On the Rise of Environmental Art

Icebergs in Greenland are melting

Art triggers emotions

Art gives a human voice to societal or environmental ‘complications’ (yes, avoiding the ‘p’ word here on purpose). Art can bring attention to certain aspects of specific magnitude like injustice, exploitation… or wonder. Art triggers an emotional response. We all know that the response differs significantly and is unpredictable.

Art can bring forth cognitive activation, too. You linger on the connections your mind has made, certain memories, dreams or wishes and reflect on causes and effects of your own or collective human behaviour. You might compare two points of time: the past and the present or the present and the future. If those two points in time do not show the same or similar conditions you will either interpret it as a positive or negative development. 

Let’s take the past and present as an example. You see a painting that displays an icebergs in Greenland by the artist Zaria Forman. You ‘have heard’ from the current discussion around global warming that the rising total mean temperature of our planet endangers Greenland’s ecosystem. You assimilate the rise in temperature with melting ice. In your mind you compare the past, where the icebergs had been intact in all their sublimity, with the present, where they are not. It is clear that the present condition is worse compared to the past, thus we have experienced a negative development. It is the artist has brought this deteriorating environmental state in Greenland to your attention.

How does that make you feel? Now, this is a response as individual as the preferences and tastes of morning coffee. I would assume the majority to feel some sort of pain, resentment or disappointment. How long will this feeling last? Probably latest until you walk out of the gallery door (unless you are a citizen of Greenland and are directly affected by the danger of its condition). I do not say that it doesn’t matter to us (quite to the contrary), but as we are not consistently surrounded by the reminder of Greenland’s melting ice we do not have a lasting emotional link to it.

Art affirms values

David J. Curtis, researcher on the correlation of arts and environmental behaviour in Australia, and his team observed the role of arts in creating empathy for ecological preservation and restoration. They found out the following:

Art has a direct effect: it can express dissent, protest and resistance to (social) norms. It does also have an indirect effect which goes with the affirmation of beliefs, attitudes and values. If, for example, the artwork illustrates a landmark or natural setting that is valuable to you because it relates to a pleasant past or present experience with or in nature, then it affirms the strong belief that this is something worth to protect. It affirms your values of care and appreciation towards the environment. Curtis says that happy childhood memories in nature play a significant part in the appreciation you have towards it as an adult.

What you value you give meaning.

Such artwork that puts the natural environment at its core is called Environmental Art. It recreates the emotional link and recalls a sense of wonder and connectedness. And if the emotion is strong and lasting enough, it might stimulate you to reflect on your role within the current condition and status-quo of human-nature relationship. And you might adopt a more pro-environmental behaviour, too. This seems only true though when you feel that what can be done is within your range of action. If an artwork displays the ‘apocalyptic come true’ and puts vanished ice, dead polar bears and seals at its center of attention, it most probably triggers pretty disturbing emotions that will only make you feel more separated and helpless and unable to do anything. The same effect holds true for scientific forecasts and climate education.

It can be shocking and provoke anxiety which, if we are honest, leads to nowhere.

What can you, as a single individual, do about this problem (yep, here we go)? How can you save all the polar bears and seals? This is where daunting environmental art ‘loses’ its spectators and its effectiveness.

Environmental Art encourages action-taking

We need more art to emphasize the beauty and intrinsic value of the natural environment. Art that renews the emotional link we have with nature. Art that offers some sort of solution to the current condition and inspires us to see where we can play our part in protecting it. Focussing on what we can do is empowering. If every single spectator of an artwork perceives that what he or she can do will make a difference (as small as the activity might be) it encourages action. Individual actions accumulate. Actions of people that turn towards the environment rather than away from it or forget about it (as soon as they walk out of the gallery’s door). This can create a collective power and turn it into a community, a community that, according to Curtis, is ‘the driving force for change’. Change that appears from the bottom up and inspires others to join the movement.

Zaria Forman says about her work:

My drawings explore moments of transition, turbulence and tranquility in the landscape allowing viewers to emotionally connect with the place you might never have the chance to visit. I choose to convey the beauty as opposed to the devastation. If you can experience the sublimity of these landscapes perhaps you be inspired to protect and preserve them.

I encourage you to watch her TED talk named ‘Drawings that show the beauty and fragility of Earth’. It beautifully highlights the depth of her work and stimulates the emotional link to Greenland’s icebergs that we need.

To sum it up, art has an influence on our perception and appreciation of nature and functions as a catalyst for pro-environmental behaviour. As an agent of change, art can stimulate change on a societal level.


Image: Greenland no.63 – courtesy of the artist Zaria Forman

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