Designing for a sustainable planet requires a lot of creativity in almost every aspect, including policies, city planning, technology, and a myriad of other problems and innovations one may encounter. But we don’t call these “creative” practices, and they’re definitely not considered artistic practices. What if artistic practices were also thought of as essential to the environmental movement?
Art is persuasive. It is an argument not bound by the rules of language and can manifest itself in a wide range of mediums and forms. A 2003 U.S. Senate debate over drilling in the Arctic changed course when Senator Barbara Boxer showed a photograph taken by Subhankar Banerjee of a polar bear crossing a frozen harbor in response to a claim that the Arctic was just “a flat white nothingness.” Even in its simplicity, it overthrew an assumption that held together the pro-drilling argument, making a huge and abstract issue more tangible and immediate. It was images like this one that convinced lawmakers, including Alaska’s senior senator Ted Stevens, to oppose the drilling.
Both individual artists and large organizations are already using art to help drive political change, from exhibits dedicated to environmental art to huge installations in public spaces. It is happening all around us, and alongside it the potential to create change in a way entirely unique to its craft.
Wallace Stegner once called Ansel Adams and John Muir the “two great poets” of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. Adams worked closely with the Sierra Club, serving on the board of directors and later becoming an honorary vice-president, but his other contribution was his photography. Eventually his photographs of the National Parks built a visual timeline of what the parks looked like before and after tourism, which helped expand the national park system. Art creates emotional attachment in a way that empirical evidence rarely does, and can be both a reminder and a motivator.
Media other than photography can be just as effective. Two of the first environmental artists, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, created a landscape sculpture called California Wash in 1996. Built over a storm drain in Santa Monica, the sculpture formed a trail from the Pico Boulevard to the beach to show the former ecology of the area. It traced the pathway the water had once taken to reach the sea before being replaced by storm drains, with bronze plaques inset with images of the original fauna, and glass imitating the natural geology of the area–a reminder of what had been contaminated or removed after urbanization. It was a “memorial” that the viewer moved through as they walked along the coast, a narrative that could just as easily be applied to our own lost landscapes, such as the Bayshore wetlands or the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
Great art is also accessible. When options feel limited or people feel unequipped to make change happen on their own, it can bring them together to take a collective stance. This happened when thousands of volunteers collaborated on 350.org’s eARTh project to make human sculptures visible from space. These human sculptures took place all around the world, including one in Los Angeles called Solar Eagle. The participants’ individual bodies together formed the image of an eagle taking flight to show that people from all backgrounds would rise together, and held up solar panels to voice their support of solar energy.
Art alone won’t solve all of our biggest challenges, but there are a lot of ways it can be used and a lot we can learn from it. People act when they feel moved to do so, and art specializes in moving people. The art critic Peter Schjeldahl said in a speech that “[g]reat artworks are lawyers for our humanity in the court of existence.” Now more than ever, it’s time to make room in the court for art.
— Aya Kusch