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May we suggest

Features / December 1, 1990

Visions of Our Endangered Planet: Water, Earth & Fire


We are in danger of ruining the earth and the air that sustains us, and that ought to sustain our children. We are in danger of allowing greed to continue to function as society’s prevailing raison d’être (do we somehow believe we can eat and breathe money?). And we are continually in danger of losing our sense of urgency.

War has nothing on this. Already there is no country in the world unaffected by the disease, droughts or floods caused, directly or indirectly, by pollution. Soon there may be no one who isn’t to some degree ill or starving. There could eventually be no wars, it’s true, but that would only be thanks to a human race weakened by chemical attacks that we have brought upon ourselves.

Saving the environment is the issue that will dominate the next decade. And it should. Apocalyptic visions notwithstanding, if we don’t make significant changes now, in our own lives and in the organization of commercial society, the whimpering human race may live just long enough to see T.S. Eliot’s words come true. Both writers and visual artists have, of course, become increasingly politicized in the last ten years. Along with the pressing problems of sexism, racism and AIDS, many of them have made work that deals in one way or another with the destruction of the environment. In this issue of Canadian Art, we decided to give our pages over completely to work by Canadian artists who are grappling with environmental concerns. There are no articles in this issue. We all know—or ought to know—the facts, the arguments, the rationales. This issue allows us to view our fragile world purely through the eyes of our artists, unmediated by text.

To gather work for the issue, we invited submissions from almost every commercial gallery in Canada and from many of the parallel galleries. The response was heartening. Not only did we receive a huge number of slides and photographs, the overall quality of the work was extremely high. As is the case with every issue, we were limited in the umber of pages we had available, and therefore were forced to make some extremely tough choices. We have ended up with an eclectic mix of paintings, sculptures, photographs and installations that seemed to us to speak clearly and thoughtfully about the Canadian environment. While there was a surprising lack of anger in most of the work (something that, for better or worse, could be seen as a national trait), there was nonetheless an obvious caring and concern in everything we saw.

Unfortunately, however committed one is to protecting our environment, realpolitik too often necessitates a different course of action. Witness the problems the staff at this magazine had in attempting to make Canadian Art biodegradable. All magazines that use petroleum oil-based inks on bleached paper or that glue their pages together are immediately out of the recycling game. We tried, we tried hard, to make this issue of Canadian Art as environmentally correct as possible. After all, it did seem hypocritical that we were showcasing work about the environment while at the same time contributing to the problem. We tried to do otherwise. But we failed.

Yet the reasons that we failed are perhaps instructive. Our difficulties illustrate quite graphically the kinds of massive changes that will have to occur before any of us, at work or at home, stops paying what amounts to lip service to environmental concerns and starts actually cleaning up our act. Recycled paper, for example, is too costly for a small magazine such as ours (in fact, what constitutes recycled paper is a matter of some debate, since there is still no such thing as paper made completely from post-consumer fibre). We also investigated stapling as an alternative to gluing our pages together, only to decide that not only would that method do a disservice to the artists’ work (staples not being very aesthetically pleasing) but that more importantly, it would be mere tokenism if the magazine’s pages themselves weren’t recyclable.

We did do what we could. Both Key Publishers and Maclean Hunter, our co-owners, recycle their waste paper. For this issue of Canadian Art, we decided to plant two trees for every tree we used in printing the magazine. And in lieu of artists’ fees, we are making donations to Energy Probe and the World Wildlife Fund Canada on behalf of everyone who contributed work to this issue.

So we did our best, which is probably all anyone can do. But the Catch-22s that arise around the issue of recycling affect us all. An artist we know, for example, cleans houses as a way of earning her living and subsidizing her art. Many of her clients have asked her to switch to biodegradable cleaning products. She isn’t adverse to this suggestion except for the fact that, as she says, using them means it takes an extra hour or more to clean a house. And (surprise, surprise) most of her clients aren’t willing to pay her more money for her longer work day. So she compromises by using fewer paper towels and feels guilty and selfish for wanting to be paid fairly for her work.

This kind of uncomfortable situation happens over and over again. It’s enough to make anyone squirm. We recycle our bottles and cans at home, only to put the rest of our garbage in plastic bags. We wash our clothes in soap detergents, only to clean our floors with an efficient but harmful substance. Our cars run on unleaded gas, but we never contemplate giving up driving altogether.

The work in this issue can’t resolve these problems. What the artists in our pages can do, however, is to impart passion to issues that can too easily appear to be impersonal. It is they who bear witness to our collective blindness and who remind us, through their work, of the enormity of what we stand to lose.

This is the cover story text of the Winter 1990 issue of Canadian Art, which was a special issue featuring art about the environment.