stunning film The Power of the Dog how masculinity could be toxic. Phil one of the two brothers in that film shows himself as a vessel of toxic masculinity when he mocks the “art” of Rose’ son Peter who he clearly sees as effeminate and weak. Later he comes to change his views, perhaps because of his own latent homosexuality. Then Peter is driven to extreme measures to protect his mother, much like Will Smith at the Oscars was driven to extremes to defend his wife from a perceived insult. This may have been brought on by the fact that at a young age Smith saw his father beat his mother and always considered himself a coward for not defending her. At the Oscars he tried to be more manly and do better. Did he succeed or cruelly flop again?
I noticed that when at first Smith heard the poor joke about his wife that he was laughing and enjoying it. Then the camera switched to his wife who started laughing but quickly switched to disapproval when she realized what was being said. Did she communicate her disappointment to her husband? Did she goad him to act? That was not shown, but it was remarkable how quickly Smith’s manner change from jocularity to menace. It is also remarkable how quickly men can stoop to violence to defend the honour of their women. Do women like that? Do they want their men to get violent in their defence? Sometimes it seems so. I was surprised to read 2 New York Times female writers presumably, weak kneed liberals, say they thought Smith did the right thing?
I had just the day before watched the film The Tragedy of Macbeth. The tragedy was that Macbeth’s wife goaded him into killing the king and in doing so mocked his lack of courage. If that is not toxic femininity what is? When Macbeth hesitates to do the dirty deed she urges him to do it. This is part of what she said,
“When you durst do it, then you were a man;
…I have given suck, and know
How tender it is to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face
Have pluck’d my nipple from his toothless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I sworn as you
Have done to this”
Then after he kills the king but still has doubts, she mocks him and finishes hiding the evidence for him.
I realize that this entire Oscar incident was coloured by the ugliness of a black man defending his insulted wife. Many a black man has been cruelly emasculated by such actions. Violence is deeply engrained in American and Canadian societies. This is true even in societies where black men react violently against other black men. This is one product of centuries of oppression. Deep and persistent hatred has led to deep and persistent self-hatred. After all they learned it from their masters. What can be more cruel than that?
But to deny this painful and ugly fact, as we are urged to do by white supremacist pundits today, is to drive the hatred and resentment deeper where it can do even more perverted harm. Ugly truths must be faced. Denying them is not the way out. It just makes things worse.
What really bothered me about this incident at the Oscars was that about an hour or less later, when Will Smith won the award for best actor, and he stumbled through a tearful speech that included an apology to the Academy and fellow actors, but notably not Chris Rock, the audience erupted with applause. What are the rest of us (including children who witnessed it) to think? Are we to think that violence is the answer to insults? That after all is the American way (with Canadians not far behind). Is this not how cycles of violence perpetuate themselves harming no one more than the victims turned aggressors?
Art can help us understand such questions, but it offer few clear and definitive answers.
Netflix had an interesting television series this year called The Chair
The incomparable Sandra Oh stars as Professor Ji-Yoon Kim a recently appointed chair of the English department at Pembroke University. The department is filled mainly with aging academics spinning their wheels in a fruitless attempt to educate their students. as Chair Kim tries to get a young black female colleague on the tenure track as she also tries to navigate a tricky relationship with a popular and rebellious fellow professor Bill Dobson and a young adopted daughter who also largely ignores her motherly advice, as daughters and sons tend to do.
The series grew on me slowly. At first, I thought this can’t possibly be interesting. The students were typically “woke” and belligerent. The professors were absurd. How could this end well?
Well, I was wrong. In the final episode of the first and perhaps last season I thought things got very interesting. By goose stepping in one of his classes, Dobson got in trouble with the woke rabble and also the staunch and largely vegetative older faculty. The Dean and the University lawyers as lawyers tend to do, crush her crush on Dobson and insisted she abandon him to the circling university sharks of cancel culture. The Chair agrees to do as instructed.
The Dean tells her that for the good of the department, she must be the intellectual executioner of her young rebellious professor with whom she has a complicated relationship. With no defenders and no obvious good reason to defend the hapless professor. Kim nonetheless embarks on a spirited defence of the recalcitrant academic after her young daughter wakes her up from her slumber: “Why are you a doctor? When is the last time you helped someone?”
Kim makes a bold attempt at rescuing his caree with a vigorous speech to ancient faculty:
“To be an English teacher you have to fall in love with stories. With literature. What you do when you do that is you’re always trying to see things from someone else’s point of view. You’re trying to occupy a different space. When you’re in the middle of the story you’re in a state of possibility as opposed to the state of oppressiveness you’re in, in real life. The text is kind of a living thing. And it’s a dance. An on-going conversation that you have with it. Sometimes you love a poem so much, every time you reach it you learn something new. You feel transformed by it. It’s a very complicated but faithful relationship.”
That’s sort of what I said about classics earlier in the year. After that she explains to the faculty what they’re jobs actually are, for they have no clue:
“What are we doing here? Firing him is not going to change the culture here. (Looking at the Dean) When is the last time you were in a classroom? Or had a personal interaction with a student? I don’t need you to save my reputation. Those people (pointing to the protesting students outside) there are our students. Our job is not to trick them, or manage them, or make them fall in line. Our job is to offer them refuge from the bullshit. To level with them. Why should they trust us? The world is burning and we are sitting here worried about our endowment. Our latest ranking on World Report. If you think Bill is a Nazi, by all means fire him. But if you think by getting rid of him you’re going to stop what is going on outside they’re going to see right through that. What do you think is going to happen when he’s fired and nothing else changes?”
After that, by amazingly crude academic warfare she loses her position as Chair and is replaced by the most unlikely of candidates. She returns to the classroom where she belongs. She gives the new Chair an appropriate name plate for her desk: “Fucker-in-Charge.” Kim was a lousy Chair anyway, but we can quickly see she was a great teacher. As she teaches a great poem by Emily Dickinson, we see that she is able to really wake up these “woke” students. Here is the poem
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
But if you really want to see how a great teacher can wake up a class and a poem at the same time watch this final episode. It’s worth the trip.
I decided when I retired that I wanted to do something. Not work. Not chasing the all mighty dollar. Nothing wrong with that, we all have to do it, but I have done that for nearly 40 years (really more when you include the 7 years of post-secondary school education I had to do in order to qualify for my profession). Of course, given current market tribulations I might have to return to work again.
This next phase of my life was inspired by the English poet John Keats. In particular it was inspired by his famous poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.
He wrote about an old urn that has an image on it showing Dionysian revelries. It showed young lovers in flight and pursuit. That urn freezes a moment in time. It is a moment of time—an instant—forever frozen by the artist’s art, which in turn is celebrated by the art of the poet. It opens like this,
“Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or both”
That bride that Keats refers to is forever pursued; forever uncaught, and hence eternally virgin. The bride never loses her luster. Her beauty lasts forever. Only true beauty can do it. The beauty of artistic achievement is forever. Keats always longed for permanence, but of course in life could never find it. He actually died very young. I think he died at 29 if I remember correctly. Only in art could permanence be found.
Eternity is inexplicable. It mystifies us. Everything of this world is subject to change, decay, and disintegration. Keats wanted more than that, so he lamented this fact but acknowledged the only way out, was art. He found permanence in an image on a Grecian Urn :
“Thou, silent form, dost tease out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
That is what I mean. I think Keats meant beauty in a wide sense. He was not talking only about the beauty of a young woman—though that too. After all there is beauty in old women too. Even old men have a faint streak of it from time to time.
Keats wanted to include the beauty of artistic achievement. That is the beauty that lasts forever, or at least a long time. As close as we can get. A young woman’s beauty turns old. It is still beauty, but it is different it has changed. The beauty of the image on a Grecian Urn remains the same forever unchanged forever avoiding decay.
Now as I enter the time of my degeneration I notice the changes more deeply. Until recently I thought I would be healthy and powerful forever. I believed I would never decay, never diminish. Sadly, I now know clearly that this is not to be. I am not to be. I am draining away. But in my last years, I want to pursue truth and beauty, even though I know I will never catch up with them. Beauty and truth will be forever unravished by me at least. There will be no consummation. Keats urges the lover not to grieve for his lover will never “fade”, because even though the lover will never get to kiss her,
“She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever will thou love, and she be fair!’
Yet the pursuit, I hope, can be filled with grace, and wonder, just like the lover pursuing his bride of silence, forever uncaught, but forever beautiful. I will pursue truth and beauty because that is all I know and all I need to know. It will be part of what Keats called “a mad pursuit.” Yet he also says it is “wild ecstasy.” That’s what I want—wild ecstasy.
Of course the next question is how to do that? How does one pursue truth and beauty in the modern world? There are many roads to truth. Art is one source of both truth and beauty. Keats knew that. Philosophy is also one. Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom through thinking. Reason is the instrument of philosophy. When reason shows the truth, it is beautiful. Music is a source as well. An important one is nature. It is the unedited manuscript of god. Religion can be a source, though often it is a restrictive source of narrow thinking, that leads to falsehood not truth. Then it leads to exclusion, superiority, and hate. And then it ceases to be religion. An expansive religion—one, which connects us to the world, and to each other is a deep source of everything that is true and good and right.
Northrop Frye said that he had carefully arranged his life so that nothing ever happened to him. That gave him time to do what he really wanted; to read and think. What a great goal. To many it seems absurd. But it is not absurd; it is a delight. That is the way to pursue truth and beauty. That includes moral as well intellectual, artistic, musical, truth and beauty. And it’s all beautiful. And its all true.
One member of our group was from the southern US and he did not like to think that Africans were our ancestors. How could we have black ancestors? Right?
There was another aspect of the first episode of the television series on the Great Migrations that struck me as critically important and interesting. This was the importance and role of art in this human story. It showed that we are the artistic species and that this artistic bent played an important role in our survival. Even though a couple of years ago I was in Africa, near where some of the series was filmed, and even though I saw some of that amazing art of our early human indigenous ancestors, this important insight escaped me at that time. At least now I have seen the light.
Niobe Thompson pointed out that ¼ of the world’s rock art sites are found in South Africa. Remember, these were often created by our earliest ancestors. As Thompsons astutely pointed out, “From the moment our ancestors became modern humans we became artists.” I find this astounding. “Art is the signature of our species,” Thompson proclaimed. Art is not some interesting side salad; art is a crucial component of who we are.
This is where I crawled down into a cave That was the only way to get in
This, of course, raises the next profoundly interesting question. Why? Would not drawing pictures on a wall have been a serious distraction for hunter/gatherers? The point is they were more than just pictures. Art helped bring the prey into the mind of the hunter. Art helped them become better hunters, because they were able to identify with their prey. That is what great art does. Art identifies us with the world around us. For hunter/gatherers this is no distraction; it is vitally important.
Thompson also pointed out one of the rock art pictures on the walls. It showed a shaman. Why would they introduce a shaman? Thompson thinks the point is that shamans were also part of the hunting process. Shamans helped the hunters hunt and helped the gatherers gather.
Rock art was part of the important human process of using symbols to look beyond themselves. Rock art was used to store knowledge and information about hunting and gathering. It would also have been enormously helpful in passing on hunting and gathering knowledge to the next generation. The essence of language and the value of symbols is demonstrated in the Rock art of Africa the home of our oldest human ancestors.
At a critical time in the evolution of humans, Homo sapiens learned to communicate with symbolic language. That was a critical tool in the development of humans around the world. Perhaps this was the reason this branch of hominins to survive where all the others failed and collapsed.
Symbolic language allowed us to think about the past, learn from it, and look at the future and plan for it. These were critical skills. With symbolic language humans were able to imagine what the future could be.
Symbolic language and art enabled us to understand who we are and what are the possibilities of our being. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Our early ancestors—long before Socrates—appreciated this as well.
At the dawn of symbolic thought, under tremendous climatic pressure Homo sapiens used that symbolic thought and that art to carve a niche where they could not only survive, but thrive.
Niobe Thompson is a scientist, not an artist. Yet this is what he had to say about art:
“I am an anthropologist who became a filmmaker. I left university research because I believe the communication of science is my path. I want my children to grow up in a scientifically literate society, where films that explore the natural world play a central role. But I also believe in the power of art to enlighten, and I am thrilled to be pushing the artistic boundaries of film, striving to make science just as spectacular as it is fascinating.”
Art is important. It is no mere icing on the cake. Art is the cake.
This art was not from that cave. It is not that old as it was outdoors.
The scientists in the television show were clearly of the view that humans in the caves in South Africa 75,000 years ago must have been talking to each other. How else could they transmit their complex knowledge about the environment, about prey, and about the things that could be gathered, to future generations? With language they could talk about what plants were edible and where and how they could be stored. For example, they learned that water, absolutely vital in the drought conditions of southern Africa, could be stored in ostrich egg shells buried under the ground. With language they could tell others what plants were poisonous. They could use language to show each other how to build better stone blades for spears and arrows. They could use language to help each other harness the power of fire they could learn from others what stones when crushed could be useful for their art.
What minerals would last a long time in their stone art? For example, they learned that ochre would make a fine paint for rock art. They could then tell others where ochre could be found. Communication arts would have given early humans a superlative advantage over other hominins. With language humans were able to advise others what soil could be used for art and how complex chemical processes could be taken advantage of by making fires. All this was done 100,000 years ago.
The earliest humans probably used paint, made from things like ochre, to paint their bodies. They put holes in shells, painted them, and then wore them around their necks.
Human needs, even in earliest times, went well beyond food and shelter. Their concerns went all the way to art.
In many ways, early humans were about as advanced as modern humans.
The story of where the ideas of Chaco came from arose far from Chaco. Archeologists Anna Roosevelt and Chris Davis were interviewed in the series Native America. They explained that they have been trying to answer such questions. They have been searching for evidence of the earliest people in the Americas.
Some interesting data has been discovered in the Amazon Rainforest of western Brazil. They looked in a cave there referred to in Portuguese as the Caverna da Pedra Pintada, or in English, the cave of the Painted Rock. The walls of the cave are covered with art of animals and the sky. “This cave in the Amazon is re-writing the history of when and how people settled the Americas and who those people are.”
For a long time history books presented only one view of how this happened. They said that about 11,000 B.C. during the last Ice Age big game hunters from Asia crossed over to North America a frozen land bridge in the area known a Beringia. That land bridge arose when sea levels dropped dramatically during the last Ice Age. Later when the continental ice sheets of North America and the world melted. the ocean levels rose again sharply growing that land bridge once more. It was thought that after the ice melted the people of Asia who had arrived in North America migrated south into North and South America. They were thought to have hunted mammoths, giant sloths and caribou with finely fashioned stone spear points. Many of these animals have since disappeared.
According to the standard view people reached the Amazon about 1,000 years ago. Recently scientists have discovered evidence in caves that people arrived in the Amazon much earlier than that. ?That evidence even includes some surprising art as well as human remains which have been carbon dated. . As Anna Roosevelt from the University of Illinois said, “The remains we found and dated in the cave show that people were living deep in the Amazon forest at least 13,000 years ago. This is some of the earliest art and its definitely so far, the earliest art, so far, in the hemisphere.”
This demonstrates, she said, that, “Thousands of years before the Romans or Greeks, eight thousand years before the Egyptians, at least 13,000 years ago, people arrive in the Amazon, and their stone tools and paintings reveal these first Americans are not only mammoth hunters, they are foragers, fishermen, artists, and perhaps scientists.”
Chris Davis is a specialist in archaeoastronomy, the study of how ancient peoples looked at the sky. He and Roosevelt found images that appear to be a grid that indicates how something was tracked in the sky, because it was outdoors, not in a cave. These two scientists believe that these images represent calculated observations.
Davis thinks the art represents very sophisticated thinking. As Roosevelt said, “This art links people with their environment through its animals, its plants, and the heavenly bodies of the sky.” This actually reminds me of what Northrop Frye, Canada’s pre-eminent English literature scholar described as the purpose of art. The purpose of art is to give the world a human face. Artists try to connect the world to us.
Bertrand Russell also agreed. As he said in his book On God and Religion:
“Men, as is natural, have an intense desire to humanize the universe: God and Satan, alike are essentially human figures, the one a projection of ourselves, the other of our enemies.” Of course this is exactly what Northrop Frye said too.
Roosevelt concluded, “These paintings are the earliest art ever found in the Americas. They suggest that people 13,000 years ago had already developed ideas about the world that centered on the sky, caves, and nature. But what exactly are these First American artists trying to say?” What is clear though is that we ought to be wary of making easy conclusions that Europeans and their descendants were vastly superior in knowledge to the Indigenous people. If you recall, this is the point I am trying to make. I think that for too long we in the west have been blinded by bias about our own superiority to Indigenous peoples. The point is that this is a bias.
This trip was a celebration of colors—particularly the unique colors of autumn in the Eastern deciduous forest. A time of magic and splendor, unmatched anywhere in the world. Europe, Asia, Africa, and even South America have nothing quite to compare.
An Impressionistic version of a maple leaf
Paul Cezanne the French artists was an acknowledged master of color. He knew color better than anyone. Cezanne said, “Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet. I think this trip proved that was true.
The English writer George Eliot also knew a little about color. Eliot was actually a woman. She used a male nom de plume to be taken more seriously. It was a pity that she thought that was necessary. Her most famous novel was probably Middlemarch. 2 pretty good modern novelists, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes said this was the greatest novel in the English language. She said this about color” It is strange how deeply colours seem to penetrate one like a scent.” That was certainly true of the colors of autumn.
Winston Churchill no sentimentalist said, “I cannot pretend to be impartial about the colours. I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns. Churchill would no doubt have celebrated had he ever seen an eastern forest in its autumn splendour.
One of my favorite photographers, Freeman Paterson, who lives in New Brunswick part of the eastern forest, oddly prefers the browns even though he lives in an area famous for its autumn coat of many colors,
Artist Paul Klee, who also knew something about colors, explained that “Color possesses me. It will always possess me. That is the meaning of this happy hour, colour and I are one.”
Finally, John Rushkin, another English writer, summed it all up, when he said, “Of all God’s gifts to the sight of man, colour is the holiest, the most divine, the most solemn.” I am just not sure it is solemn. I would say colours are joyous and celebratory. Not solemn at all. Otherwise well said.
We visited a second exhibit at the National Gallery in Ottawa. This was very different from the first one that displayed works by the Group of Seven and their contemporaries. This one did not have beautiful art. Or rather it did, but in a weird way.
The exhibit featured amazing works of photography by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier using a variety of techniques and technologies. Their works are stunning, but deeply disturbing, and that is what good art should do. It should disturb us. These 3 artists ask us to consider the environmental and ethical issues involving the exploitation of Earth’s resources by one species—Homo sapiens.
The exhibit included about 30 new enormous photographic prints and high definition murals as well as film installations. The title of the exhibit is Anthropocenea concept I have been interested in for a number of years. The concept arises from an important but little understood fact: Human beings now affect the Earth and its processes more than all other natural forces combined.
This word has recently been invented. I wish it had not occurred to anyone that this word was needed. The word is anthropocene. It refers to the fact that humans have had such a profound influence on the planet that the era we are now in needs a name to reflect that. That word is anthropocene.
The word is closely associated to another word—anthropogenic. This word also refers to profound planetary forces that have a human origin. We created these forces. And many of these forces are not benign. Far from benign in fact. Malignant would be much closer to the truth in many cases.
In the spring of 2013 Christiane and I visited Africa. It was a marvelous experience. Never have we seen wild life that. We were astounded when we safaried into our first African ‘Game’ Park. That was Chobe National Park in Botswana. It is not the park with the most wildlife in Africa. That privilege probably belongs to the Serengeti. Yet we were completely stunned by the amount of wild life we saw that day. We saw large numbers of elephants, giraffes, gazelles, impalas, hippopotami, crocodile and water buffalo as well as small numbers of many other animals. Of course we saw many species of birds as well. It was one of the most exciting days of my life. We had never seen anything like it in North America.
Yet North America used to be like that. It is hard for us to believe. 200 to 300 years ago the Great Plains of North America resembled the plains of the Serengeti. It has been estimated that some 30 million to 60 million animals were found on the Great Plains of North America. These included the American bison and pronghorn antelope in the millions. They roamed freely across about 500,000 sq. mi. of land between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi. That is difficult for us now to comprehend. It is difficult because most of those animals were slaughtered—deliberately slaughtered. Now it seems incomprehensible that we could do that. But we did. Our species did that. This destruction was anthropogenic. We were the cause. Destruction on such a vast scale beggars our imagination.
The epoch we are currently living is called the Holocene epoch. It started 11,700 years ago. In geological terms that means this current epoch has barely begun. Yet already, some scientists are saying we need to declare that the Holocene epoch is over and a new one has begun–the Anthropocene.
Epochs are marked by momentous events–like Ice Ages. Usually they have lasted millions of years. For example the epoch that preceded the one we are now in, The Pliocene orPleiocene Epoch is the epoch in the geologic timescale that extended from about 5.333 million to 2.58 million years before present. It lasted about 2.8 million years and was by no means the longest.
Originally it was thought that the Holocene epoch would begin during the last Ice Age and then end when a new Ice Age started. That would make the Holocene an interglacial period between an experiencedice age and an anticipatedice age. During this period the climate has been relatively stable and this has allowed Homo sapiens to dominate the earth. Yet recently many scientists have become convinced that this traditional analysis is no longer accurate. They believe that over the last 200 years, or since the time of the Industrial Revolution, the impact of this one species has been so great that an entirely new geological age has been ushered in—the Anthropocene, or Age of Man.
According to British geologist Jan Zalasiewicz there is now a widespread belief among Earth and environmental scientists that changes created by human activities are now so great that they rival some of the great forces of nature that have in the past so altered the planet that at least 5 mass extinctions of species have occurred since the planet was created 4.56 billion years ago.
Think about this concept for a minute. This means that the consequence of activities of our species, are so enormous that we compare to the effects caused by an asteroid smashing into the planet about 65 million years ago that killed more than half of the species on the planet. According to this view our actions are so profound that the stability of the Holocene epoch has been disturbed to such an extent that the very life support systems that have nurtured and favored our species. How is that possible?
Scientists believe that so far there have been 5 major extinctions. the most massive extinction was the Permian Extinction that occurred about 600 million years ago and changed the nature of the planet forever. It was probably the most extensive extinction ever. It led to the extinction of 95% of life on our planet!
This extinction ended that Permian world. The cause of this extinction is not universally agreed upon. Some have suggested that massive volcanic forces inside the earth led to massive eruptions that poisoned the atmosphere and oceans so much that 95% of all species died. Other causes have been suggested but all of them are on the order of magnitude of what we call forces of nature. No pipsqueak can change the world’s climate.
To think that our actions are being compared to these massive destructive natural forces is stupefying. Yet that is exactly what some scientists are now doing. This is a disconcerting thought, but on this basis, our species isthe greatest serial killer of other species that the earth has ever seen.
Andrew Miall, a professor at the University of Toronto described this well,
Deforestation, agriculture, increase in erosion, the pumping of all kinds of artificial things into the hydrosphere; all these phosphates and nitrates going into the river systems (so that) we now have this huge dead zone in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico because of all the agricultural chemicals that have gone down there. These are all undeniable effects. There is no point in trying to evade it. To call this now the Anthropocene epoch would certainly crystallize that concept. It does seem that a number of scientists have started to use the term
How have we—one species—been able to have such a profound effect on the planet? According to William Marsden,
Scientists say the principal agents of this change are the machinery of the industrial age and its chemical toxins. Modern mining, urbanization, forestry, agriculture and fishing practices have refashioned both the terrestrial landscape and continental shelves. Toxic pollutants are changing weather patterns, warming oceans, increasing their acidity and raising sea levels.
Scientists say that there are already clear and distinct geological markers of this human impact that are clearly visible in the atmosphere and sedimentary rock as well as discerned changes to our weather patterns.
This impact has been felt in not just species extinctions, but species invasions. According to Jan Zalasiewicz, “the CO2increase associated with global warming and ocean acidification—this is large in scale and probably unprecedented in its speed.”
The idea that we have created our very own geological age has been around for decades, but the effort to formalize this notion began with a scientific paper by Paul Crutzen in 2002. He is the scientist who received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995 for his work on the effects of ozone in the atmosphere. He is a respected scientist.
Scientists like Crutzen treat our actions as equivalent to a geological phenomenon that caused some of the greatest events in the Earth’s deep past. They also make it clear that the driving force for the global changes we are undergoing is human behavior, particularly in the social, political and economic sectors.
There is not yet general agreement about when the Anthropocene began. Some say it started with the start of the Industrial Revolution that began in about 1800. At that time in England a rapid transformation of English society from a predominantly rural agricultural one to an urban society began. This spread throughout Europe and from there to North America.
It was during this time that the concentration of carbon dioxide started to rise above the 278 parts per million (‘ppm’) that had helped to stabilize the planet so favorably throughout the Holocene. By 1900 the levels of CO2in the atmosphere had reached 300 ppm. We have now gone above 400 ppm, even though scientists warned a few years ago that it would be “dangerous “for us to allow it to go over 350 ppm. We are now well beyond that. We are in the danger zone.
Other scientists believe that the Anthropocene started later at about the end of the Second World War. Some have called this the period of great Acceleration. During this time the human population doubled to more than 6 billion people. During this time the number of automobiles grew to 700 million from 40 million, people began to abandon agriculture as a way of life, the use of fertilizers rose to 300 million tonnes a year from about 50 million tonnes while CO2expanded to 390 ppm from 311 ppm.
Most of the Grand Acceleration was powered by Western countries, but new emerging economies like China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa all had an important impact too. Greenhouse gas emissions have exploded exponentially. Coal use rose sharply, but 90% of the recent increase in the use of coal—a primary cause of increased greenhouse gas emissions—can be attributed to India and China alone.
What does all this mean? According to William Marsden,
Some scientists believe a formal recognition that mankind is now the most powerful force of nature on the planet will help draw the world’s attention to the damage mankind is causing to the Earth’s life support systems.
A paper of the Royal Society published in 2011 says, “The ultimate drivers of the Anthropocene, on the other hand, if they continue unabated through this century may well threaten the viability of contemporary civilization and perhaps even the future existence of Homo sapiens.” This is the consequence of modern industry, mining, urbanization, forestry, agriculture, and fishing activities. Pollutants are filling the air and water and soil with toxins. All of these human activities are refashioning the earth. They are changing the game. We have a lot that we are responsible for.
The photographic display we saw explored the effects of human activity on the planet in artworks that are amazing, horrible, and in some weird way beautiful. Bringing us images of places such as the enormous Dandora landfill in Nairobi, massive log booms on Vancouver Island, and the Gotthard Base railway tunnel in the Swiss Alps, among many others. Collectively these works show us the pervasive and complex repercussions of our modern way of life. It is disturbing to look at. It should be disturbing. What are we doing?
I love art. I love it a lot. But I don’t know if understand it. At least not very much. I wish I did. Of course ignorance of a subject has rarely stopped me from commenting, as readers of this blog no too well? So why start now? I have tried to learn more about art, ever since I watched the BBC television series Civilization written and narrated by Kenneth Clark. I have visited art galleries around the world and have tried to educate myself about art.. In Ottawa we visited the National Gallery. It is an immense gallery and it is never possible to see it all. One must be selective.
We opted to see 2 exhibits. One a temporary exhibit on the Anthropocene. I will comment on that later. The other was an exhibit of art of the Group of Seven and their contemporaries from the permanent collection.
I wanted to see the Group of 7 exhibit, even though I had seen it before, because it felt to alive to me as a result of travelling through so much of the countryside where they did much of their painting.
I have always had a soft spot for the Group of Seven. The group was started by 7 artists who thought of themselves as revolutionaries in art. They wanted to paint Canada in a Canadian style. When they first announced themselves as a group Toronto art critics were largely indignant. They wanted a style that was appropriate to and born out of Canada.
In particular the Group of Seven was fond of and attached to the Canadian landscape in and around Algonquin Park and the Georgian Bay area. Ever since I first travelled there I felt the same way. It often seemed like my spiritual home.
The painting above of the Tangled Garden by J.E.H. MacDonald the senior member of the group is one of the most famous in Canada. It was quite controversial when first revealed in 1916 because it was a painting of what was considered a prosaic subject and it was painting on a large canvas. One critic called it “a huge tomato salad.”
The Canadian Encyclopedia described the group this way, “With their bright colours, tactile paint handling, and simple yet dynamic forms, the Group of Seven transfigured the Canadian Shield, the dense northern boreal forest, and endless lakes into a transcendent spiritual force.”
I believe this painting was created by Lawren Harris who is probably my favourite of the Group. I really admired this painting. The Canadian artists realized that the light on a cold Canadian winter day reflecting from the giant reflector under their feet—the snow covered ground—was very different from the light on a warm day in the south of France. They had to learn how to display such differences in their art. They could not just copy the French artists they admired. They needed a Canadian art. I loved the way the brilliant white snow in the background lake is so different than the foreground snow which is more dull. What is more Canadian than snow?
North Shore, Lake Superior
This is probably my favourite work of art by the Group of 7 and not just because we had driven around the north shore of the lake on our way to Ottawa (though that helped. I love the stark and simple landscape and how the art is not really representational. Sort of an early abstract work of art on a brilliant and dark day on the world’s largest lake. What could be more Canadian than this?
We had a great day in National Gallery. More Canadians should see how their tax dollars are spent.
My brother-in-law Norm took Chris and I together with his partner Monique and their daughter Margo to Mosaïculture. This is an international horticultural event being shown for the second year in Gatineau Quebec. The display contains 45 larger-than-life plant sculptures on a stunning 1km loop on the banks of the Ottawa River overlooking the Parliament buildings on the Ontario side. The exhibit uses 5.5 million plants as part of 45 sculptures.
Mosaïculture is upping the floral ante. Last year’s run saw three million plants, while this year, more than 5.5 million will sprout across the park. The number of plant-based sculptures has also grown to 45 from 33.
The astounding artistic display weds nature, culture, and horticulture in which the plants are designed a sculpted to appear like objects of art. For example they display a lobster fisherman, 3 ships from France, Bill Reid’s famous killer shale, snowy owls, polar bear, a howling wolf, bison, voyageurs, Glenn Gould’s piano, the 1972 hockey summit, Wisakedjakand the creation of the world through indigenous religion, the raven and the moon masks by a Haida artist, and many others.
To me the most interesting sculpture was of Mother Earth as described in North American indigenous belief systems together with the legend of Aataentsic who is really the same being portrayed as Gaia in Greek mythology, Terra Mater in Roman myth, and Mahimata in Hindu beliefs, Pachamama among South American indigenous peoples, among others. It is really the same idea expressed by different cultures. The sculpture of Mother Earth was inspired by the speech that Chief Seattle gave when he met American President Pierce and it captures the fundamental belief of many North American indigenous people that we are all part of the earth and inseparable from it. If this is true, as they, and I too for that matter, then it has profound importance for our relationship with nature and our environmental obligations which take on a spiritual impulse.
Tree of Birds
There was another outstanding creation: the Tree of Birds which featured 56 endangered avian species from around the world. Chris and I were photographed in front of this sculpture.
I have been blogging lately about a Japanese philosophy that goes by the name of Wabi-Sabi. It celebrates impermanence, the here and now. Is this not exactly what impressionism does too? Both disciplines found truth and beauty in the ordinary, mundane, and fleeting experiences that traditionally had been discarded as of no consequence. The Impressonists, like practitioners of Wabi-Sabi knew better.
Pierre-Auguste renoir: Still Life with Blue Cup (1900)
I recently attended a wonderful exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, it displayed magnificent works of art by expressionists and others from its own collection, temporarily loaned works, and a large number of works owned by the Brooklyn Museum. Often hyped, exhibits splash prominent names of artists but deliver a paltry plate of vittles. This was not like that. I am no expert, but I thought it was an outstanding display of modern art.
Henri de Fantin-Latour: Bouquet of Mixed Flower with Zinnias and Dahlias in a Bowl (1865)
The exhibit was called, French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950 and contained works of arts from many of the great artists of the 19thand 20thcenturies including Cezanne, Monet, Degas, Manet, Renoir, Matisse and many more.