Consequential Transience: Why the Funding of Sustainable Art Matters

Crust of the Polygon

Should art be sustainable?

This question has become the focus of conservation initiatives and zero-waste discussions in the art community around the world. Much of this focus rests on the materials used in art. It begs the question that art should be as permanent as its influence. But with modern technologies and approaches, why not both?

Alena Koval
Image by Alena Koval

So, can fine art still be sustainable? Should reflections of inspiration be as permanent as their impact? Let’s look at examples of sustainable art approaches, where problems arise, and how those conversations shifted to mediums used today.First, what is sustainable art? To define this, we can look at it in two different ways: art that is created using sustainable materials and methods and art that is intended to weigh in on present discourse. The basis of it is not the search for immediate solutions but taking steps to make the art world more sustainable—whether it be by method or public awareness.


However, this facet of art now needs to be looked at more carefully as corporations turn to this kind of work not for conversations but for PR campaigns.


One example of sustainable art takes us over to London, where the National Gallery worked with their partner to create the first living masterpiece as a way to highlight the focus on the consequences of pouring excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2011. Its intention as a piece of sustainable art was to merge the two ideas together—sustainable materials and methods that facilitate conversations about environmental conservation. The actual piece is great. Inspired by Van Gogh’s A Wheat Field with Cypresses, the dimension created with the use of living medium illustrates the messages of environmental consciousness.

Crust of the Polygon

However, that message changes when it’s revealed that the other partner involved in this is none other than General Electric, one of the biggest conglomerates in the energy industry. Their sponsorship alone turned the interpretation of the piece on its head—it no longer felt like a piece designed to facilitate conversations and make a change in the art world or in the energy sector but rather a way to flip conversations on sustainability back onto the consumer. The questions the piece raised drifted away from “What can we do to make the world a better place?” and more toward “What can I do to reduce my carbon footprint to preserve works like this?” British Petroleum (BP), a company that collaborates with GE on projects, even coined the term “carbon footprint” to shift responsibility of carbon emissions away from the industry and onto the public consumers. All of these pieces of conversations in sustainability fester in this artwork now because of GE’s involvement.

Fortunately, corporate and conglomerate influence in sustainable art does not mitigate public awareness of their involvement. Take land art, for example. On the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, Robert Smithson crafted the Spiral Jetty (2004). It’s over 1,500 feet long, and much like its location, it is made up of ethically and naturally sourced materials. The Spiral Jetty is so distinct from far distances that it can be seen from space, and thousands of people travel to walk along the coastal spiral. It is a piece that facilitates conversation, but along with its message, brings unity, and a collective drive to bring the public into nature and show them what sustainable art can look like and what kinds of possibilities are out there for sustainable development in the future.

Spiral Jetty by Laramee Smithson
Image courtesy of Getty Images

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