In my ten years living in Miami, it became clear to me that polyculturalism and ecological perspective are related. Both promote multiple views of the whole and of dynamic interrelationships in growing ecosystems that embrace nature, society, and media. Twenty-two young artists in the senior class of the New World School of the Arts high school worked on an art project, Miami in Ecological Perspective, with me and biologists from the Everglades National Park. These Miamians and their parents were born on five continents, in sixteen countries, and in twelve states.
Under the guidance of the Everglades biologists, the students waded through the Everglades, a shallow river 60 miles wide flowing 300 miles from the Kissimmee River to Florida Bay. It was the time of year that the waters receded leaving fish no choice but to find refuge in waterholes that alligators had dug under the water. When birds came to eat the fish concentrated in the waterholes, the alligators could choose the birds or fish for their breakfast. The students documented the dynamic interrelationships of the numerous species of animals and plants to each other and their environment using observational drawing, photography, and verbal and statistical notation. These studies became the raw material for artworks. Their scientific study of ecology was coupled with artistic explorations that expressed ecological perspective in relation to their environment and their place in it and with social action cleaning up trash thrown in the water by tourists in the national park.
Al Gore expresses the spirit of this project in his book Earth in Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit: "The ecological perspective begins with the view of the whole, an understanding of how the various parts of nature interact in patterns that tend towards balance and persist over time. But this perspective cannot treat the earth as something separate from human civilization; we are part of the whole too, and looking at it ultimately means looking at ourselves."
The students studied how artists shape world view by their perspective inventions. The artists of the Renaissance, for example, created logical perspective by visually representing three-dimensional space from a single point of view and time as a cross-section of a one-way linear path. Most people in the industrialized world continue to see the world through the eyes of these Renaissance artists. Before Renaissance perspective spread from Italy throughout Europe, artists employed a mythological perspective that arises from an auditory experience of space as two-dimensional and of time as cyclical. People from most pre-industrial cultures continue to experience space and time from a mythological perspective. Today, artists have an opportunity and responsibility of once again reshaping humanity’s worldview by inventing an art of ecological perspective.
Suzi Gablick writes in The Reenchantment of Art: "Whereas the aesthetic perspective oriented us to the making of objects, the ecological perspective connects art to its integrative role in the larger whole and the web of relationships in which art exists. A new emphasis falls on community and environment…. The ecological perspective does not replace the aesthetic, but gives a deeper account of what art is doing, reformulating its meaning and purpose beyond the gallery system, in order to redress the lack of concern, within the aesthetic model, for issues of context or social responsibility."
As the students were creating artworks expressing ecological perspective, they studied ecological works of other artists. They were inspired by the work of Helen and Newton Harrison, Mierle Ukeles, Alan Sonfist, and Mel Chin. These artists and others had their work shown in the Fragile Ecologies exhibition at the Queens Museum of Art near the empty lots where I studied sowbugs for my thesis on the ecology of terrestrial isopods four decades earlier. Barbara Matilsky, curator of Fragile Ecologies wrote in the exhibition catalog: "Artists are in a unique position to effect environmental changes because they can synthesize new ideas and communicate connections between many disciplines. They are pioneering a holistic approach to problem solving that transcends the narrow limits of specialization. Since art embodies freedom of thought, spirit, and expression, its creative potential is limitless. Art changes the way people look at reality."