What Art Can Teach Us About the Anthropocene 

Alumna Julie Reiss (Ph.D. '96, Art History) (Photo courtesy of Reiss)

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

To mark Earth Day, we offer this interview with art historian and Graduate Center alumna Julie Reiss (Ph.D. ’96, Art History). Reiss edited the recent anthology Art, Theory and Practice in the Anthropocene, which explores the role art plays in our ongoing environmental crisis. She contributed an essay to the book as well. Reiss, who directs a master’s program in modern and contemporary art at Christie’s in New York City, is also a pioneering scholar in the field of installation art. 

The Graduate Center:  Why did you choose to do a book on art in the age of the Anthropocene? (And let’s define the term for those who may not know it: The Anthropocene is the geological epoch we’re living in now, where human activity is the primary driver of climate change and changes in ecosystems.)

Reiss: I had become increasingly aware that artists around the globe were addressing the climate crisis in their artwork. I was very concerned about climate change, but as an art historian I didn’t see a way to have a platform to make any kind of difference. Seeing the artwork built a bridge for me to enter the discussion, and the Anthropocene provided a framework. I find the concept useful because it simultaneously refers to human impact on the planet on a geological level and to the anthropocentric mindset that is responsible for far-reaching catastrophic effects. The goal of the book was to invite writers to provide different frameworks for art in relation to the climate crisis. I felt from the start that it needed to be an anthology of different voices, not just my own.

GC: Give us a couple of takeaways from your research on this topic. 

Reiss: As scholars in the humanities, we have to meet scientific disciplines halfway if we are to have a significant role in thought leadership in the environmental crisis. At the same time, art and the lenses of art writing have an important role to play in climate change communication and cultural critique. My essay on artists who use glacial ice as a medium, which is in the book, includes information on glaciers as a sentinel for climate change. It also explores the complexities of individual artistic expression of a seemingly obvious statement about melting ice. I’m currently working on an essay on a Cambodian American artist whose abstract, eloquent artwork addresses deforestation. I am learning more about the catastrophic domino effects of deforestation in Cambodia in order to write it, and eventually those who read it, will learn as well.

GC: Since we can’t go to museums right now due to COVID-19 closures, can you point us to an artist or art project we can find online related to environmental issues? 

Reiss: I have great respect for Jenny Kendler, the artist in residence for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Her work is informed and manages to marry form to content in a powerful and different way every time. It succeeds on so many levels. Justin Brice Guariglia, whose tattooed arm is on the cover of the book, has done effective work with hard-hitting words and phrases, often placed in public spaces. (The tattoo on Guariglia’s arm shows a graph charting the average temperature of the Earth’s surface over the past 136 years.)

GC: What was your time like at the GC and how did it influence your career?

Reiss: The Graduate Center was absolutely a foundational experience for me. I studied with Linda Nochlin, Rosalind Krauss, Robert Pincus-Witten, and Jack Flam, among others, and developed my passion for modern and contemporary art. Jack Flam encouraged me to write the dissertation I wanted to write, a history of installation art in New York through the early 1990s.  He gave me the benefit of the doubt despite the apparent lack of sources on the topic. I try to give my students that same benefit of the doubt, every time. 

GC: Any thoughts on Earth Day and climate change given our current crisis? Is the expected reduced carbon footprint due to everyone staying at home the one bright spot in the COVID-19 crisis? 

Reiss: As has been observed, the momentary pause in carbon emissions will be just that unless we come out of this different than how we went in. I worry about the opposite, that more and more heinous environmental damage will be wrought in the name of economic reconstruction. I hope I’m wrong. I will use my own voice to protest where I can be heard.

GC: Might there be parallels between how artists are responding to the Anthropocene and climate change, and how they might be thinking about COVID-19? 

Reiss: It’s too soon to know how and if artists are going to specifically address COVID-19 in their art, but there is obviously a relationship between climate change and human health in terms of unevenly and unjustly distributed impacts. Artists are already addressing environmental injustice, climate refugees, and the need to amplify voices of populations that lack sufficient representation or agency, and the response to COVID-19 will be part of that. 

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Submitted on: APR 17, 2020

Category: Alumni News | Art History | GCstories | General GC News | Voices of the GC