Debates about art and politics tend to boil down to a familiar rehearsal of the division between art and life. Art plays an important role in the world and is, on some level, a bourgeois presumption. Some artists embraced this tension and picked up their brushes, so to speak, to have their voice heard. Last December, activist art began to take on a new form. Environmental artists caused upheaval using pollution as their material and buildings as their canvas. More recent reports of an artist called Poster Boy have created a frenzy. By defacing hundreds of billboards and subway posters, focused on sustainability in terms of showing people that consumption is waste. With activist art on the rise, Bethany Benson, assistant professor of art, explains the message.
Why create a work of art that’s going to be destroyed?
It’s the objective of the artist that is important. Their view is ephemeral. Many cultures don’t recognize art unless it’s in a museum. These artists think of the environment as part of their materials. Time and change are the emphasis. The point is to raise awareness. They’re calling attention to issues using art as the media.
What is the goal of activist art?
The main component to the environmental art movement is that it contributes to change. Art is something people can relate to. Art can speak to an audience and engage them better than some other forms of activism.
Why does activist art cause such uproar?
Because it brings taboo to the forefront. For example, if people see a skull, like the one drawn out of dirt and grime on an Argentinean bridge, they read it as a negative. The activist artist is successful if there is uproar, because that means they’re doing their job.
We have an Environmental Art class here on campus, what are the goals of the class?
In the beginning, we go over what is considered the history of the movement. We do projects on campus with recycled materials. We go over why something is not environmental art, like feminist art, which is a push to reach a different form of audience. Environmental artists are not afraid to make taboo known. They are more apt to put ideas out there. They typically have an icon or visual that goes with a movement.
Rachel Kern ’09, Juniata Online Journalist