Editor’s note: Karl Kusserow is John Wilmerding Curator of American Art at the Princeton University Art Museum and editor of three books addressing art and environmental concerns, most recently “Object Lessons in American Art.” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
President Joe Biden recently signed Executive Order 14096 creating the White House Office of Environmental Justice, “further embedding environmental justice into the work of federal agencies to achieve real, measurable progress that communities can count on.” The inclusive spirit of Biden’s order, formally titled “Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All,” was reflected in the optics of the signing ceremony.
Held in the White House Rose Garden, it was an exercise in political stagecraft. The notably diverse crowd of onlookers, surrounded by springtime greenery, blended the all-too-often disenfranchised together with the external environment to underscore the frequently fraught relation between the two. Set under sunny skies, the ceremony seemed a culmination of Biden’s efforts to bring the issue of environmental justice — a concept first officially recognized in a 1994 executive order signed by President Bill Clinton — further out of the shadows and into the realm of actionable response.
What took America so long to get to a place where, as Biden stated, “environmental justice will be the mission of the entire government”? Perhaps it is because, unlike other forms of oppression, environmental injustice can be hard to see. But it has always been there. Sometimes it requires consideration of the opposite — call it environmental privilege — to discern the ways in which circumstances and actions available to some are denied to others.
Art can suggest how environmental factors differently shape the lives of people with varying agency and access to power. In historical works of art, environmental injustice is often veiled in images created by and for the environmentally privileged.
Complicating the difficulty in seeing environmental injustice is the reality that it is not always a matter of pollution and toxic waste dumps — visible things that leave overt signs of the devastation they bring. Disease and contagious pathogens also unequally affect those more or less empowered to contend with their impacts.
Take American artist Robert Weir’s appealing painting of 1833, “The Greenwich Boat Club.” In its portrayal of a gathering of professional men, it is on one level a representation of bourgeois culture in ascendant Jacksonian America. Although not ostensibly “environmental,” Weir’s picture also turns out to have everything to do with political ecology and the history of environmental justice — specifically an epidemic of cholera in New York during the summer of 1832.
Because the circumstances surrounding the painting’s creation were described in a diary kept by one of its subjects, we know the names of each of the depicted individuals (who include the artist himself, standing directly beneath the flagpole) and understand that, despite their carefree appearance, these nine men have gathered together in an effort to “escape the pestilence,” as Weir put it, by fleeing Manhattan — the Greenwich (Village) of the work’s title — for the New Jersey shore.
The figure shown seated on a rock is physician James Ellsworth De Kay, who had studied Asiatic cholera in Turkey and later in Quebec, where the North American outbreak began. At the time, the disease was thought to spread through a vaporous “miasma”; the painting’s cloudy sky and murky background atmosphere, through which Manhattan is barely suggested, shrouded in haze, evoke such period medical theories. Only in 1854 did the London physician John Snow establish that cholera is a bacterial infection spread by contaminated water and food.
Such conditions occurred most often in overcrowded urban environments with poor sanitation, such as the notoriously squalid Five Points slum north of New York’s City Hall. Of the 3,500 individuals who perished in the epidemic, a disproportionate number came from the city’s impoverished immigrants and African Americans, many of whom lived in Five Points.
The slum was built over the old Collect Pond, once the city’s reservoir, which had gradually filled with garbage. Yet the Manhattan Company (founded by Aaron Burr and eventually Chase Manhattan Bank, now JPMorgan Chase & Co.), which had been created to provide clean water for the city, dug the well serving the disadvantaged neighborhood directly over the polluted reservoir, supplying its residents with contaminated, deadly water.
Many upper-class New Yorkers blamed the victims themselves for contracting the disease, as exemplified by civic leader John Pintard, who wrote to his daughter that the epidemic “is almost exclusively confined to the lower classes of intemperate dissolute & filthy people huddled together like swine in their polluted habitations. Those sickened must be cured or die off, & being chiefly of the very scum of the city, the quicker (their) dispatch the sooner the malady will cease.”
Weir’s gentlemen-at-leisure representation of what was for many a horrific time contrasts greatly with contemporary images of victims, underscoring how environmental effects are unevenly distributed and experienced among different social groups. In the summer of 1832, it was only people of means who were able to flee the contagion and wait it out in safer environs.
As a disease that originated in Asia and proceeded westward in waves during the 19th century, cholera acquired a reputation as a foreign invader, fostering xenophobia while exacerbating moral anxieties regarding class differences. Poor Irish Catholic immigrants were particularly targeted as causes of the malaise.
Variola major, or smallpox, was another foreign invader, and for countless Native Americans, even deadlier. The so-called Columbian Exchange between the New World and the “old” following the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas in 1492 included, in addition to flora, fauna, commodities, technology and human populations (both free and captive), the transfer of multiple diseases as well. In this as in other instances, the colonists from beyond the Western Hemisphere caused far more damage to its original inhabitants than to themselves, introducing a host of maladies for which Indigenous peoples had no immunity.
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Compounding the devastation of unconsciously transmitted pathogens, colonists also introduced biological warfare by intentionally infecting Indigenous peoples with disease, most notoriously by “gifting” smallpox-laden blankets to Native Americans. Contemporary Canadian Plains Cree artist Ruth Cuthand’s “Extirpate This Execrable Race” (2018) consists of stacks of gray felt blankets, beribboned as if gift wrapped, onto which are affixed enlarged microscopic views of the deadly virus made from colorful beads. The title of the series references Field Marshal Jeffery Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst, commander in chief of the forces in the British army, who wrote in a letter to a subordinate at the frontier, “You will Do well to try to Inoculate the Indians by means of Blanketts, as well as to try Every other Method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.”
Cuthand elaborates her affiliation of disease with glass beads — trade items also brought by European settlers — in subsequent works deploying dark humor through gorgeous portrayals of viruses and bacteria that disproportionately affect the disadvantaged, Indigenous and otherwise. In the “Surviving” series, she emphasizes the enduring nature of environmental injustice, including Covid-19 as a present-day example of the unequal impact of contagious disease.
In an essay about the task of art in an age of injustice, James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.” Biden’s Executive Order 14096, and the ceremony that ushered it into existence, represents an attempt to render justice in America more visible — to make it more like Cuthand and less like Weir. Only then, to quote Baldwin again, can we “remake America into what we say we want it to be.”