The National Gallery in London recently advertised that it partnered with General Electric to “grow the first living masterpiece.” Outside the museum in Trafalgar Square, it set up its real-life masterpiece—a landscape picture made out of real plants. No doubt, it was beautiful in its own way and gathered lots of attention from passersby. However, I couldn’t help but think how exaggerated of a claim this was. I mean, really? The “first living masterpiece”? How were they defining “masterpiece?” Do the gardens of Versailles not count? Or any planted environment for that matter?
Granted, I imagine the claim was meant to incite interest into GE’s “ecomagination” campaign (www.ecomagination.com), an initiative to develop new “green” technologies for the future of the environment. While GE isn’t especially concerned with art (the National Gallery advertisement is the only thing I could find in that regard), the billboard and art piece did made me think about what it means to connect “green technology” with art. Like energy, city-planning, etc., will art be required to “go green” in the future? What might this even mean? Should art be “sustainable”? Furthermore, should “Christian art” be “sustainable”?
Many artists have gone this general direction in their work. Even a look at the popular website etsy.com, where artists can set up an online shop to sell their work, shows the increased use of organic, fair-trade materials and recycled objects in artwork. While Etsy shows how much “green thinking” has pervaded the mainstream world of arts and crafts, the concern for environmental resources has obviously entered the “higher art world” as well. Take Luke Bedford’s new opera, Seven Angels. Inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, it reflects a concern for “the urgent challenges of a changing climate and ever-depleting resources.” Even Wikipedia now has en entry for “sustainable art,” describing it this way: “The expression sustainable art has been promoted recently as an art term that can be distinguished from environmental art that is in harmony with the key principles of sustainability, which include ecology, social justice, non-violence and grassroots democracy.”
Surely, some of this is merely current trend. But as Christian artists, I think it’s important to think about whether we should be concerned with sustainability. If we are called to cultivate and responsibly care for the created world, then we should do this no less in the art we make. Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his discussion of Christian responsibility to God, neighbors and the earth, emphasizes that the artist has the same responsibilities as everyone else and “is to exercise his responsibilities in the very production of his art.” This idea, it seems, might have implications for the production of sustainably-minded art. Whether it is using sustainable materials or just speaking to environmental concerns, artists are called to engage with and transform the world around them. Ultimately, it comes down to this matter of responsibility.
I don’t mean to say here that I think all art has to use a recycled or sustainable material. It would be an overstatement to suggest that all art will be required to “go green” or else. Art obviously serves many colors and a myriad of purposes. Besides, I love oil paint and all its crazy solvents too much to replace it with something “greener.” But we can be sure that art, as it concerns itself with making and engaging with culture, will inevitably become more “sustainably minded” in the future. As the world changes, so does our art. And I think we’ll see some interesting stuff come out of a renewed cultural interest in our relationship to the physical world around us. As Christians, I think this is an even greater concern. We need to think about our responsibility to the world and reflect this in some way in our artwork.