• Eric d'Avernas

Is art natural?

At first glance, you might think of art and nature as completely different concepts, making this question difficult to answer. To begin to explore this question, we must first define the two concepts. For starters, art is, in the general sense, the manifestation or application of human creativity. This includes some of the most common forms of art such as painting, music, photography, and sculpture. To most, much of art centers on the artist’s products that express emotion through imagination and talent. If you look through the history of human development, however, there are countless other manifestations of human creativity. Advancements such as harnessing electricity, the invention of steam-powered engines, or the creation of solar panels are wonderful examples of human creativity, in the sense of ‘imaginative’, ‘original’, and ‘innovative’. Though these examples focus more on utility and human comfort, they are no less representative of human creativity, imagination, and talent. While the end product might serve different purposes, the processes of scientific innovation and artistic creation are surprisingly similar.

What about nature? Nature is forests, oceans, mountains, deserts, flora, and fauna. ‘Nature’ in the modern, physical sense is typically found away from urban centers where humans live in high density. That being said, one could speak of nature within cities: parks, boulevards, lawns, backyards, and gardens. The major difference is that these locations are typically ‘naturalized’ or tended to by humans. This gives us two different categories of nature: a nature where humans live, and a nature where humans do not. The boundary between these two locations is difficult, perhaps impossible, to define, but once you examine the differences between a northern Canadian taiga where few people live and downtown Toronto, nature in any sense has a different meaning. A person walking through the busiest part of a large city would have a hard time saying “This is nature!”, for a true wilderness lies beyond city limits. This is a prime example of how the development of urban centers has led to different definitions of nature, and developing cities have slowly pushed away the more ‘wild’ or ‘nonhuman’ nature. In this way, from the human perspective, ‘nature’ exists relative to and separate from the human sphere.

But what about places like Central Park in New York or le Parc du Mont-Royal in Montreal? Surely these are examples of natural areas despite their surrounding urban sprawl. Considering our definition of art, the act of landscaping or taking care of areas such as these parks is an example of a manifestation of human creativity. This means that any naturalized location from municipal parks to community gardens to a mown lawn loses its status as ‘nonhuman’ nature as soon as any human alters it. If this is the case, is there even any ‘nonhuman’ nature left on Earth, considering the global impact human activities have had on the environment? If we consider technological advancements, urban development, and ecological footprints as byproducts of human creativity, the answer is probably no – human activity has affected most or all parts of the world.

The truth is that while we seem to differentiate between city and nature, humans and their creations, or manifestations of human creativity, are as much a part of nature as the furthest corners of wilderness. Kitchens, backyards, houses, and cities, are all part of the same nature that has existed since before human development. In other words, nature is everywhere, not just away from cities.

Let us return to the title question: is art natural? Whether you’re talking about a painting, a building, a song, or a city, all products of human creativity take place in and come from nature. ‘Nature’ is everything that existed before humans, but it did not cease to exist when we began to. Rather, humans came from and belong to nature, and it is the environment that supports our living. What is important is to remember that all life on our planet, though it can be very diverse, belongs to a single, global environment. In this way, art, or human creation, is as natural as the hills, or the trees, or the oceans. The human sphere is not separate from the natural sphere, and this is why our actions affect the natural environment on a global scale.