Art and Sustainability

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 (, 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, 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.”[1] 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.”[2]

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.”[3] 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.




[3] Wolterstorff, Art in Action, 78.


Photo credits:

1. Taken by author   2.


  • Jennifer Allen Craft is a regular contributor at Transpositions. Jenn is from southwest Georgia (think swamp, red clay, peanuts, and gnats) and holds a B. A. in Biblical Studies and Humanities from Atlanta Christian College and an M.Litt. in Theology, Imagination and the Arts from St. Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD on the theological significance of place with special attention to the role of the arts in the way we make and identify with places.

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  1. says: Brandon Craft

    “Even though I am still learning from these forests every day, I do know from experience what looks good out there, and that aesthetic knowledge is a big part of the art of the Stoddard-Neel Approach. When I look at something and say it looks good, such a judgement is based on my knowledge of what should be there ecologically, and what the forest should look like in its healthiest condition. In many ways, it was an aesthetic appreciation of these woods that led us to begin asking deeper questions about ecological functions and processes. A practitioner of the Stoddard-Neel Approach, then, must have a developed aesthetic sense of what looks right out there in the woods. That’s a big part of the art.” Leon Neel, in “The Art of Managing Longleaf: A Personal History of the Stoddard-Neel Approach, pg 151.

    A forester talking about forestry as if it is an art-form. Golly! We might just have to broaden our definition of art. 😉

  2. says: Brandon Craft

    Also, from a forest management standpoint, the National Gallery team are only about three or four centuries too late for the title of “first living masterpiece.” The earliest “forest” (in quotes to show the use of a technical term, not just a collection of trees) were only concerned with the quality of the game and the aesthetic experience of the hunt. You didn’t want the king having to ride through an ugly forest while shooting deer, fox, etc.
    I love the idea of using plants as media in art, but it is not new, as you pointed out.

    I think my first thought on how Christians could achieve such a thing as this could be a return to prayer gardens, also an old idea. A lot of churches used to have beautiful planted environments on the church grounds with walkways and secluded benches for the purposes of meditative prayer. If this tiny wall of plants can be considered art, surely some of the great landscaped churchyards of yesteryear could be too?

    Also, what if more churches sought to offset their carbon emissions with the planting and ecological management of forests nearby or on their grounds? These could also serve as objects within which meditation and prayer could be fruitful. Maybe even with footpaths laid out in such a way that they were a sort of giant rosary that you followed with your feet while praying.

    This is the connection to the physical environment that I crave for the Church. An appreciation of nature that is not just a youth trip to go kayaking, but also a deep love for natural and semi-natural environments as a para-liturgy activity.

    I know it may seem extravagant to think of any church with their constantly tight budgets being able to afford a woodland, but there are TONS of community woodlands throughout the UK and the States (I am sure there are others elsewhere, but I can only speak for these two areas). These community woodlands more often than not pay for themselves. I just visited one in Wales that is only 25 acres, but the budget sheet is in the black through a combination of grants, microhydro (a tiny electricity producing dam on site which sells power back into the grid), and timber from occasional management-required thinning.

    Just my two cents worth of forestry rambling.

    1. says: Jenn Craft


      I really like your ideas about the church involving themselves in an artistic form of forestry or other sort of land management (gardens, woodlands, etc.). I think that involvement in physical places is important theologically, and churches, it seems, could really learn a lot from practically caring for a plot of land and making it available to the community! It really could be a form of prayer, as you say!

      Thanks for your forestry rambling! It’s always nice to have another perspective! 🙂

  3. says: Jenna Actaboski

    Well, I think at the end of the day everyone knows that advertisements as such are what keep the National Gallery open to the public for free. I also think the claim of it being the “first living masterpiece” was meant more as the “first living masterpiece of its kind” (i.e. using nature to depict an important piece of art history). Perhaps it’s better to focus on the actual slogan beside the installation itself: “Bringing art to life as never before.”

    It’s a bit of a gimmick, yes, but I think the creative minds behind this were very deliberate in choosing a van Gogh for such a project to perhaps undercut the negative connotations attached to a business pairing with a company like GE. Surely those behind the living wall are aware of van Gogh’s endless writings on the importance of nature, particularly in relation to the creation of art and even the spiritual experience of immersing oneself in what the artist himself referred to as the “Ultimate Artist’s” creation. While the creators behind the living wall might not have intended any spiritual connotations themselves, when it comes to using a van Gogh, such connotations cannot be overlooked as they are, of course, an incredibly important part of the artist’s thinking (and writings).

    At the end of the day, I don’t think many people will remember this as being funded by GE, or even as having a connection to the National Gallery: what I do think they will remember is the clever way that a van Gogh painting was recreated using plants to project a message of sustainability.

    So, perhaps, the National Gallery has in its own way contributed somewhat to your concept of a sustainable Christian art through using one of the world’s most recognizable artists, who just happened to also be a Christian artist/ex-clergyman, for such a foray into sustainability.

    At any rate, I think van Gogh would be delighted by the concept of turning one of his paintings into a living wall of plants. It’s a really beautiful installation.

  4. says: Brandon Craft

    Hey Jenna!
    I don’t fault the National Gallery at all. I think it seems like a really cool project. I just think it is silly to call it the first living masterpiece. Central Park is a masterpiece of landscape design. There are loads of examples of projects much more ambitious and just as intentional. In my mind, even though this is a great ad campaign, it is not nearly as creative as the many living masterpieces that predated it. They did do something different and cool by recreating a van Gogh with plants, but it is still just a recreation of someone else’s work. The myriad of examples that I would want to cite as previous living masterpieces are all original, more ambitious, arguably more beautiful. The person who creates the most lovely reprint posters of the great master painters of the world is still just a printer. He may be a great printer, but when using someone else’s material, he remains secondary to the original artists.

    Having said that, I wish I had seen this in person like Jenn did. It does seem like it would be beautiful, and I am also sure that ole crazy one ear himself would be well-pleased with it as it is probably even more faithful to the image he was trying to capture anyway! But surely one can appreciate a work of art while acknowledging its weaknesses, right? One weakness is its marketing, I think.

    Also, as a scientist, I think there would be a LOT of questions I would need answered before I would know how “green” the work itself is. I am sure they covered all those bases, but I just think people need to be reminded that there can be a vast chasm between something being truly earth-friendly and it’s just being made of plants. If it was done in such a way as to make it less eco-friendly (for instance using invasive species, not being careful to avoid transporting pests in soil etc.) I would still consider it a beautiful work of art. But it would be a beautiful work of art which is an abuse of its form in much the same way as a beautiful wooden sculpture being painted to look like marble would be an abuse of the form of wooden sculpture, still beautiful, but unsettling.

  5. says: Jenna Actaboski

    I think perhaps the “masterpiece” dilemma is more an issue of semantics than anything else. The way I understand GE’s claim of this piece as being the “first living masterpiece,” they are using that term in light of traditional, painted masterpieces (i.e. Night Watch by Rembrandt is a masterpiece, Guernica by Picasso is a masterpiece, etc.). I think this is especially the case when one considers that the National Gallery is indeed a gallery, specialising in painted masterpieces throughout the history of Western art. A Wheatfield, With Cypresses is one of van Gogh’s masterpieces. Thus, they seem to be claiming it as the first “Living Masterpiece,” i.e. the first project of this kind done with a painted masterpiece as its inspiration.

    I can’t really think of any other instances of where a classic painting has been turned into a sculptural form with plants, but if anyone else knows of any, then by all means chime in with an example. Then we can definitively say that GE’s claim of this being the first living masterpiece is bogus.

    I think it’s also interesting to point out that, as I mentioned before, the National Gallery itself bills this work as “Bringing art to life as never before” and very carefully avoids calling the installation a “living masterpiece” in their press releases. The gallery itself simply refers to it as a “living wall.”

    Of course, if GE is claiming this as the first living masterpiece full stop, then I do tend to agree with your response to the ridiculousness of such a claim. The entire history of landscaping is full of poignant examples, Versailles being an excellent one as Jenn mentioned above. Even Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty comes to mind.

    It’s funny you should mention the whole idea of reproducing other’s art (another argument in itself, for sure) in this context, though, as van Gogh himself wrote many a letter on his own work serving to glorify and depict that which had already been created so perfectly by a far better Artist. In a way, it’s all a case of art imitating life imitating art imitating life…ad nauseam.

    I think you raise valid points regarding the true “green-ness” of this work, though. Both the GE website and the National Gallery’s Making of… page ( don’t shed too much light on the growing conditions behind the plants. Perhaps these are the more pertinent questions that need answering. I’m suddenly keen to send off an enquiry email.

    And…and… don’t call van Gogh crazy one-ear!!! *sniffle* He’s just misunderstood! But in all seriousness, has Griselda Pollock done nothing for van Gogh studies? Too long has the so-called madness overshadowed the man’s intellect! Woe! /grumble

  6. says: Jenn Craft


    Thanks for your insightful comments on this post. I’m glad to have your art historian input into the matter! You make a good point about the use of the term “masterpiece.” I suppose I didn’t think about the various uses they could mean there. The idea of recreating the painting in plant form was creative and interesting to look at. I wasn’t really TOO fussed about it, though, and it really just made my mind go off to think about the relationship between art as its practiced today and sustainability. Brandon brings up a good point in that regard, though. I think associating it with GE’s ecomagination campaign was at least a subtle nod in the direction of the work’s emphasis on sustainability, but they did nothing to actually show that this was the case. It seems like, if art works like this (especially large-scale ones) are going to be made then we have to at least consider the actual method they use to make them. Something might be beautiful, but its not always the most beneficial.

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