Note: This is Part 4 of my Art and Sustainability Series. If you’re interested in an introduction to the topic, head over to Part 1 here. Otherwise, continue on.

Part 4: A Vehicle for Change
It’s time to discuss the “frivolous” nature of art. In other words, addressing the belief the production of artwork, whether environmentally friendly or not, is unnecessary. While uncommon, some even argue the materials to create artwork are polluting, and due to its lack of functionality, an act of excess. Others argue the production of art contributes to the consumerist culture we live in, becoming yet another source of environmental harm. Again, these views are rare, however they do facilitate the opportunity to discuss an important topic: the value of art.

To address these particular qualms, it’s first necessary to evaluate the contribution of the arts in comparison to its environmental consequences. Before doing this, however, I should note—the arts have numerous benefits, many of which I will not be going into. From mental health, beautifying our everyday surroundings to economic benefits, art has and will continue to play a large role in our daily lives. Yet, these will not be my focus. Instead, I’m going to address the beneficial relationship of the arts specifically in regard to environmentalism.

While it is true artistic endeavors result in the consumption of materials, if done in a conscientious manner, the benefits of art have the opportunity to outweigh these negatives. Most importantly, art has the ability to communicate a message of positivity and awareness. As a result, artwork should continue to be produced, however, in the most sustainable way possible for the individual creating it. While humans will always affect the environment, it doesn’t mean we can’t minimize our impact. Instead, we can create a valuable outcome through our work.

Now, let’s dive deeper into these benefits. For one, art has the ability to move people in a way unattainable through any other means. It can be used as a vehicle to encourage change, including areas concerned with environmental issues. Take Zaria Forman for instance, a contemporary artist who conveys the urgency of climate change through her large renderings of melting ice glaciers. As a result of her experiences with the glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, Forman has seen first-hand the devastating effects of climate change. According to the artist, it’s difficult translating these first-hand experiences with the public, with diagrams, photographs and statistics failing to encapsulate the gravity of the issue. Geographer Yi Fu Tuan, in his book, Space and Place, says this situation is not surprising, due to there being a difficulty in making intimate experiences of place accessible to the public. However, one way to combat this is through the use of art. According to Dr. Tuan, art has the ability to “make images of feeling so that feeling is accessible to contemplation and thought.” This idea can be seen within Forman’s work, with Forman attempting to invoke an emotional response within her viewer through her use of scale. In doing so, she captures the sublime character of the place, allowing viewers to contemplate on the fleeting nature of these massive glaciers as a result of climate change. This exemplifies the powerful impact art can having in facilitating change, being instrumental in communicating difficult ideas in a way that can be achieved no other way.

Not only is art capable of communicating these difficult ideas, it also has the ability to create hope in the viewer. In terms of inspiring change, we are motivated more by hope than fear. According to David Meyer, professor of sociology at U.C. Irvine and author of The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America, using fear doesn’t make people engaged, it makes them give up. Luckily, art has this unique ability to inspire hope in the viewer, providing another reason why it’s necessary we continue to produce art. In the case of Forman, her aim is to inspire action, not leave the viewer depressed, which is why she chooses to focus on the exquisiteness of the glaciers rather than the devastation. According to her, focusing on the destruction of these areas is not empowering to the viewer. It makes them lose hope in the situation. To combat this, she makes her drawings as a way to show how incredible these glaciers are in both size and splendor, so that people will feel called to enact against climate change.

Despite its environmental implications, which as stated before can be reduced through environmental practices, the benefits of art are numerous, thus being a reason as to why artists need to continue to make art. If artists stopped producing artwork, this ability to instill hope within the public would diminish, negatively impacting the environmental movement rather than improving it. With no hope in the situation, there is no change. Plus, the arts go beyond this. They instill in our lives meaning and passion. In other words—yes, the making of art is not essential. However, it is necessary.

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.