Art and Sustainable Development

Jyoti Sahi brings a different perspective to sustainability and the need for artists to express social and environmental aspects through their art. He talks about the ethical responsibility of artists and how they can use art to extend their sphere of influence. 

This image shows worship of the Peepul Tree using garlands, thread that is tied round the tree, and snake stones at a wayside shrine. The image is meant to show the way in which a folk culture in India celebrates nature, showing how art as ritual sustains the sacred in the natural environment. This sketch by the author is based on the photograph that he took at the Nallur Amaroy Thopu (sacred grove) near Devanahalli in Karnataka.

“Art will only survive when the last ‘artist’ is dead!!!”

This was the provocative statement written as a form of graffiti outside an important museum of modern art in Paris. It reflects a kind of counter-cultural awareness in a section of the creative intelligentsia that questions the whole concept of “art for art’s sake”. The idea that art and the artist represent a world which has nothing to do with ethical responsibility for the rest of society, and nature around, spells the death of a culture.

In traditional societies, the artist was thought to have a community function, representing a creative potentiality in every human being. The artist “is not a special sort of person” for “every person is a special sort of artist” (A.K. Coomaraswamy). The creative individual speaks for the whole community, and the art that represents a culture is an expression of the creative life of everyone. In India the craftsperson is understood as a viswakarmi, that is, a ‘creator of a universe’. This Universe includes the whole of Creation.

The concept of “art for art’s sake” emerged out of world view that set culture as against nature. Human civilization is imagined as battling with nature, in a constant effort to control natural forces that stand in the way of human development. Culture draws on the resources which are to be found in nature, in order to develop human potential.

To be creative is also capitalized upon, making the artist into a cultural hero. Art from this capitalist perspective, becomes part of the struggle to exploit nature, and creativity is infused with a competitive spirit, so that it is even proposed that the work of art arises out of a spirit of conflict.

When we think of sustainability in the context of modern, globalized forms of cultural development, the question arises as to whether art itself will survive.

If art is an expression of the human will to master and transform nature into culture, then the artist becomes like a wounded hero, fighting with the dragon of natural forces. Or again, following the ancient myth of human sacrifice, the artist is like an offering made by culture to appease the wrath of nature. The artist is imagined as a “vertical warrior”, who steps out into the fray that threatens to drag the lofty ambitions of a civil society into the chaos of irrational nature. The artist has to contend not only with the field of elemental materials that have to be mastered, but is also faced with the unruly elements that lie hidden in human nature.

This modern view of art in the service of cultural development sees the creative individual as embedded within the very process of transforming nature. But now we are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that human communities are part of nature, and that culture cannot be set over and against natural rhythms and patterns of growth.

Sustainable development is not just about the future of human institutions and technologies that have arisen out of scientific advances. When we speak of sustainability, we are also referring to the world of art and the human imagination. The distinction that is being made between nature and culture affects another pair of knowledge systems—an intuitive world of aesthetic sensibilities, and an ethical concern for justice and the ultimate good of society.

The problem of sustainable development in the future raises the issue of how aesthetics and ethics interrelate. To be sensitive to beauty, and the good of sensual delight, has to be seen in the context of a common social good where Truth and Justice are contingent on how we respect our environment. In this way we need to reflect on environmental aesthetics as part of what we are calling environmental ethics.

In an essay about “Pen and Poison” that Oscar Wilde wrote, he makes the memorable observation: “The fact that a man is a poisoner, is nothing against his prose!” This statement sums up the position of the aesthetic movement which was called “art for art’s sake”.

Art is concerned with the “good” of what is made by the creative person. But what is aesthetically good, or culturally valuable, has been regarded as having nothing to do with “being good” in the ethical sense.

It is even implied that to be a good artist, moral constraints, or good social behaviour, have to be abandoned in a search for absolute freedom.

Being ethically good is viewed as a restriction on the freedom of self expression.

As we increasingly find in modern society, a belief in the absolute freedom of the individual to express a particular world view, however hurtful that might be to others who do not share this perspective on reality, is defended as constituting the very foundation of democratic civil society.

This freedom to destroy is also demanded by a capitalist society committed to unlimited growth, even if that means the destruction of an environment on which others depend, as a common good.


Art and the representation of Nature

The way we experience “Nature” in our environment is closely connected with the way nature is represented in art. This applies both to literary descriptions of nature, and also the way that visual arts depict natural forms. Images of nature that we find in cultural expressions are not only indicative of the creativity of certain gifted individuals, but indicate ways of seeing the environment which are important for a whole community. Patterns in nature are perceived and become the basis for patterns that we find underlying works of art. Moreover, these patterns are not just forms that we observe objectively, but also reflect patterns of thought and ways of communication. These patterns give rise to a “language” that is verbal or literary, but is also a visual language.

Taking a few examples related to what we term “visual language”, we are familiar with “Points, Lines and Planes” in visual representations. A graphic point helps the visual artist to represent a perspective in nature (‘vanishing point’, ‘point of view’ or ‘focal point’ in an image) but this geometric point is always an ‘imaginary’ point. Points do not actually exist in nature. However, points determine the way we see, by depicting the position we take while visualizing space. In the same way there are no ‘lines’ in nature. A line, connecting two points, becomes a way of denoting enclosure, or framing what we are looking at. Lines also help us to see rhythm, or connections in what we see. What we call a line is the meeting of two planes that constitute an area that we perceive as a space. So lines, points and planes are all a part of what we understand as a visual language.

Other geometric forms like triangles, squares, rectangles, or circles spirals, and so forth, are patterns that help us to reconstruct imaginatively the nature that we observe around us.

The way we describe nature in human language is itself constitutive of what we see in nature. Nature and Culture are inextricably intertwined in the very process of human perception.


Craft and the significance of Good Work

Crafted objects help in connecting the human being with nature. This is because in the making of a crafted thing, there is a dialogue with natural materials, an understanding of the way nature works. Finally speaking, perception is itself a cultural work. There is an effort required in observing and describing what we find in nature. To become conscious of the reality around us is an imaginative task.

The “Arts and Crafts Movement” emerged out of the industrial revolution in Europe. It was essentially an aesthetic response to a technology that was changing the natural environment through an industry geared to mass production. The Arts and Crafts Movement questioned ‘Fine Arts’ concerned with pure aesthetics, as distinct from practical or useful crafts. In the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ which looked at nature objectively, and scientifically, there was an effort to draw a distinction between empirical ways of knowing and subjective forms of experience.

Objective reality was thought to be based on rationally determined facts, whereas a subjective reality is determined by fantasy and the imaginative power of the mind.

The term “Good Work”, which became a catch phrase in the Arts and Crafts Movement, is not just about making an artefact. The term also implies an ethical attitude to the process of making something. It is about human rights, and environmental imperatives.

Human industry interferes with the organic balance of nature. The industrial revolution had a very mechanistic approach to human work. This was to have radical effect on relationships in human society. The way in which some human beings oppress and disregard the right of nature, is reflected in the way that human beings are also enslaved and exploited through patterns of work.

Termite shrine under a Jali tree. Sketch by the author based on the photograph of a wayside shrine that he took at the Nallur Amaroy Thopu (sacred grove) near Devanahalli in Karnataka.


When we speak of “Sustainable Development” we mean a healthy relation between culture and nature that creates a balance between growth and natural patterns of life. Growth is an organic ideal, but always has to be understood within a cyclical pattern that balances expansion with a need to re-discover a centre, returning to a state of rest and regeneration.

The archetypal pattern of the “Mandala” which has played a vital part in focussing the mind for meditation and yoga in Eastern practice, combines the image of fullness with emptiness. The Mandala design radiates outwards from an inner focal point or seed (bija) to describe a contained world whose circumference represents the diversity we find in natural and cultural forms. This circle contains what is finite, representing a path that always returns to its source. Unless development has this principle of rediscovering its origin, it will disintegrate, because it will be unable to renew itself. The concept of recycling is at once essential for ecological balance, and an aesthetic ‘good gestalt’, which finds beauty in wholeness and existential Truth.

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