Throughout history, artists have joined forces with political movements to battle injustice and demand a better and more beautiful world. Picasso's "Guernica" captured the horrors of the German bombing of civilians in 1937. "Solidarity Forever," "We Shall Overcome," and "Give Peace a Chance" expressed the optimism and power of the labor, civil rights, and peace movements. Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People" embodied the utopian fervor of the French Revolution. Shepard Fairey's Obama "Hope" silkscreen during the 2008 election captured America's yearning for a more visionary politics.
Great upheavals demand great art. And now humanity faces the gravest of threats: climate change. The climate clock ticks ominously onward, but thus far we have been unable to marshal what Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein describe as the "bodies, passion, and creativity" required to avert impending economic and environmental disaster.
But passion comes from the heart, not the head, and climate activists have largely been targeting people's upper organ, pleading their case with statistics, policy platforms, and poll-driven messaging. Maybe it's time to aim lower. McKibben, the founder of 350.org, is one of the few climate activists thinking seriously about the relationship between art, activism and social change.He views artists as "antibodies of the cultural bloodstream" and key to social movement vitality:
In its finest moments, art reveals our shared experience of pain and struggle, letting us know we are not alone. As Theodore Dreiser observed in 1917, "Art is the stored honey of the human soul, gathered on wings of misery and travail." It has the ability to transform politics from a dry to a celebratory affair, using tools of laughter, sexuality, and beauty to coax people to cultural events where they experience, often for the first time, the power of social solidarity and political awakening. Art can help us digest and make sense of what is happening in our world -- a process essential for spurring political action.
Deployed carefully, art can also provide a potent way to persuade troubled peoples that another world is possible. It appeals to our better nature, reminding us that love and joy are more powerful than hatred and violence. During times of upheaval, it appeals to our hearts, replaces fear with hope and determination, encouraging us to seek out new visionary ways to organize society.
In this 350 EARTH installation, 3,000 people in New Delhi formed an enormous elephant threatened by rising seas -- a plea to world leaders not to ignore the "elephant in the room."Credit: Daniel DancerBut our activist culture has largely forgotten how to fight political battles with cultural tools. At protest after protest, we haul out the same exhausted puppets, chants, and songs. Our slogans and imagery are flat, prescriptive, and literal rather than poetic and inspirational. Compare the "Green Jobs Now!" placards at climate rallies to the iconic "I Am a Man" signs of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. One demands policy action; the other beautifully evokes hundreds of years of struggle for racial equality and justice.
Sectors of the climate movement are trying to cure our cultural amnesia. 350.org has begun actively promoting and supporting climate change art, even retaining an official artist-in-residence on staff to coordinate climate art projects. Land artists around the world -- who in the '60s and '70s sculpted landscapes to protest the artificiality and commercialization of art -- have become prominent "messengers" of the climate movement, organizing massive land art projects in dozens of counties to communicate 350.org's goals in Copenhagen and Cancun.
Other artists have begun to respond. There are now songs like "Melting Ice" by 10-year-old Lil Peppi, the "King of Eco-Rap"; or Jill Sobule's satirical "Happy Song About Global Warming." Using live collaborative online tools, art students in Colombia and Canada have produced a powerful stop-action video based on their personal reflections about the climate crisis: