Progress and News




[posted on 19 September 2011]



Concerning the Role of Art in Communicating the Intangible Values of Nature

Excerpts from a SG Cultural & Spiritual Values of PAs discussion - August 2010


Elizabeth Reichel-Dolmatoff - 4.08.2010

Though I too wonder, as you say, why IUCN hasn't a critical mass of people involved in the issue of Art and Conservation. I also wonder why the rare 'events' on the matter are so fragmented or token, or to say the least, folkloric. I have always been amused when, for example, at formal events related to IUCN or other large international organizations, sometimes there are presentations by a group of so-called indigenous persons who do some dance before a public, and people take photos etc, etc. and after the show everything goes on as usual and not much has been achieved in relation to linking artistic expressions to conserving nature. The indigenous performances and 'dances' and songs are almost usually some hybrid concoction of what is supposed to be an indigenous ritual expressed 'artistically'. But as anyone who has lived with traditional indigenous cultures, each performance and related art and artefacts are situated always within a particular season and activities and are expressed to debate and indicate the condition of particular ecosystems and species related for example to harvest, herds, fishing, hunting, gathering and the different types of social organization required for that particular period, which in turn is also associated to particular dynamics including climate, meteorology, astronomy, and other environmental conditions. Those performances and related artwork are related to the recreation -and commentary- of concrete forms of using or conserving 'biodiversity' and the community that participates in these rituals are interacting with/within the ritual and legitimising a particular ethos and eidos to do so. Out of context and in other cultures such performances become token folklore. Because in industrial societies there is a loss of such socio-environmental awareness and concomitant rituals and art, and because modern and conceptual art allow for such a large array of expressions, it is interesting to see what Eco-Art is doing, and trying to achieve, in industrial and post-industrial societies.


Dave Pritchard - 1.08.2010

Dear Elizabeth – Thank you for this; I agree very much! You might be interested in this. Note that we shouldn’t necessarily always conflate the “dualistic” view with the “Western” view – there is a plurality of approaches within the “West”, as witnessed by Western eco-artists’ challenges to dominant technocratic paradigms. I also hope IUCN will broaden its view.


Josep-Maria Mallarach – 4.08.2010

Dear Dave - I agree that art (I would say, specially sacred / traditional art in most of the non-western world - and also eco-art in some western or westernised countries) is an important aspect that should be seriously taken into consideration in all our debates. However, the fact remains that this 'pluralistic' approaches that exist -even within the West, as you say- are not to be found in the hard core of IUCN, as we can see again and again...


Josep-Maria Mallarach, Spain – 5.08.2010

I completely agree with you Elizabeth. Most of the 'art performances' I have had the opportunity to watch in IUCN events left me with the same impression of lack of authenticity (some times even falsification) that you so well describe. To say the least, I felt quite uncomfortable with them. However, in my view the potential of art in general, and specially traditional art -so deeply connected with Nature- to communicate the deepest / intangible values of Nature is enormous, and remain largely absent in most strategies of communication and interpretation of not only protected areas, but nature conservation in general. This is, in my view, a very promising field in which our Specialist Group, should get much more involved, and make some significant contributions to WCPA and hopefully to IUCN in general. The presentations made by Virpi Sahi in of the sessions devoted to 'Synergies between Spiritual and Natural Heritage', at the last Contact Forum of the Barents Region, Arkhangelsk, Russia, a couple of months ago and Shelahg Hourahane, Creu-ad Heritage Interpretation Centre, Wales, at the International Seminar on 'Communicating Values and Benefits of Protected Areas', Isle of Vilm, Germany, 2009, are such examples. Although their approaches are very different, both of them seem to me valid concrete examples of the possibilities that art offers for increasing awareness and fostering deeper emotional bonds with nature, specially within protected areas. As the folk Finnish singer Virpi Sahi says: "The task of art is to help us to reach the experience of beauty, goodness and sacredness. In best case art is a critical way of thinking that challenges the prevailing moral and values".


Sue Stolton, UK – 5.08.2010

For what it is worth I agree with Josep-Maria and Elizabeth 100% and usually avoid these so-called cultural events. There is a whole world of “cultural / heritage interpretation” out there which we don’t think about enough in the international Protected Areas and conservation world – which is a shame (and one of the reasons I invited my inspirational friend Shelagh along to the workshop in Vilm Josep-Maria notes below last year). It would be lovely if the next World Park Congress could really embrace art and conservation in a more meaningful way. There are lots of examples and initiatives around which we could draw on I am sure....and it is a great way to get people involved in conservation.


Shelagh Hourahane, Creu-ad Heritage Interpretation, Wales, UK - 6.08.2010

I am really pleased to see that you are debating the role of Art in a future Conservation Congress. Thank you Josep-Maria and Sue for mentioning my presentation at Vilm and for bringing me into the discussion. I agree in general with the various points that have been made. I have not experienced the presentation of 'folk loric' events at international gatherings, in the way that you all have. However, I do think that this way of using the 'art' of a country or an area is often condescending and superficial. As you know, I work in the field of interpretation and believe that the arts can and are doing a lot to express important aspects of places and their values. However, even this activity needs a more critical view to be taken. I find that in interpretation, the idea of using art is often only seen as an add on for children and that visitors find it difficult to separate their notions of 'art' (as something that is purely personal and to be treated as fun or decorative) from its potentially serious role of getting under the skin of a place and a culture and for expressing quite challenging ideas. There is academic work in the field of landscape and performance art that is quite interesting. But often this tends to be very personal for the artists involved and may not really be rooted in either traditional views of a place or in its present day use and value. But, yes - there are a lot of very interesting people working in Eco and Environmental art, who in some cases, believe that they can actually point the way towards change in our attitudes and actions in relation to the natural world and environmental issues.

Communicating protected area significance through creative experience in the NNRs of Wales


Thymio Papayannis - 6.8.2010

I have been following the highly pertinent discussion on Art and Nature and feel grateful to Josep-Maria for initiating it. The issue itself is important, but it illustrates as well how limited the conventional approaches to conservation are. There is need of a lot more work before innovative and holistic approaches become mainstream concerns in the framework of IUCN. Certainly we should not get discouraged, but continue the good work. In this spirit, how can we disseminate the very valuable views expressed up to now on this particular theme? Could someone undertake to edit them so that the final product could be published or included in the CSVPA website? Perhaps in the future such discussions could be held through this website, so that their message can reach a broader audience. In addition, our friend Dave Pritchard gave us a fascinating list of websites devoted to Art and Nature, which constitutes a mind-opening resource; I have spend quite a bit of enjoyable time going through a few of them.


Virpi Sahi, Espoo, Finland - 09.08.2010

I would also thank Josep-Maria for taking me into this discussion and forwarding my ideas from Arkhangel seminar. Despite or my silence I have been following the discussion with curiosity. The last week I spent in the Seurasaari open air museum in Helsinki, where we had the annual folklore festival, and tomorrow I will start working in the Nuuksio National Park. In general I think that it is not important how "authentic" the art performance is, but it is crucial that it may open people's eyes and touch their hearts so that they would appreciate the nature (or nature site) better than they did without the performance. A performance may, for example, reveal that the surrounding nature is not "out there" but has a cultural/spiritual connection that may touch even those persons who do not understand too much about biodiversity. I think that the problem of using solely indigenous peoples ceremonies for this purpose is the following: they may suggest that the performers are "part of nature" (... like animals...?) but do not suggest that the audience should be!

Folk Music as a Tool of Expressing the Spiritual Values of Nature


Edwin Bernbaum - 9 August 2010

I have been following the discussion on the role of art in nature conservation with great interest. It’s an important and stimulating topic that deserves serious consideration. Thanks to Josep-Maria and Thymio for bringing it to the broader attention of the task force on cultural and spiritual values of protected areas. The discussion brings up some thoughts on a wider conception of the role of art and its implications on possible limitations in the approach of the task force that may be interfering with having the IUCN take our work more seriously. Art can do more than express values and evoke emotional responses to nature. It can change the way we see the world and reveal important aspects of reality that science misses, operating as it does primarily through abstract concepts and models. In particular, art can give us a fuller, richer, and deeper experience of what is actually there in its concrete uniqueness and immediacy: we become acutely aware of features of nature and our relationship to them that we have overlooked or taken for granted.

This experience of reality provides the basis for knowledge of the natural world and lies at the heart of what connects people to nature, arouses emotions, creates and affirms values, and motivates conservation. If the task forces limits itself to talking about the values of protected areas, it may be inadvertently giving the IUCN an excuse to dismiss its work as folkloristic icing on the cake, having to do primarily with how people value nature rather than having anything to do with what is actually there. I would suggest that, in addition to talking about values, we explore ways of focusing on the cultural and spiritual dimensions of experience and how those dimensions of experience can be valid and necessary sources of knowledge and meaning that complement scientific approaches to protected area conservation and management. This would have the added benefit of allowing for a more central and integrated role for art in conserving nature. It would also give more weight to and be aligned with indigenous views of sacred natural sites, which have reality as well as value for traditional cultures and religions.