"A picture can say a thousand words.” This platitude rings true in all art, but especially in protest art. Art is perfect for protest: it often can be more effective in reaching more audiences, communicating an idea more clearly, and evoking emotions within the art’s consumer than, say, an essay. Thus, climate activists have often used art, be it traditional painting, graphic design, or another medium, to advocate for the Earth.
Climate protest fine art has been a phenomenon for centuries. A perfect example is “The Lackawanna Valley” (c. 1856), painted by George Inness, which depicts a farmer basking in the shade of the only tree in the foreground of the painting whilst surrounded by tree stumps and observing clouds of smoke billow from various points of pollution, including a train. It clearly advocates for an early environmentalist point that continues today; it’s against the removal of America’s nature for development. And “The Lackawanna Valley” is just one of many other centuries-old pieces of environmentalist fine art.
Environmentalist fine art is more common today though, but the environmental message of the pieces may not be as obvious: many artists use unconventional materials as a quiet protest. Although the image itself may not say an environmentalist message, the recycled paper, disposed-of plastic, and broken glass that many artists are using do. These recycled materials are replacements for non-sustainable materials, and using them instead of typical materials promotes sustainability, upcycling, and overall better treatment of our Earth.
Stella McCartney's 2020 collection uses leather made from mushroom mycelium. Photo credit: Stella McCartney
This uptick in the use of sustainable materials has also been seen in fashion, another form of art. Designers are creating and imagining their clothes, their artwork, in a way that uses upcycled fabrics and recycled fabrics (just look at Stella McCartney’s 2020 collection, which incorporated unusual sustainable fabrics like mushroom leather). Some brands have become sustainable in other ways, like Gucci making their fashion shows—their art shows—“carbon neutral” since 2020.
And artistic activism doesn’t always have to arise from these “traditional” forms of art: if you’ve ever been to a protest and made a protest sign, that’s a form of protest art. Although not climate activism, Glenn Ligon’s 1988 “I Am A Man,” an art piece inspired by protest signs from 1968, has become an iconic symbol of the civil rights movement and an iconic work of art. People create protest art whenever they attend a climate rally and make a sign. Protest signs convey a creative message through graphics, including drawings, lettering, and more to truly convince people that “There is no Planet B” and that “This is our future,” to use common protest sign phrases. That is protest art. That is artistic activism.
Art has been used to protest in all of its forms, from novels, poetry, and music to fine art, fashion, and graphic design. Art allows artists to create and shape ideas in the viewer’s mind, and the whole objective of art is to empower an artist to express their beliefs in a unique and creative way. That’s what makes art such a strong and commonly used resource for environmentalists and climate change protesters; self-expression creates powerful and compelling arguments.