Leveraging art and artists for social change

November 5, 2013

In October I traveled to Austin, Texas for SXSWEco expecting to learn about plenty of green and clean technology, policies and activist campaigns to advance sustainability in the face of climate change.  The most important idea I came away with was quite unexpected: Art and artists have an important role to play in the environmental movement, and other movements.

The topic came up more than once: Ron Finley, the urban gardener from Los Angeles who rose to internet fame after giving a TED talk earlier this year opened the conference touching upon the beauty of the edible gardens he plants in South Central LA. The Reverend Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus urged the audience to harness culture to save the planet by deeply engaging with artists, not simply inviting one to sing a song at a rally. He urged the planners of SXSWEco to engage artists to create original works to be presented alongside other programming.

And in the most direct example of art — specifically visual art — and the role it can play in activism, Shepard Fairey gave a keynote address in the form of a slideshow of his work over the years that had either been commissioned or offered free to organizations and movements. While Fairey is perhaps most well known for the Obama Hope portrait of 2008, and the Obey Giant apparel, he has a long history of working with environmental organizations going back to his days in Providence, RI where he provided logos and posters for Adam Werbach’s activist projects.

Another panel, What The Frack?!, featured Reverend Yearwood, and Paul Miller (DJ Spooky) who has been creating multimedia art inspired by the environment and climate change, especially its impacts on the arctic. The anti-fracking movement has brought together a diverse coalition that includes many artists and musicians, and has inspired — and been inspired by — two documentaries.

The importance of art and beauty was not just present in sessions directly focused on activism. George Oates, creative director of Stamen, a design firm in San Francisco presented her team’s work presenting data from scientists studying the Chesapeake Bay as maps that are as aesthetically beautiful as they are informative. Stamen also created a map layer that is its own beautiful work of watercolor-like art.

In the weeks since the conference, I’ve been looking into these individuals and others engaged in creating art to inspire action in (and around) today’s climate movement. A recent dialogue between Miller and Bill McKibben provides interesting insight not only into Miller’s work inspired by his visit to the Arctic, but also McKibben’s view of the artistic aspect of his organization’s work. McKibben’s public presentations nearly always include a slide show of images from 350.org actions around the world. The canvas is our planet, with the picture painted by people. Some of these performance art pieces have even been visible from space, part of 350.org’s eARTh project.

The street artist Banksy has used his art and wit to call attention to a number of issues from consumerism to climate change. In October he took to the streets of New York City creating a number of works in a variety of mediums, perhaps one of the most political and powerful, Sirens of the Lambs, was a truck that plied the streets of the city for 2 weeks with animal puppets peeking through the slats making frightened animal sounds. The door of the truck read, “Farm Fresh Meats.” How could anyone see this work and not just for a moment think about cruel and inhumane treatment of livestock on factory farms?

Art has a way of reaching through the too often politically charged media landscape and provoking our emotions. Our team has written about this in our visual storytelling guide and on the visual storytelling blog.  While we can all make (digital) “art” — a photograph, a poster, a Vine video — now more easily than ever, artists often command wide audiences and can spend more time and resources planning and executing their vision. Miller’s Book Of Ice, and the music and live performances are a perfect example of this (he spent six weeks in Antarctica researching and recording for this work).

Artists can also reach new, or previously unsympathetic audiences and constituencies for your cause or campaign. The 2012 hit song, “Same Love” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring poet and spoken word artist Mary Lambert is perhaps one of the best recent examples. An anthem for legalization of same sex marriage, the song has been given some credit for the passage of Washington State’s marriage equality act.

If you’ve made it this far hopefully I have convinced you of the value and impact of brings art and artists into your movement or campaign, and you are probably wondering how you can do it. One place to start is the  Creative Action Network where you can find existing artwork to license, or run a crowdsourced campaign to develop new work. You may also try prospecting artists in the same way you prospect donors, and by this I mean find artists who are interested in your issues and engage them in your movement. One way to start is by including just a little bit of art in your work, perhaps read an inspiring poem or show a beautiful piece of art or photo during your next meeting or presentation.

Gregory Heller