Christoph Irmscher

Christoph Irmscher, Professor of English, Indiana University


Towards an Ecocritical Art History

Definitions of sustainability share the notion of a balance that needs to exist between the parts of a larger whole, however one chooses to characterize those parts or, for that matter, the whole. One of the most succinct explanations of the term is also one of the oldest. In 1864, a clear-sighted, sharp-minded lawyer and diplomat from Vermont, George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882), in Man and Nature, found that “the organic and the inorganic world are … bound together by such mutual relations and adaptations as secure, if not the absolute permanence and equilibrium of both, a long continuance of the established conditions of each at any given time and place, or at least, a very slow and gradual succession of changes in those conditions.” Marsh’s tortured prose—within one sentence “permanence” becomes “continuance” and “continuance” a “succession of changes”—pointed at the difficulty of maintaining such equilibrium. Indeed, he went on to identify the greatest challenge to it: “man is everywhere a disturbing agent.”

Marsh writes movingly about the “almost indiscriminate warfare” committed by humans “upon all the forms of animal and vegetable existence around.” To him, humans are the perpetrators of an ecological holocaust which changes forever the surface of the earth as we know it. But he was eager to shed his Cassandra role, too:  humans would, he believed, eventually see the light; the consequences of their actions would finally remind them that they were the inhabitants, not the exploiters, of the planet. Out of all the evil that accompanies human settlement, some good must finally come: “The destructive agency of man becomes more and more energetic and unsparing as he advances in civilization, until the impoverishment, with which his exhaustion of the natural resources of the soil is threatening him, at last awakens him to the necessity of preserving what is left, if not of restoring what has been wantonly wasted” (emphasis added). Marsh writes “preservation” but he really means, though he quickly seems to deny it, “restoration”—an incentive to make the reader think about ways in which the earth can be healed.

I have long been interested in the ways in which art–and especially that long-neglected genre of scientific illustration–stage that balance Marsh writes about, how–far from offering “objective” transcripts of nature–they reflect, celebrate, and critique the way humans in which humans impact nature.  Much of my work has been about John James Audubon and his often aggressive depictions of bird behavior, which often serve as metaphors for his own predatory glance at a nature that constantly resists his advances. For several years, I have collaborated with the art historian Alan Braddock (now at the College of William and Mary), who shares my interest in ecocriticism.  We have co-taught summer institutes on Audubon for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and we have edited the landmark anthology A Keener Perception:  Ecocritical Studies in Art History (University of Alabama Press, 2009).   Our future plans include a sequel to that anthology as well as a co-authored book on Audubon.  My new biography of the 19th-century scientist Louis Agassiz–who believed that nature will always yield its secrets to the scientist and that the “imperfections” Darwin had found in the geological record were due to his not having looked long and hard enough–will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt this coming fall.   I am also at work on an unrelated project–a biography of the 20th-century poet, activist, cultural theorist, editor, and translator, Max Eastman.