The Reasons Why Environmental Art is a Powerful Form of Climate Activism

The Truth, It Stings. Endangered Honeybees by Janel Houton

Environmental art is on the rise and its potential is far reaching. If you search carefully, you notice how you can find Environmental art everywhere in society. The diverse form of art ranges from photographs in a museum, to massive constellations in the natural environment, to stickers in urban scenes, to theatre plays, or even popular culture music. Environmental art can be subtle, or right in your face, but either way it’s a powerful means of environmental activism.

Until this day, climate change has not been taken seriously enough in many layers of society. An alarming amount of people still believe climate change is a hoax, or that it shouldn’t be a priority on the political agenda. The science is clear, but why is not convincing enough? People seem to need more than scientific evidence to be convinced about the necessity of climate action. Rather than changing the collective consciousness with scientific facts, it might be more effective to appeal to the senses.

One of the earliest Environmental artists was Agnes Denes. In 1982 she planted a two acre wheat field in New York really close to Wall Street and facing the Statue of Liberty, she called her artwork: Wheatfield – A Confrontation. The land she used was worth 4.5 billion dollars and the goal of the piece was to confront our misplaced priorities in many industries, such as food, energy, ecology and world trade. The harvested wheat became part of the global exhibition The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger.

Wheatfield – A Confrontation by Agnes Denes (1982)

Another example of an interesting Environmental art piece is the work Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson. The artist placed twelve ice blocks, which broke off an ice sheet in Greenland, in a clock formation to give people an unique and interactive experience with melting arctic ice. The installation was placed on the Copenhagen City Hall Square on the day of the publication of the fifth IPCC report, additionally in Paris on Place du Panthéon during the Paris Climate Conference and later in London in front of the Tate Modern. The artist has studied behavioural psychology and recognizes that the scientific evidence about climate change needs to be translated into emotional experiences in order to achieve behavioural change.

Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson (2014)

Environmental art can also be found in popular culture. Three days before Earth Day 2019, the American rapper Lil Dicky released the song Earth, which features 30 artists including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Snoop Dogg. The song raises awareness about climate change and the proceedings are donated to the Foundation of Leonardo DiCaprio, which protects vulnerable ecosystems and wildlife. The song tries to address climate change in a funny and an accessible way. The animated music video received a lot of attention after its release and currently has almost 250 million views.

The animated music video of Earth by Lil Dicky (2019)

Next to supporting sustainable projects with his foundation, Leonardo DiCaprio is also dedicated to promote Environmental art. He for example donated the large artwork of John Gerrard called the Solar Reverse Tonopah, Nevada (2014) to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The artwork is a simulation of a solar thermal power tower and shows the real time movements of mirrors to face the sun. The mirrors reflect the sunlight towards the top of the tower and there the bundled light heats molten salts. The salts become a thermal battery and are used to generate electricity. The artwork’s goal is to promote renewable energy.

The solar Reverse Tonopah, Nevada by John Gerrard (2014)

Many more pieces or varieties of Environmental art exist, but these four examples already show the wide audience Environmental art can reach. Environmental art is not new or small, instead it is a far reaching and highly accessible form of climate activism. Not everyone probably enjoys Lil Dicky’s song, but that doesn’t matter. The art movement’s diversity ensures that it appeals to many different groups of people. Moreover, the emotional responses art can evoke might be just as powerful as having a scientific insight. The scientists Sommer and Klöckner (2019) looked into the capacity of climate change art to raise awareness about global warming and found that art can indeed influence people’s opinion. However, an art piece is most effective if it is displayed outside the borders of a museum and when it displays a hopeful picture, offers solutions or emphasizes the beauty of nature. In the end art has the potential to engage people in a very different way than scientific facts ever could, this makes Environmental art a valuable form of climate activism. It’s a creative tool that might help steering the public debate about climate change into a more fruitful discussion.

References and Additional Reading

Sommer LK, Klöckner CA. 2019. Does activist art have the capacity to raise awareness in audiences? — A study on climate change art at the ArtCOP21 event in Paris. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

5 thoughts on “The Reasons Why Environmental Art is a Powerful Form of Climate Activism

  1. Thank you for covering such an interesting subject! I think this art movement is the perfect approach to reaching out to people who don’t relate as strongly to facts and figures on climate change.

    In regards to to the art by Ice Watch. I imagine some people might view this as a contradiction to their message due to the emissions associated with transporting and maintaining large ice blocks from Greenland to different countries (as well as I assume the short duration it lasts)? Did they mention this in their work?

    Furthermore, you mention a study where environmental art was found to influences peoples opinion. Did they mention if this influence was long lasting or if their opinions suggest they would change their behaviour to be more environmentally friendly?

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  2. Thank you for your questions! Yes I was also thinking about the carbon footprint of Ice Watch. I read that the artwork received some criticism in the press and because of that the artist worked together with an NGO called Julie’s Bicycle to calculate the carbon footprint of the project. They found that the carbon emissions of the project would be equal to 30 people flying return from Paris to Nuuk, Greenland (where the ice blocks were harvested). Here you can read the full report: http://olafureliasson.net.s3.amazonaws.com/subpages/icewatchparis/press/Ice_Watch_Carbon_Footprint.pdf . The artist mentioned in an interview that he thinks that the potential of the project to influence people’s behaviour or opinion about climate change outweighed the emissions of the project.

    The paper didn’t really go into if environmental art pieces could have a long lasting effect or to what extent they would influence people’s behaviour. I think the research was more focussed on identifying what characteristics of environmental art have the most potential to positively influence people’s opinion about climate change and their future behaviour towards the environment. I would say the research was not sufficient enough to say what the exact effects are of environmental art.

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  3. This is really fascinating, I have seen the Lil Dicky video countless times (this post made me go and rewatch it), but I love that you put all of these forms of artwork in the same analysis. I would never have even thought of that video in the same group as these other works of art. You are right, they are spreading the same message but just addressed to different audiences. I think that is one of the most powerful aspects of climate activism: everyone is affected. Every single person on the planet will be impacted by climate change in some way or another, and it is important that we are seeing an outcry from many different avenues. Art instillations are wonderful and they cause many people to stop and think, but they aren’t for everyone.

    Many people think that art instillations of this sort aren’t relevant to their lives and the art simply doesn’t appeal to them. They might think it is a waste of their time to look at a field of wheat and ponder its place in the world, and it was a waste of the artists money. It is also important to note that all of these exhibits are taking place in cities, leaving people who live in suburbs or rural areas with fewer opportunities to be exposed to things like this. But that is not the only place in which the conversation about climate change and environmental issues are taking place.

    Lil Dicky’s piece certainly isn’t a universal project either. But it is out there with the intention of promoting awareness. These example pieces make me wonder what group is missing as an audience to these works, and what kind of works could find those people. If you have to go out of your way to see art, it changes the entire audience. I think Lil Dicky’s video is an excellent example of something that could appeal to more people, but do you think that there is some sort of environmental art that isn’t being utilized that could reach even more people? In your research did you find any examples of street art that was particularly impactful

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  4. I didn’t see anything about street art in my research! However, I remember when I was in Sydney for my exchange I saw a lot of environmental street art. Around Bondy Beach there are a lot of pieces with lines such as: ‘Don’t trash our oceans!’ or artworks of sad turtles swimming in a polluted ocean. I am not sure what type of environmental art isn’t utilized yet that would have a lot of potential. There is already so much variety, I didn’t include any photographs in my analysis, but there are many photography exibitions focussing on climate change. Other less convential types of Environmental art are design or culinary arts. Maybe it could be interesting if a popular gaming company would create a futuristic game based on different climate scenarios.

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  5. Great post! Throughout history, art has obviously been a really powerful medium for encouraging, educating and spreading social change. I took a class last semester at my home university about climate change and one of our first assignments was actually to visit a museum that had a special film exhibit that dealt with our changing planet. (Here’s a link to the exhibit, if you are interested https://www.icaboston.org/exhibitions/john-akomfrah-purple). I thought it was a really unique way to get the class to start thinking about the course’s subject matter, sparked some really good conversations and also, I think really displayed the idea that climate change isn’t just an environmental problem, but also has many societal impacts as well. It was also a quite interesting juxtaposition to the way we normally talk about environmental problems and climate change, which is often very scientific – compared to an art exhibition which is almost like a new language in which to discuss these kinds of topics.

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