George Steinmann and the Ecology of Mind

The environmental crisis is threatening us.
We cannot escape this fact. Neither is it feasible to think that we could by simple means be free of it. It is possible, of course, to develop technical solutions to some particular problems, but the environmental crisis is not just a sum of problems definable as technical. It is humanity’s relation to nature, the basis of humanity’s existence, that is in crisis. We should get a general picture of our relation to nature, of the basis of our existence. This is not easy – but why should it be? How could it be? As a general rule, there are no easy solutions to difficult problems. All means are needed, if we wish to overcome this problem. We do not even know with certainty if the means available to us will suffice. I understand George Steinmann’s artistic work from this perspective.

1 Let us accept Steinmann as our guide. We start off from basic ingredients: bilberry juice, pit tar and paper rich in tones and covered up with Bix orellana. We immerse ourselves in the details of nature: sphagnum-moss; fern; ant mound; gnarl. We chart processes of nature changing the shape of the earth. They started long before us and will continue long after us: erosion; glacier; raised bog; aapa bog. We trace the circulation of materials: the movement of coal from one continent to another; changes in the atmospheric composition. We are consciously involved in all that and, through ourselves, we can diagnose the association of the elements with the existence and experience of humanity and the earth. Important abstractions used by Steinmann are encounter: «Authentische Begegnung», and self-portrait: «Selbstporträt». Ultimately we search for inner energies in the objects of nature and in ourselves; this is what Steinmann’s indications: «Indikationen» refer to.

2 Steinmann is searching for powers in nature that are hidden from our eyes – searching in order, first, to reveal them, and secondly, to achieve a connection with them. Thus his work continues the elaboration of the «spiritual dimension» of art which allowed the great reformers at the turn of the century – Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich, Mondrian – to find new ways of expression. We can clearly identify this background in his work.

Pure spiritualism, however, is vulnerable to the totalitarianism of being right. The masters of past decades managed to avoid that – though not all of them completely successfully – by painfully passionate searching: the questions were more important than the answers.

Steinmann is equal to the work of his predecessors. Also, he is working fully aware in a new situation, in a new way and with new objectives. This is why his production shows an overwhelming variety: the smallest details combine with circulations covering the whole earth; the infinitely complex structures of dicranum mosses become part of the condensed geology of the earth; all creatures are parts of the whole but with even the least of them being independent and infinitely rich. The world and the universe form one whole but without a fixed structure which could be ossified into slogan-like concept pairs, as was done in the old spiritualistic tradition.

Steinmann approaches the most important challenges in the revaluation of our relation to nature. We have to free ourselves from totalitarian absolute metaphors but at the same time we have to preserve our understanding of the entirety and our respect for it. We are parts of the world but we are also independent actors on the stage of our own existence.

3 Paul Klee writes:1 «For the artist, dialogue with nature remains a conditio sine qua non. The artist is a man, himself nature and a part of nature in natural space…Yesterday’s artistic creed and the related study of nature consisted, it seems safe to say, in a painfully precise investigation of appearance. I and you, the artist and his object, sought to establish optical-physical relations across the invisible barrier between the ‘I’ and the ‘you’… Today this way does not meet our entire need any more than it did the day before yesterday. The artist of today is more than an improved camera; he is more complex, richer, wider. He is a creature on the earth and a creature within the whole, that is to say, a creature on a star among stars.» What is true of the artist is true of each of us and, of course, of the whole culture. This includes science as well, even though we rather regard it as an independent and objective bridge between ourselves and the material reality of our existence. Thus, Klee’s programme is to be carried out as a dialogue between art and science. We can easily detect a connection between Klee’s programme and George Steinmann’s work.

4 When ecology is applied to the conditions of our existence, it has to be understood in the widest sewnse of the word – it has to cover the mutual relations between culture and nature in their entirety. This brings forth the following question: what is the relation between ecology as a specialized discipline and human ecology? In this context, we can be satisfied with the following answer: ecology is a special branch of biological research, which has its own defined research problems and methodological traditions («defined» to the same extent as in sciences in general). Human ecology, on the other hand, is a genuinely multidisciplinary research area; its research problems and methods are only temporarily stabilized according to the particular tasks in focus at the time and depending on the combination of disciplines needed in solving them. «Human ecology» is at a crossroads: the prevailing idea about the relation of culture to nature, cherished for centuries, has turned out to be irrevocably erroneous. What is this all about? – It has become absolutely clear that man is a creature of nature and dependent on nature. This has gone unrealized – to such an extent that, with hindsight, it is totally surprising – through the whole period that is called «modern» in the history of ideas, that is from the Enlightenment in the 18th century up to the present day.2 The enlightened children of the Enlightenment viewed (view) nature purely as a source of material security: with the help of his knowledge and skills, man broke away from his ties to nature and mastered his own future. He was not dependent on nature and he exploited it according to his own purposes. The background for the instrumental view of nature is obvious: the material success in exploiting nature. We use the spring for drawing water, the earth for digging coal and the soil for growing corn as if they were external objects available to us simply as instruments for reaching our goals. It is deceptively easy to generalize this relation and view «nature» as a mere store of natural resources and a mere external prerequisite in the equation of human existence, moulded according to our wishes. The instrumental view of nature is, however, internally contradictory: where can I draw the line between the «I» and the «nature» which I use as an instrument? This problem applies to even the dearest concept of the Enlightenment, namely reason. If reason is a natural characteristic of human beings, is it not of nature? – Can I then use my reason as an instrument when reasoning? – Let us assume that I can dissociate an instrumental element from my reason; but is it not the case then that the goals of my «instrumental» reasoning arise from the basis of reason itself, that is to say, from nature? – If the goals arise from nature, how then can nature be an instrument? The impasse is even more obvious if we substitute emotion for reason. In what sense can my fears, hate, love, despair and satisfaction be «instruments»? To put it in other words: I have my own nature which I cannot sensibly regard as an instrument to «myself». I face this paradox on a new level when the nature basis of my existence is threatened. Are the radiation of the sun, the air I am breathing, the growth of plants and the vital functions of my body instruments for me? How can I regard as an instrument something on which my existence is based absolutely, irrevocably, here and now? The instrumental view of nature is not, of course, a logical necessity, neither is it historically the only alternative. Plato and Aristotle were of a different opinion and regarded human-made means of exploiting nature as trivia, because they are only imperfect copies of the processes of nature. Nature in itself is more real, interesting and important from the human point of view.3

To break away from instrumentality feels painfully difficult. We seem to have something to learn from the ancient Greeks (we seem to have learnt the wrong things). The same lesson we could learn from numerous native cultures.

5 We are creatures of nature. Are not our activities then basically natural? Thus, what can it mean that we change nature (when we ourselves are of nature)? Is everything that we do natural? Here we face a paradox: the nature moulded by us continues to be nature. A dead organism is of nature in the same way as a living one. The earth without life is of nature in the same way as that with life – and as we well know, the earth will one day be annihilated. We cannot destroy nature because everything is of nature. Besides, nature is constantly undergoing big changes independent of us. So, where is the difference? We are parts of nature and dependent on it but (exactly because of this!) nature does not set absolute standards as to what we may and must not do. At the same time, however, nature constantly sets on us prohibitions. There are limits, but we do not know where they are. Nature both is absolute and is not. The claim that there are no absolute limits in nature may sound strange in this age of acid rain and the greenhouse effect – that we are going beyond the limits or threatening to do so is a persistent topic in public discussion. But this setting requires closer examination: poisons threaten our health; acid rain causes economic losses; the greenhouse effect alters the climate and will already, in the near future aggravate food shortages as well as trigger off expansive movements of migrants (refugees). AlI this is true, but why would nature be interested? As a matter of fact, is nature interested in anything? Changes triggered off by natural forces make relative everything that can be caused by us, even extinction waves. To «nature» it does not matter whether we exist or not, whether we do something or do not. The problems are ours, and to us they are critical. In fact, it is impossible to comprehend that no problems would prevail in the relation of culture and nature. Nature is an absolute value to us. The indefinite absoluteness, the absolute indefiniteness of nature comes to us as a shock. The sociologist Ulrich Beck has crystallized his idea of the social consequences of this strange paradox in the slogan «risk society».4 Nature today is a great unknown and is full of dangers – radioactivity, acid rain, poisons – which we cannot record with our senses. Beck links this situation with the trend of ever-increasing individualization in modern society. We are living in an age when the security of the individual anchored in his / her community and its traditions is breaking up, simultaneously as the confidence in an unbounded material progress has vanished. In the risk society, situated in a global greenhouse of poisonous gas, we have to ask: how is it possible to live?

6 Ulrich Beck helps us to realize that the environmental crisis is only to a small extent a problem of the natural sciences. More essentially, it is a social problem, especially that of the social consciousness, that is to say, culture: how can we adapt to the indefinite absoluteness of nature? To examine seriously the relation between society and nature one is first compelled to ask: relation to which nature? Nature is vague in its nature, but as a cultural concept, nature is even more vague.5 The cultural concept of nature is a multi-Ievel entwinement of internal nature and external nature (that is to say, «human nature» and «nature»). The view of the development, possibilities and position in society of human beings themselves, held in a given period, is apparently the determining element in this knot. Cultures look at «external» nature through the prism of «internal» nature. In the background of our Western idea of nature, as its oldest layer, is unity of nature, generated by monotheistic religions. It replaced the polytheistic nature of earlier religions. Originally the unity was divine, but along with secularization following the Renaissance, the divinity of nature dissolved and its character changed, though its unity was preserved. Also, the natural sciences gradually gained more authority in determining how nature was viewed. First, nature was a capricious autocrat (Shakespeare), then a constitutional legislator obeying unchanging laws (Newton), and then an enlightened breeder (Darwin). At the same time humans became more independent in their relation to nature, as well as gaining more power over it as its exploiters; in northern Europe we know the Enlightenment as «the period of utilitarianism».

Alongside the Enlightenment, and in contrast to it, Romanticism brought forth an idea of unattainable and sublime nature. The tension between the moulded and dominated nature of the Enlightenment and the wild and unabated nature of Romanticism culminated later on in a conflict between virgin nature and nature spoilt by man. The awareness of this conflict started to germinate in the late 18th century and burst into bloom at the beginning of the 19th century in the thinking of American transcendentalists, especially in that of Henry David Thoreau.6 This conflict still prevails today. In addition to instrumentality, our inherited idea of nature is dominated by the unity of nature. This, however, is not a self-evident truth but, on the contrary, an assumption, the grounds of which have to be questioned. From the viewpoint of the natural sciences, the assumption of the unity of nature is problematic, because the programme of unified science, another product of the Enlightenment, has turned out a failure. The programme unfolded during the last century, the idea being that various fields of science gradually entwine closer and closer together and finally form a unified body of knowledge about the world and the human being. The science is not unified.7 In what sense could nature then be unified? A wide spectrum of processes takes place in local, limited systems without having any direct influence on surrounding systems. What then does the «unity» of nature concretely mean? The problem becomes more complicated when we place humans as actors on the stage of nature and try to evaluate the consequences of their activities. It is by no means simple to determine which parts and phenomena in nature are in actual fact affected by our deeds. For example, what we do in Finland is for the most part irrelevant to penguins in the Antarctic, but everything that we do is not. How can we distinguish these from each other? A common slogan in ecology is that «everything influences everything». This, however, is not true. Everything influences something, and everything is influenced by something, which is a completely different matter. The significant scales of the environmental effects are not immediately visible.8 They are further complicated by the non-linearity of the indirect impacts of our activities. It is by no means certain that the problems caused by doubling automobile traffic (or energy consumption, or forest clearance…) can be predicted by multiplying the present problems by two. The effects of our activities on the environment diverge. Some are directly visible and easy to recognize, while the indirect effects – what they are like and how widely they are spread – remain unknown to us. In other words: it is difficult to combine the interactions in nature into a unity. It is more fertile to regard nature as a multitude of parallel, nested and stratified processes. The unity of nature may still remain, but it will be something else than the sum of the parts, mechanically added up. We can never assemble it together like we do with the wheels, the springs and the bearings of a clock. The unity of nature is allegoric rather than concrete. The dilemma of unity versus plurality of nature causes problems for the artist as well. Romantic submergence in nature may result in escape and oblivion. In the background of the spiritualistic unity of nature hovers totalitarianism. Artists addressing the environmental crisis face another aspect of the problem: as there are no unequivocal standards for assessing demolition of nature, they cannot be represented either. This is the reason for the failure of most works proclaiming ecocatastrophe; in retrospect, a surprising proportion of these works are surprisingly bland, the exceptions being those with independent allegoric power.

7 The conclusion is that direct comments of artists on «ecological problems» are irrelevant in the context of our discussion. The relation of art to nature has to be studied at a more fundamental level. That is why George Steinmann is an important artist for us.

8 The central element of nature appropriated through the senses in culture is the landscape. To put it in semiotic terms9: the cultural notion of the landscape determines and fixes the border zone between culture and nature. A picture of a landscape is thus always charged with meanings. To depict a landscape is to humanize nature and to convert nature into culture. Nature can be appropriated in culture in two ways: either as within the culture, being a part of it, or as outside the culture, «the other» of it. Both of these approaches can be given either a positive or a negative charge. Thus we get four basic alternatives: nature within the culture either in a positive or negative sense, or nature outside the culture either in a positive or negative sense. Nature within the culture could be represented by such objects as squares and gardens; they are shown in a positive light in the Dutch genre paintings, but in the satirical paintings of the same period they are given a negative meaning. Nature outside the culture could be represented by mountains (often positive) and a stormy sea (often negative). The positive-negative distinction is not, of course, an absolute separation but a tension, amenable to conscious utilization; we cannot be sure about Miro’s gardens and El Greco’s mountains. Nature is depicted by a cultural subject – a historical individual, who is a product and a carrier of the culture, as well as being its creator. A depiction of nature, the landscape, is always an interpretation of nature. This makes it obvious that a depiction of nature is necessarily linked with the complicated and strange tension between internal nature («human nature») and external nature («nature»). This can be put more forcefully: a depiction of nature can be a work of art precisely by being an interpretation; the depiction gets its cultural content from the interpretation it gives to the culturenature relation. Some depictions of nature are works of art due to the interpretation expressed in them – others are not.10

9 We have come across a key question: how is nature interpreted? A transition took place in the interpretation of nature during the Renaissance.11 This was based – to put it very simply – on new means developed to express a subject-object relation to nature, for instance perspective. Suzy Gablik interprets this transition as a move from a «pre-operational» stage to a «concrete-operational» one. «Pre-operational» means that we observe and distinguish in reality complete structures which restrict our activities directed towards reality. «Concreteoperational» means that the physical reality is enriched by regularities, which we can use independently of direct observations in planning our activities directed towards reality. Reality turns into an objective reality determined by abstract laws. This we can manipulate as long as we know the laws. The post-Renaissance transition in the representation of nature occurred simultaneously as the idea of dominating nature gained more strength. This relation is, however, multidimensional. Modern natural science clearly aimed at dominating nature, both «internal» and «external» nature – the founder Francis Bacon, for example, expressed it explicitly in many connections.12 Art, on the other hand, has been more ambivalent. Punishment resulting from the hybris of the domination of nature has repeatedly appeared in art (e.g. the myth of Icarus; Doctor Faustus; Dante, in Divina Commedia, gives us a classic example by punishing Odysseus for cheating nature and the gods with his wittiness by placing him near the deepest abysses of Hell). Since its birth in the Renaissance the development of landscape painting has shown the same ambivalence. The basic tension has been between nature as an idealized and controlled collection of facts, and nature as a battlefield of unchained and dark forces springing from the human being him/herself.13 Appropriation aiming at domination has probably been more prevalent. Domination of nature in the landscape was first based on knowledge («knowledge is power», as put by Bacon), but during the golden era of landscape painting it was supplemented by ownership, a social novelty produced by the rising bourgeoisie.14 In this connection, we should remember that knowledge is not necessarily domination, while ownership is. Because a landscape painting is an interpretation of nature, it cannot be interpreted as the nature it depicts. A painting that seemingly depicts a landscape does not depict that «landscape» but a relation to the landscape. A picture of nature requires a manifold interpretation. This continues to be an important issue. In Finland, for example, the idea that there exists «a Finnish landscape», described by artists and writers, is surprisingly persistent. No such landscape exists, of course. We can contrast this idea with Olof Lagercrantz’s insight concerning Strindberg’s archipelagos. He writes: «Skärgården är blott en bild bakom vilken en annan verklighet skymtar. Strindberg skulle komma att använda vad han i sådana glödande stund upplevde i skenbart realistiska verk men de pekar från första stund in i en annan osynlig sfär.»15 In other words: in describing the archipelago, Strindberg did not describe the archipelago – and still did. A description of nature does not describe nature – and still does. It is this double relation that we should comprehend.

10 The various dimensions in the background of representing nature can be sought from other perspectives, too. Jaakko Hintikka16 has elaborated the «intensional» dimension of the meaning of an art work; it enables realistic representation by using abstraction. This apparent paradox is based on the distinction made in logical semantics between «extension» and «intension» (or «meaning» and «sense») of words. Their difference can be clarified by synonyms which have the same «extension» but different «intensions». A classical example is the word pair «evening star» and «morning star»: the terms refer to the same heavenly body as their extensions, but expressions like «the evening star was twinkling in the sky…» and «the morning star was twinkling in the sky…» are quite different in their intensions. So, the interpretation given to a traditional landscape painting represents its «intensional» meaning. But once a conceptual distinction has been made between extension and intension in the meaning of the art work, the same distinction can be made in depictive methods. Intension can be expressed even more genuinely and realistically than before through invented signs, which have no direct extension. Picasso is said to have thought that «Cubism was the only honest painting and that honest painting could be conceived only in the form of language with invented signs and no attempt at imitation».17 Kandinsky called concrete the art that was regarded by most others as «abstract». According to this interpretation, the invention (or discovery) of the «intensional language» explains the explosion in art in this century. Suzy Gablik calls this new stage «formaloperational», to be distinguished from the «concrete-operational» stage which commenced in the Renaissance.18 The «formal-operational» stage differs from the earlier one in that the laws found in reality are expressed using abstractions, and the manipulation of reality breaks completely away from what is directly observed. Modern science is similarly based on a belief in the power of abstractions: the orbit of a space capsule sent to Jupiter is estimated by computers instead of by observing the night sky. Therefore, science has partly eroded the basis of traditional nature painting. The artists searching for a spiritualist connection with nature at the turn of the century also realized the need to enrich the means of expression; these artists were among the founders of abstract art. Nature was important for them but this is not directly conspicuous in their works: the means of expression and the content were unavoidably separated from each other.19 In abstract art, nature is still present: it retreats into the background in the expressive methods but may be emphasised in intensional meanings. At the same time, the difference between «internal» and «external» nature completely disappears. We are always included in the meanings of signs created by ourselves. Arthur Danto has put forth an interesting thesis that the differentiation of artistic movements and their rapid turnover since the turn of the century signifies the end of art history.20 An ever more central question in modern art is: What is art? In confronting this question one must always come to terms with all art of all times. This thesis is linked in an interesting way with our conclusions concerning the historical fate of ideals of nature. Unified nature becomes dismembered; the privileged position accorded to man in nature disappears; the foundation of the idea of linear progress collapses; nature is teeming with nested, parallel and stratified processes, in which we have to find our own place by ourselves. Possessive domination of nature is no longer possible. Also, the most persistent part of our inherited ideas, that of «sublime», wild, harsh and virgin nature has lost its meaning. Nature depicted as external to us does not address us any more. Historical commentary is the only option open for landscape painting in the traditional sense – and this commentary includes the present day as well.

11 However, art must also confront the relation between nature and culture in its entirety. We come back to Klee’s credo. We also come back to the work of George Steinmann. We are dependent on nature absolutely, completely and ultimately – but at the same time, nature external to ourselves, conditioning our activities, has disappeared from sight. This is our dilemma. One possibility is to search for a utopic dimension of nature. It may be constructed of the unity of internal and external nature, of nature’s own potentiality for growth, which becomes united in us as well as outside of us, and is divided into thousands and again thousands of living segments. We have no other possibilities left. Steinmann’s utopia is Gaia21. The original idea of Gaia is as follows: the evolution of life on earth has considerably influenced the chemical and physical conditions of our planet, e.g. by changing the composition of the atmosphere and the oceans. The most conspicuous expression of this is the oxygen in the atmosphere, which is a product of life. Thus, life has created the conditions it depends upon. Gaia assumes that the changes in the conditions on the earth due to evolving life have been adaptive for the development of life. The postulate that the chemical evolution of the earth has been adaptive for life is scientifically controversial. This, however, is not of great importance; the value of Gaia is not linked with this assumption, rather it has a symbolic dimension. Gaia is a beautiful way of expressing a few fundamental facts: (1) The basic conditions for life on earth are strict but historical. Life itself has moulded its basic conditions and continues to do so. (2) The basic conditions for life on earth cannot be reduced to a set of simple physico-chemical equations. The basic conditions are determined by a developing whole of complex interactions, in which life itself plays an essential role. (3) We belong to the same system. Our fundamental responsibility both for ourselves and for life on earth is to avoid changing the basic conditions for life. Gaia provides strong symbolic support for George Steinmann’s multidimensional art. It requires both reason and emotion, both science and art, both knowledge of the detail and compre-hension of the whole, both love of the small and respect for the large. Let us repeat: our responsibility is to avoid changing the conditions on earth favourable to life. Our problem is: are we able to avoid doing so?

Dr. Yrjö Haila is Professor of Environmental Policy at the University of Tampere. Essay published in conjunction with the exhibition “Hagaldom:The fossile Age” by George Steinmann at Pori Art Museum, 8 April – 14 May 1989.

Footnotes see PDF

by Prof. Dr. Yrijö Haila, 1989

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