Brief history of sustainable art

It is necessary to clarify that sustainable practices are not something new that we haven’t done before as a species. Being conscious of doing as many sustainable practices as possible, and having a focus on it as a necessity is a rather modern idea that we have been putting our attention more are more since the second half of the twentieth century, although one of the first concepts of sustainability can be traced back to the seventeenth century.

The current concept we use for sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without further compromising future generations’ ability to meet their own needs. In this way, it comprises practices that allow us to continue co-existing in relation to our own biosphere, and it has been considered by some to have three pillars or focuses: environment, economic and social. To condense this point, most sustainable practices revolve around the re-using a repurposing of already existing materials to avoid the emission of unnecessary or avoidable carbon emissions.

My aim on this article is to mark down some of the most important elements to take into consideration when discussing sustainable art. There are some disagreements on where to draw the line to make a chronology on sustainable art, and most the articles that can be found online come from the Anglo speaking academia, which gives us a very askew view of the development of sustainable art practices. Nonetheless, this is the first of several articles that I am working on regarding to this topic.

Background on landscape art, environmental art, and sustainable practices

Observing sustainable art practices through time is something that we can discuss when we delimit what we understand as art, as this concept applied to the production of several objects could be discussed throughout time.

For example, there is a registry of the practice of writing on the sand drawings in the islands of North Central New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) from the beginning of the twentieth century (Geismar, H). Although in some contexts what was produced could be considered aesthetically pleasing or even artistic, the sand writing has had a role in the visual idiom used to diffuse and communicate symbolism throughout the Pacific, making it more a utilitarian practice rather than an artistic endeavour.

Another example would be the Latin American colonial practice of using old canvases to paint on top new religious imagery, or even the retouching of them which could be considered a sustainable practice as well, as there is a reduction of the materials used for it.

Neolithic monuments such as Stonehenge and Newgrange have been described as Neolithic art and in some cases landscape art, and although we cannot be sure of the specific usage given to them, or their symbolism to the local communities at the time, we cannot ensure this stone’s organisations had an aesthetical reason to exist.

However, these examples belong to practices that are not par with the conception of art that we have in mind, as their existence was more utilitarian, and although all of them could be considered aesthetically pleasing, it relates more to our asynchronous view that could catalogue these practices, objects, and landscape interventions as artistic.

Due to this, the history of sustainable art has to necessarily exist in the period of time in which we recognise the production of certain objects as art, as practices that could be considered sustainable have existed in a more or lesser degrees for centuries. The discussion will also be brought mainly within the material world, as some forms of protest art and performances can be argued to be sustainable in principle but there is some debate on how some of these practices are not sustainable.

Environmental Art

There were early experiments to generate environmental awareness through art from the 1960s through the 1980s, using several strategies such as real-time clean-up, outdoor performances, community engagement, scientific collaboration and public education, among others. As an example of these practices, we can mention the installation Hans Haacke created in 1972 in the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany, which purified polluted water, and Eiko and Koma’s performances, who use natural elements in their creations. However, the interest of the latter in the natural features and the maintenance of the places where they would do their performance has less to do with environmental awareness than it does with interacting with the elements that compels them.

Hans Haacke (1972) Rhinewater Purification Plant

Worthy of mention is the fact that this trend was not relegated to the Anglo speaking world; during the exhibition “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974”  of 2012, land art was much more international than most of the people visiting expected, having representatives from far beyond the East Coast/Western European hegemony of contemporary art, from places such as Germany, Italy, Japan, France, Israel, Czech Republic and some Latin American countries, among other countries and regions.

With time, a new paradigm emerged in which the artists, in contrast with modernism in which artists were autonomous of obligations with their communities, responded to a social responsibility and ecological atonement.


Some academics like to make a distinction, or cut in time, at the ending of the Cold War in 1989, as the concept of sustainability rose with the emergence of a new awareness of the global character of ecological and social problems. This is mainly sustained in the United States context by biologist Rachel Carson’s publications and open opinion pieces on the dangers of DDT (pesticide), in which she drew a parallel between nuclear fallout and the threat of the pesticides utilising the fear and mistrust brewed during the Cold War.

A peak in popularity on artistic productions catalogued as “eco-art” did start to occur in the next years, with its origin on environmental art. As described by academic Holmes, “eco-art” usually focus on singular works occupying a geographic site for specific reasons. It is very likely that this type of art started to have more prominence as they were the logical answer to the ecology courses and environmental emphasis that started to appear in the 1970s. In this way, there were grand ambitions of artists’ environmental imaginations in the early seventies. Its main distinction from environmental art is the ethical underpinning, while the environmental art focused more on the artist’s relationship with nature and the environment.

As perception of nature changed, our cultural productions did as well, and the community concerns about public health such as water pollution caused by acid rain, chemical dumping, and pesticide use have been shaping, in some fields at a slower pace than in others, our concerns and actions when we move towards the future.

Where do we go from here?

There have been many artistic endeavours that although not necessarily called “eco-art” have had some elements to make us think of sustainability and the current state of the world.

As an example, artist Michael Mandiberg’s “Oil Standard” (2005) is a software plug-in for the browser Firefox that converts all prices on a web page from U.S. dollars into the equivalent value in barrels of crude oil, which catalogued as “eco-visualisation” could be considered a form of activism, as well as an expression of sustainable design.

The discussion on what is considered sustainable art, its importance, and what can we do about performing sustainable practices is still being debated. The Sustainable Arts Biennale is one example, as well as the Resilience and Sustainability program, from the Arts Council England (2015), and private endeavours, such as Canadian dancing company Kidd Pivot goal to reduce carbon emissions when touring, to name a few.

In the end, predicting the turns and movements that could occur within the art world regarding sustainable art will have to necessarily be addressed in par with the current global environmental state.

Articles read

  • Boettger, S. “Review: This Land Is Their Land. Reviewed Work(s): Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 by Philipp Kaiser and Miwon Kwon; Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 by Philipp Kaiser, Miwon Kwon, Tom Holert, Jane McFadden, Julian Myers, Emily Scott and Julienne Lorz”. Art Journal, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Winter 2012), pp. 125-129.
  • Dakin, J. “Inhumanities of Planning Revisited”. University of Toronto Quarterly, Volume 62, Number 4, Summer 1993, pp. 404-440.
  • Holmes, T. “Eco-Visualization: Promoting Environmental Stewardship in the Museum”. The Journal of Museum Education, Vol. 32, No. 3, Place-Based Education and the Museum (Fall, 2007), pp. 275-285.
  • Lankford, L. “Ecological Stewardship in Art Education”. Art Education, Vol. 50, No. 6, Art And Ecology (Nov., 1997), pp. 47-53.
  • Mosko, S. “Stepping Sustainably: The Potential Partnership Between Dance and Sustainable Development”. Consilience, No. 20 (2018), pp. 62-87.
  • Nisbet, J. “Review: Earth Matters. Reviewed Work(s): The Ethics of Earth Art by Amanda Boetzkes”. Art Journal, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Spring 2012), pp. 161-164.

Author: laverias an anthropologist interested in art history, Latin American art, and sustainable practices. You will find her trying to pick up some free furniture from the street and re-purposing old fabric. Spanglish speaker.

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