I’ve been wanting to write on the topic of art and sustainability for a while now. A whole series in fact. Yet, I found the task daunting. Sustainability within the arts can be difficult. Plus, a bit exclusive. Often, it’s presented as effortless, when in many instances it’s not. Sometimes you don’t have the means or the finances to make certain shifts achievable. Mistakes happen often. In other words, the process is a gradual one. As a result, I’m taking a more eclectic approach in how I address the topic. Some posts may include more research, while others focus on applicability. My hope is by taking this mixed approach, the topic will be more accessible. So, here it goes. Part 1 of my “Art and Sustainability” Series. A fair warning—this one is a touch more fact-based than my usual writing ☺
Part 1: An Introduction
In 1992, Bulgarian-born artist Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude proposed a controversial art installation called “Over the River,” an art project that would cloak nearly 6 miles of the Arkansas River with shimmering cloth. There was a mixed reaction from the public, with some believing the revenue generated from the project made it worthwhile, while others believed the impact to the environment was disproportionately negative.1 As a result, an important question was raised for the residents of south-central Colorado: where’s the line between art and environmental destruction? After years of legal battles, Christo eventually gave up on the project, bringing relief to many. This example, however, is not unique to Christo. From toxic paints to harmful waste, art has been altering the environment since it began. In most cases it’s minor, with artists using supplies that require simple disposal procedures. In other instances, it’s major, as seen in the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, proposing a project that would have dramatically altered the ecosystem. No matter the degree, creating works of art has an impact on the environment. This prompts an important discussion—what’s the responsibility of the artist?
As environmental degradation continues to rise, the necessity for sustainable practices has become all the more important in all industries, including the arts. From deforestation, pollution, soil degradation, and loss of habitat, our environment is changing as a result of human development. While minor compared to other industries, art materials have the ability to effect both human and environmental health. In fact, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s art-making and risk-taking were closely associated, with most materials containing toxic ingredients.2 As a result, not only was the health of the artist affected, but these toxic waste products were ecologically destructive. From leaching into the earth’s soil to getting into our water supply, the repercussions were numerous. Luckily, with a growing concern for health and safety, Congress passed the Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act in 1988.3 This legislation requires art-supply manufacturers to label their products with warnings about toxic ingredients and precautions to take when using them.4 Certain cadmiums, cobalts, and lead-based paints have even been banned due to EU regulation.5 As a result, things are slowly improving. Artists are now aware of the hazardous ingredients in their products, enabling more conscious consumerism on their part. Some suppliers are even becoming proactive and starting to supply sustainable alternatives to meet this new market demand. There’s even been a revived “natural” art movement, in which beeswax, water, and organic oils are being used instead of toxic pigments and hydrocarbons.6
Thus, when examining the environmental implications of art, artists are more aware than ever of their work’s impact on the environment. With the list of sustainable options growing, artists now have the ability to make conscious decisions in their practice—contributing to our modern-day environmental arts movement. No longer an outlier, eco-friendly practices are becoming more and more the norm. In other words, artists are changing their ways. Thus, giving rise to the sustainable arts.
- Crugnale, James. “Will Christo’s Art Installation Harm Wildlife or Help Colorado?” MNN – Mother Nature Network, Mother Nature Network, 31 May 2017.
- Jospehs, Susan. “The Perils of Painting.” ARTnews, 18 July 2011.
- Siegle, Lucy. “Ethical Living: Can Art Be Environmentally Friendly?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 14 Apr. 2012.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the Spokane Art School Artist-in-Residence, and not necessarily to the Spokane Art School.