Art of the Fox Blog: Imagination & Reality

“Both imagination and a competent sense of reality are necessary to our life, and they necessarily discipline one another.”
– Wendell Berry,  Life Is a Miracle

The very word, environmentalist, calls up a level of loathing from many of those whose livelihoods depend on forms of natural resource extraction.  It also puts on guard those whose livings depend on industrial production.  To both groups the environmentalist is a suffocating wet blanket who threatens to smother their free reining imaginations in which natural resources both provide for and absorb the excesses of production. The environmentalist on the other hand claims to be a realist who worries that both extraction and industrial production threaten to impose a mistaken imaginary upon the landscape that if left unchecked will eventually exhaust not only it but also life, as we know it. 

Art can also be guilty of imagining and imposing arbitrary claims on the landscape.  For many fine artists the landscape is a beast for their imaginative burden.  They impose personal stylistic gestures, ideals, schemes, dreams, fantasies, nightmares, and social critiques on the landscape.  As with the industrial imagination, these anthropocentric artistic motifs can overwhelm the landscape rendering it as nothing more than a vehicle for human contrivance.  In this light all human arts may be seen as tools of subjugation.  The industrial and fine arts are the meeting point between the human imagination and the natural world.  Taken all together our arts define the shape of our relationship to nature.

Suddenly landscape painting becomes a serious matter – the shape of our relationship to nature has never been more critical.  We view the landscape from a human perspective but that view need not be selfishly conceived and shaped. As Wendell Berry suggests, imagination and reality should discipline each other.  We look inward to human desires and designs on the land, but we must also look outward, away from our desires to a landscape with its own destiny.  A disciplined art practice of imagination and realism gives rise to tension and sore muscles in the mind and body.  This is good exercise for artist and non-artist, environmentalist and industrialist.

Written by Joel Sheesley,
Artist-in-Residence for the Fox River Initiative‘s Art of the Fox Program

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