History of Trauma in Environmental Art: German Romanticism

Joseph Beuys, 7,000 Oaks: City Forestation Instead of Administration, 1982, basalt stones, oak trees.

Beuys notably falls within the tradition of German Romantics because he emphasized “the artistic voice as the central source of cultural authenticity.” He also privileged speech and action over other forms of communication, which presented the German culture as an “oral nature-based tradition disturbed by the intrusions of modernity.”

Beuys’ work aligns similarly with Arthur Schopenhauer, a German Romantic philosopher, who was interested in the universal spirit of the world and the connections between the spirit and its physical manifestations into art. Steiner and Anthropososphists were, as well, interested in ideas put forth by the German Romantics. Steiner went as far as designing a Goetheanum in Dornoch, Switzerland, which was the center for the Anthroposophical movement. Like Steiner and the Anthropososphists, the German Romantics wanted to synthesize art, politics, and science and find a balance between the rational and the supernatural.

Goethe was of particular inspiration to Beuys. Beuys was drawn to Goethe’s idea of observation that focused on the consciousness of the object and one’s direct experience with objects especially in terms of nature. Goethe believed in making sense of nature in a holistic way valuing the subjective viewpoint of the individual and noted the spiritual knowledge that manifested throughout all living beings on the planet. Primarily known as a literary writer, Goethe also wrote on the science of plants and colors that focused on close observation of the natural world. Beuys explored Goethe’s ideas around the consciousness of living beings in 7,000 Oaks. As noted, the area around Kassel, Germany, was destroyed during World War II. The ecological damage was paramount, but through 7,000 Oaks Beuys was able to revitalize the landscape and ensure that spiritual knowledge of the land was not lost forever. Through replanting these trees, Beuys did more than simply restore a barren landscape. According to Beuys, “the intention of such a tree-planting event is to point up the transformation of all of life, of society, and the whole ecological system.” Through close observation of the land he recognized that the spirit of the land was damaged and repaired this damage through planting 7,000 trees and commemorated this task with permanent plaques. Goethe and Beuys valued the land as a living being and through projects such as 7,000 Oaks Beuys was able to heal the land in terms exemplified by Goethe.

Northern Lites, A Virtual Exhibition

I’ve talked before about my apprehension regarding curating. I see it as being an inherently creative practice in the same vein of painting and drawing. Of course, you can hone your creative skills, which is what I am doing through my curatorial practice diploma, but it is still something that I’ve been nervous about doing for a job.

The best way to get over your fears and nervousness about anything is to just do it, right?

So, my friends and I set off on a journey to produce an exhibition as the final project for our curatorial practice class.

Northern Lites, as the project was affectionately called, traces the relationship between the digital and natural world through the inclusion of Canadian artists who incorporate nature, the legacy of landscape painting, and recent developments of technology. The artists selected for this project explore the land through multimedia, painting, and sculpture while inviting viewers to interpret their own personal relationship to the digital era in terms how they see the natural world.

Beyond simply grouping together likeminded Canadian artists, we also had to make a budget and exhibition floor plan, write the didactics for the proposed installation, make a website, and make programming. We also had to write a bit connecting this project to our course readings and lectures throughout the semester.

Overall, the creation of Northern Lites taught me a lot about daily activities of a curator. There is so much more to being a curator than simply being creative. Curators have to organize, make calls, plan, write, and so much more. These are all things that I’m good at. Maybe I could be a curator if I wanted to.

If you’d like to check out our online exhibition click here.


So, it’s been eight weeks.

Looking back, eight weeks ago everything looked oh so different.

Here’s my pandemic roundup.

By early March, Canada had over thirty cases of COVID-19. Day by day the situation seemed more dire, and for me as an immigrant I was worried if I would be allowed to leave Canada, and if so when. After one late night texting conversation with my Graduate Director I bought the next flight out of Toronto to the United States. I left Toronto on March 13, 2020.

My first flight to St. Louis got cancelled. My second flight to Kansas City got cancelled, too. I wasn’t able to rebook that flight so I was forced to fly to the next closest city, which was Nashville. My best friend, and Nashville resident, picked me and my four oversized suitcases up from the arrivals terminal. In the next few days she drove me to Missouri, where I’ve been ever since.

I’m so thankful that my GD allowed me to return home and finish my courses. I’m also thankful that I got back into the US before the border shut down. Thankfully, as an American I’d always be welcome home, but it would certainly be an added (and unnecessary) stress having to navigate mostly shut borders.

Beyond finishing my classes, I haven’t been up too much. Between taking care of my dog, baking, and spending time outdoors it feels like the days turn into a soup of events, weather patterns, and distanced conversations that can all be characterized as the same.

In the coming weeks I hope to share a few of my end of term projects, and a special project that a friend and I are working on.

Visiting an Art Auction House

All university programs have different pros and cons to them. For example, one of the major positives of my undergraduate institution was the fact that the program was quite small. We only had three professors and less than twenty students in the program at any given time. I loved being able to have close relationships with my professors and classmates.

However, the small program was due to the rural location of my university. In northeastern Missouri there aren’t many museums and galleries for our professors to take us to. They did their best, though! Many of my classes took us to a museum in one of the major cities in my state at least once per semester. The art department even offered a course during breaks that took students to major midwestern cities to visit galleries and artist studios. So we weren’t as excluded from the art world as it may seem.

But living in Toronto, we have access to so many more art institutions! In one of my courses this semester we visited six museums in the Greater Toronto Area to speak with their directors and curators. And recently in another course our instructor arranged a meeting between our class and an art auction house in the city. Yes, auction houses are usually open to the public, but our professor arranged a tour given by the lead auctioneer.

Incredible, right?

Truthfully, I’ve never been to an art auction house. A quick google search tells me that there are no more than five auction houses specializing in art in my state.

So I had no idea what to expect.

What I didn’t expect, however, was museum quality art on the walls of a family owned auction house right across the street from a major Canadian institution. I stared in awe at a collection of Emily Carr paintings that I would have never expected to see outside of the museum setting.

In class, we always talk about the art market and all of the ways that it influences and is influenced by culture but I hadn’t ever considered the actual reality of people owning art like this in their homes. Silly for someone pursing a MA in art history I know.

Growing up in the Midwest with a high school teacher as my mother, I never met anyone who had art like this in their homes. In fact, as a kid we didn’t really visit museums ever. Not in school trips, not on vacations, never. In fact, the first museum that I can remember visiting was the Louvre while avoiding a summer rainstorm on vacation when I was eighteen (oh how times have changed!).

Of course I’ve seen auctions online selling Da Vinci’s or Van Gogh’s by auction houses such as Sotheby’s or Christie’s. But I just assumed that museums and galleries were buying these works, not private collectors.

So seeing an auction house in person totally transformed my ideas surrounding the field.

Now that I’m almost one semester into my MA program I’m more confused than ever about my future career possibilities. Upon entering the program I was certain that I would continue on to a PhD program and become a professor. Now, I’m not so sure. This term has opened my eyes to so many different career options in the art field and I kind of want to explore them all.

Museum Anxiety: If you use Instagram, you can visit a Museum

If you’re like me and from a place that doesn’t prioritize regularly visiting museums, you may have what I’ve dubbed ‘museum anxiety.’ For example, you may avoid galleries and museums because you’re concerned that you won’t understand the works presented to you. Museum anxiety is super common, and you’re not alone! However, I’m here to tell you that if you use Instagram you’re ready to visit a museum.

Seriously, looking at art in a museum is not all that different from visiting a museum.

On Instagram, we know how to tell if a post is sponsored or staged. We can see if the person in the post is wearing makeup. If there is something that we can’t decipher in the image, we know to turn to the post’s text for more information. We can use context clues to infer things that may not be explicitly stated. We even know to click on the poster’s bio for further information on the author.

Now, you’re probably thinking, how does this apply to visiting museums?

Great question. Let’s break it down.

Perhaps, you’re on vacation in Florence and you’ve mustered the courage to visit the Uffizi Gallery and you stumble upon the Birth of Venus.

Your first glance tells you that you’re looking at a nude woman standing in a floating shell. She is surrounded by three of her friends. The scene appears to be taking place at the water’s edge. Looking at the image this way is no different than scrolling through your Instagram feed.
Now, you’ll move on to the description written by the museum that’s displayed on the wall. If this was Instagram, Sandro Botticelli (the painter) would post this to further explain his image. Here, he tells you what the painting is about.

It also lists the patrons of the work. Unlike Instagram, artists don’t have to #sponsored. Instead, they often include small details that reference the artist. Here, the orange trees in the mid-ground of the painting reference the patrons––the Medici family. On Instagram, sometimes it’s hard to tell if posts are sponsored or not. That’s why many influencers use tags such as #sponsored or #ad. It is typical of artists to include imagery noting who was a patron of their patron, like the orange trees that were representative of the Medici. This isn’t a requirement though! So it’s important to read the description to note who commissioned the work. Understanding who commissioned a work is important to understanding the narrative of the work. Oftentimes, patrons wish for specific imagery to be included in the work based on their religious, social, or cultural practices.

Now that you’ve read the description of the work you’re now able to look back at the image and have some new clarity that you may not have had before.

After you’ve finished looking at the image you can either search or explore, just like Instagram.

If you really liked the Botticelli painting, consult your guidebook or ask a museum worker to see if the institution houses any more works by the same artist. This is called searching. Just like on Instagram, if you know what you want to find, you can search for it specifically. You can also search for images that showcase a similar narrative. In the case of the Birth of Venus you could look for other Renaissance works that include images from Greek myths (there are a lot!).

If you liked the general idea of the work, but not it specifically it is time to explore. Start with the room of the gallery that you’re in. Walk around and see if anything else catches your eye. If not, that’s okay! Head to another room and see what you find there. This is just like Instagram’s explore page, minus a complicated algorithm. Museums arrange their collections with similar objects near each other. So if you’re interested in one painting, you could like the one next to it.

I hope that this cured your museum anxiety, and now you’re ready to visit your next museum.

Museum Accessibility

When traveling throughout the United Kingdom during my study abroad, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to visit museums for free. In fact, while studying in London, I went to the Tate Modern at least once a week—at no cost! Even in my home state of Missouri, the major museums in both Kansas City and St. Louis are free.

After moving to Toronto, I quickly learned that this is not always the case.

In Toronto, tickets to see the Royal Ontario Museum start at $18 for students, and tickets for the Gardiner Museum cost $9 for students. The Art Gallery of Ontario is free for those under 25, but costs $25 for those 26 and older. I firmly believe that fees such as these make the museum space even more inaccessible for the general public.

In my museums and galleries course, we’ve been discussing the many roles of the museum in society. We know that museums fill a variety of roles in our culture––including existing as a community gathering space. However, we know that museums are more than community spaces with objects. Museums educate on culture and history that could otherwise be inaccessible. They also preserve materials and study the objects in their collections.

The word ‘museum’ itself has many connotations, many of which are negative. Often, museums are considered to be an elite space that only certain groups of people visit. Groups who typically feel welcome in museums are usually well educated and hold a considerable amount of privilege in society. For these individuals, cost is not usually a major hindrance for visiting the museum. But for many others, $9 is too expensive for an afternoon viewing ceramics. Admission fees further elevate the status of the museum and in turn away the general public that they are trying to attract.

All being said and done, this is a tricky situation for museums to tackle. Museums have higher operating costs than ever before. Restoration, storage, and traveling exhibitions all cost money. These rising costs are then passed onto the visitor. Clearly, maintaining their collection and having new exhibits is important for any museum. Without preservation and new ideas museums will soon lose their title as a community gathering space.

As with public libraries and schools, museums are institutions that provide a service to the community. And that service is primarily education. Both schools and libraries receive enough taxpayer funding to fulfill their mission to educate the populous. Why are museums any different?
Perhaps it is not lack of desire to make Toronto’s museums accessible to all, but rather lack of funds. Museums in Ontario do not receive enough federal funding to grow and sustain themselves long term. Allocation of federal and provincial resources is a complicated matter and not solved by this simple blog post such as this.

However, this is an important time to remember the cultural importance of museums. If the cost barrier associated with many museums is removed, visitors will be able to have a better understanding of the collective history of Canada. Understanding the cultures of not just ourselves, but our neighbors is vital.

Nuit Blanche, Let’s Talk

I attended my first Nuit Blanche this past week!

Now, before delving into my takes on the event, let’s do a short description of Nuit Blanche for our friends out there who may not be familiar with the event. The literal translation of nuit blanche means ‘white night.’ But I think that it’s a little more accurate to think of it as a sleepless night. Basically, starting at 7PM, there are numerous art installations put up throughout the city that can be visited. These installations are up for twelve full hours, ending at 7AM the next day. Some installations are put up in traditional art venues, like museums. Others are installed in cultural centers, like Younge-Dundas Square. These installations are accessible, free of charge to anyone.

I live in Toronto’s downtown core, so I was within walking distance of a bunch of the installations. I was feeling a little under the weather, so I limited my touring to five works that were all within a few kilometers of my apartment. Having never been to a Nuit Blanche, I wasn’t sure what to expect. So, I left my apartment with nothing more than my camera and wallet and hoping for the best.

I hit the streets and quickly realized how many Torontonians were out. Now, when I say the streets were full, I mean it. Brisk walking on the sidewalks was impossible and sometimes crossing the street was a struggle. Since the event is free (and super interesting) it makes sense that so many people came out to see it.

While it was crowded and a bit overwhelming, it was lovely to see so many people out and about for the sole purpose of viewing art. Now, some may disagree with me citing that oftentimes Nuit Blanche ends in a big party. However, my rationale is that people are out with the premise that they will at least engage with some art. In my opinion, engagement with some art, even under the guise of alcohol, is better than no art.

Now, onto the art itself! All of the art was contemporary in nature and much of it focused around multimedia projects. The first work I viewed, space time, was a video production. Chasing Red incorporated sounds and lights with choreographed performative dance. It’s wildly common for contemporary artists to use multimedia to varying degrees in any installation, so I wasn’t surprised to see this incorporated into many installations.

However, I was intrigued by the number of performative pieces that I saw. My academic research loosely revolves around performance art, and these types of work often don’t leave a tangible presence as with a painting or photograph. Thus, sourcing and documentation can be troublesome. The content of performance pieces at Nuit Blanche wasn’t relevant to my research, but seeing people in real life perform their art helped me understand performative pieces within my own work. Plus, it’s always interesting to see art that only happens once!

My first Nuit Blanche won’t soon be forgotten! I’m already excited to see what new creations will turn up next year.

Climate and Art

Protesters and activists around the world took to the streets on September 27, 2019, demanding political action on climate change. In Toronto alone, tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding real change. In Montréal, sixteen-year-old activist, Greta Thunberg led a rally of half a million. This comes days after Thunberg’s voyage across the Atlantic Ocean where she embarked on a year-long journey of eco-activism. Her first stop was in New York City where she spoke at the United Nations Climate Action Summit.

Environmental preservation is a hot topic at the moment, in part due to Thunberg’s activism. Around the globe activists like Thunberg are challenging their governments to do better and be better for the future of our planet.

Now, this leads me to question what role do artists play in the discussion of climate change?

Historically a lot!

Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was a German artist who focused his art around the preservation of the land. Beuys coined the term “social sculpture” in an attempt to define his art. Social sculpture was a broad term that defined as intentional acts using a mixture of language, actions, thoughts, and objects to create societal change. To Beuys, this was art. Beuys believed that social sculpture could create revolutionary change in society.

In practice, Beuys planted 7000 oak trees in conjunction with documenta 7. The work, 7000 Oaks: City Forestation Instead of City Administration, attempted to counter the urbanization of Kassel, Germany. This project revitalized the landscape and improved the ecosystems surrounding the city
However, the rejuvenation of Kassel was not Beuys’ only message with 7000 Oaks. The artist felt as if oak trees themselves were symbolic. The trees were not only a reminder of the Druid civilization but also of the dependence of contemporary society on the environment. Beuys wished for the trees to serve as a reminder for the ways that we depend on nature to maintain our lifestyles. Moreover, Beuys hoped his oaks could be used for further education on political activism.

With the rise in activism surrounding climate change it is becoming more common for artists to get recognition for their works that feature the land as a medium. It’s also interesting to see the rise in the interest of the public on these types of works.

I’m not suggesting that viewers are now more interested in ecological works of art now due to the political discourse surrounding climate change, but it does make for an interesting argument. An argument that I will not explore in this brief post, however.

Instead, I wish to explore the more recent work of Andy Goldsworthy (1956-). In 2019, Goldsworthy began his project, Walking Wall, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. This work explores ideas of impermanence and time. Over a year, the work is installed in five stages. Every few months the wall moves to a new location on the museum’s property to ‘walk’ around the area. Lucky for me, when not in Toronto, I spend a decent amount of time in Kansas City. And I have been able to see the Walking Wall at all of its stages so far.

Simply put, the wall is comprised of one hundred yards of stone that are repositioned each time the wall is moved. The wall meanders throughout the outdoor and indoor spaces of the museum to its eventual resting point. The Walking Wall will arrive at its final position near the end of November where it will be a permanent installation at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

Having a work so intrinsically connected to the land at a museum so close to home is a very exciting prospect for me, and other art lovers and eco-activists in the region.

Goldworthy’s art isn’t connected to eco-activism in the same way that Beuys 7000 Oaks work was, but it still leaves a message noting the importance of the land to both artists and us as citizens. So many other artists are (and have been) tying their work to the environment. So many avenues of exploration exist in this field of art historical study and I can’t wait to see how other scholars approach this topic.

One Month of Graduate School Complete, 23 Left

This first month living in Canada and attending a new university has been a whirlwind. Living in downtown Toronto is incredible. I’m a proper country girl (I grew up in a farm town with about 4000 people in total) and moving to a big city is an adjustment, to say the least. People are roaming my neighborhood at all times of day (and night). Hundreds of people are buying groceries at the same time as me. I’m never actually alone! For me, this has been sort of overwhelming, but in a positive way. Every day I’m experiencing everything the world has to offer and I’m so thankful even if it’s hard to handle sometimes. 

Which also means I’m in proximity to some impressive museums and galleries. These past few weeks have allowed me to explore museums in three unique ways.

First, as a tourist––the most traditional way of viewing museums. I live in walking proximity to many museums and I take advantage of this on my days off of class! Many museums are free or low cost, which is terrific for students like me.

Second, one of my classmates is a curator at a gallery near Toronto’s harbourfront. She recently finished curating an exhibition about declassified CIA materials in South America. Several of my other classmates and I toured her exhibit when it opened.

Third, part of the coursework for one of my courses is to visit with employees of Ontario museums. Our class time is structured so that we visit a new museum or collection each week. We’re meeting with curators and directors of Canadian collections

This first month has been full of many transitions and truly difficult moments, but overall I am thankful that I chose this journey.

Hello and Welcome

It’s hard to believe that only a few short months ago I finished my bachelor’s degree in art history from Truman State University. The last few months of my degree was a total whirlwind! I completed a thesis project and presented at our annual Student Research Conference. My project centered around the changing reception of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s barrel art due to the introduction of Instagram.

Throughout the academic year, I worked with several interdisciplinary mentors in order to draft my undergraduate thesis, Not Just a Bath Toy: The Reception of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Barrel Art Since 1963. The process of writing my thesis challenged me as a student and allowed me to evolve and mature as a writer and researcher––opportunities for which I am thankful.

During the year of writing (and editing, and rewriting, and editing again), I discovered that my main passions in the field are performance and environmental art. Projects like Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s London Mastaba excite me so much that I couldn’t imagine ending my studies now. This is why I decided to attend graduate school in Toronto for a Master’s in the History of Art program. While in Toronto I hope to continue to grow as an art historian and continue to pursue my interests in the field.

I hope that this blog will be a space for me to explore topics outside of the classroom. I also hope to blog about the new-to-me art scene in Toronto, and my life as a graduate student.