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Aesthetics of Pollution
The long term natural process of converting dead organic matter into peat bogs and eventually into hard coal first attracted the technological interest of mining in the 9th century. It nevertheless took until the advent of steam engines in the 18th century for coal mining to be perfected.
Coal became emblematic of industrial modernisation, producing energy for the factories and with it, soot in the cities and on landscapes. Carried on drafts of circulating air, particles of dense pollution penetrated everyday life in industrialised regions: soot covered the city’s buildings, infiltrated people’s clothes, and deeply affected the lungs of all inhabitants. Thus, industrial pollution from coal burning determined the bodily experience and consciousness of industrial capitalist societies. Even more, it became the new, unavoidable environmental aesthetics of everyday life.
The experience of pollution shaped new standards of collective visual and olfactory perception in urban industrial environments, attracting the attention of artists throughout the entire l9th century. They were inspired by such innovations as the sfumato that Leonardo had introduced in the Renaissance and the baroque use of clouds to express the power of divine redemption. During the Industrial Revolution, the newly polluted air gave rise to new interpretations of the atmosphere. British and French painters in particular directed their gazes towards the polluted skies. Constantin Meunier, Claude Monet, J. M. W. Turner, and especially James Whistler transformed the floating dust particles into sources of artistic material. The latter’s Nocturne in Grey and Silver (1873-75) sublimated the grey colour of pollution into a highly effective and emblematic pictorial tool of modernism. The particles expelled from coal heating and industrial production fused with natural meteorological phenomena such as fog, dissolving the urban objects represented in such paintings and transforming them into autonomous visual elements of modern, abstract artistic invention. The polluted sky persisted as an aesthetic sensation until the 1970s. It damaged health but also generated aesthetic excitement, affecting the formation of collective identity in industrial societies. Only recent interdisciplinary aesthetic research, guided by a critical environmental attitude, has shown how polluted many late 19th-century cities actually were: from the atmospheric scattering of sunlight in Monet’s images of London, physicians have tried to deduce the levels of pollution. In the second half of the 20th century, photography claimed a stronger discursive power in environmental matters. Photographic paper, celluloid film and today digital media are screens for displaying pollution as a sign of global capitalist decay.
Ironically, many industrial and mining regions in the West have lost their productive power, and their post-industrial melancholy (with high rates of unemployment, and mines converted into museums and cultural heritage sites) expands under clear skies. The catastrophic aesthetics of pollution are now confined to car-crowded mega-cities. This melancholic aspect of the contemporary environment was already anticipated by the philosopher Robert Burton in the early 17th century: “Such as is the air, such be our spirits?” (2001:237). PK