The question of art imitating nature is a popular one in aesthetic philosophy and art in general. It is a fascinating topic, but something in particular about it has been niggling at me for a while now, especially recently. That something is the distinct lack of nature in mainstream modern art.
In recent years I have been volunteering with the RSPB, doing my bit for nature and engaging with the public to share my passion for wildlife. I have had a lifelong love of the natural world, but in the beginning it was, much like my love for art, an escapist love. I grew up in Greater London, spending the majority of my time in Essex, where one finds a clash of nature and man on virtually every street. Parts of Essex are ancient woodland and wild meadow nose to nose with housing estates and motorways. My childhood was all about finding the wild places and their inhabitants, escaping from a grey human industrial world populated with predators that made a sparrow hawk or a fox look positively friendly.
But if I drew animals it was usually my pets, of which I had many, some rescued wildlife but most of the domestic variety. Although I did draw them my preferred subject was always fantasy, worlds completely apart from this one, where natural forces dominated and giant mythic beasts roamed. I fell in love with the artwork of Brian Froud and Alan Lee, who take nature to fantastical places, they and others and many, many books gave me yet more escape routes from the council houses I grew up in with their abusive neighbours and insulting social workers, Sun newspaper brainwashed communities and the gaping maw of the poverty trap.
Drawing tended to come from reality to escape it and nature was the place I went to be free. I did not want a drawing of the wild wood, I wanted to be there, and I could not draw the woods of home without turning burnt out cars into fairy grottos and crumbling toilet blocks into troll lairs. Wildlife was scarce, education about it scarcer, and I was an impatient child, quick to replace it with dragons and adventures on alien worlds. Only in recent years have I gone back to that fascination with wildlife and cultivated it into something more still and receptive. Exposure to truly wild places is very likely the cause of this. I suspect if I had stayed in the city it would have rotted that wildness out of me eventually, leaving me another empty husk endlessly craving to fill the void.
It is only when completely cut off from the human that we really find ourselves. An invincible summer in the midst of winter. Without that communion with the alien beyond ourselves we live in an echo chamber of humanness, in which the narcissistic and psychotic become amplified as all we repress is skilfully manipulated by consumer culture to manufacture warped desires that can never be sated.
If we never learn to face and relate to the animal without, how can we possibly hope to come to terms with the animal within? It claws and bites under suits and make-up, its primal hungers surging out in unexpected and unhealthy ways. It has become the subject of endless torments, from factory farming to collateral damage and extermination for sport, it is stuffed, pickled and packed for display, valued far more dead than alive. And all the while inside of us it howls.
When I walk through modern art galleries I am often confronted by this disconnect between man and nature played out vividly (nothing says this more than an exhibit sponsored by Shell). Yet throughout art history the influence of nature is undeniable, it is the very basis of the vast majority of work. Now it is the idiosyncratic, the facile and the profitable that inspire the mainstream. And escapism. Much like my own escapism told me quite clearly there were things in my life I needed to face head on, the escapism of our society’s aesthetics tells us that more broadly. As for our emphasis on the idiosyncratic, the facile and the profitable, I would venture to guess that those are the very things that need to be faced.
Far from escaping reality, in art as well as in nature, I have found the starkest confrontation with reality possible. I found myself beyond myself, out there, part of it all. From this vantage the absence of nature from our portraits and of people from our landscapes speaks volumes.