Jo Anna Isaak, Ph.D., Art Historian
Jo Anna Isaak, Ph.D., is the John L. Marion Chair in Art History and chair of the Department of Art History at Fordham.
Jo Anna Isaak, Ph.D., believes it is natural for art to play an important role in environmental activism. A main goal of her work as an art historian is to promote the idea that art serves a vital and necessary social purpose.
This conviction has led to one of her current projects, The Greening of the Avant-Garde, a forthcoming book that revises established views about the social detachment of the modernist movement in art.
“The whole idea of art for art’s sake, which is so central to modernism, is a kind of abdication of social responsibility on one level,” said Isaak, the John L. Marion Chair in Art History and chair of the Department of Art History at Fordham. “It might have sounded liberating at some point in time, but it meant that art became removed from the practice of real life.
“I don’t believe that was the agenda of modernism.”
For Isaak, an environmental social commitment resided within modernism from its inception. Her aim in Greening is to trace its trajectory in its European and American manifestations.
Isaak’s historical narrative in Europe begins with the Impressionist painters, who are commonly associated with a type of idyllic placidness. But Isaak is quick to point out that the full story of the Impressionists is more complex.
“Impressionist painters [like Pissarro, Degas and Seurat] often documented environmental degradation, what industrialization was doing to the laborers in the factories and to their health, what it meant to move off the farms and work in masses.”
In America, Isaak finds that artists took a different approach to environmental preservation, based on the idea that the country had an abounding wilderness, something Europeans could no longer claim.
An environmental project, according to Isaak, is evident in the 19th-century landscape paintings of Thomas Cole and the 20th-century photographs of Ansel Adams, both of whom celebrated the vast American wilderness. Adams in particular, as a primary photographer for the Sierra Club, had an explicit conservationist purpose driving his photographic endeavors.
“Adams created an image of pristine, untouched, perfect America that—even if it wasn’t true, and it’s not—it made people want to preserve it.”