Representing Nature

August 1, 1997

Nick Marinello

Nineteenth-century painter Thomas Moran, one of the premier landscape painters of his time, is famous for his breathtaking representations of the rugged and romantic beauty of the American West. Yet, according to Michael Plante, assistant professor of art, he was also complicit in the expansionist ideology of industrialized America that exploited that very landscape.

"Moran focused exclusively on the sublime beauty of the landscape, editing out the changes that were being brought about by man," said Plante, noting the artist's fondness for creating composite images that comprised the most scenic elements from a location and avoided eyesores such as hastily developed shanty towns and railway tracks and trestles.

"By assuring his audience that the natural beauty of the West was still intact," said Plante, "he was adding to the myth of the West."

Such mythmaking, suggested Plante, distracted many Americans from the gradual dismantling of that beauty. Plante's assertions were delivered to a group of middle and high school teachers last month at the Woldenberg Art Center and touched directly on the themes of a four-week institute entitled "Representing Nature in American Literature, Arts and Philosophy."

The institute, organized by Michael Zimmerman, professor of philosophy, and funded by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH), was attended by 18 teachers from the area who met regularly for classes from June 16-July 11.

"The people at LEH were excited at the idea of having teachers explore how American humanists have tried to represent nature," Zimmerman said, noting that "the goal of the institute was, in part, to help make teachers and their students better critical readers of text, photos and representations of all kinds that are related to the environment."

To a certain extent, the institute is about developing a kind of media literacy. "The Sierra Club represents nature in a certain way," he added. "Exxon represents nature in a certain way. We have to read these representations critically, not just accept what is given." Along with lectures by Plante, participants were exposed to selections from nature writers such as Jonathan Edwards, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson in classes instructed by Teresa Toulouse, associate professor of English.

Zimmerman provided an overview of the legal and moral issues arising out of people's relationship with their environment. Participants were also treated to a trip to the New Orleans Aquarium of the Americas to view how nature is represented in public spaces.

Zimmerman, who is also co-chair of Tulane's environmental studies program, is interested in how complex environmental systems are distilled into consumable products. "How do we represent a rain forest?" he asks. "How do we show off the fish? "When we try to communicate something to others we employ language and art, so there is always a symbolic dimension. We are trying to encourage these teachers to become more aware of this mediating symbolic process."

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