What is sustainable art education and how can we implement it?

We are living in a world that is making us revise the lives we are leading in relation to our biosphere. Even if we were not receiving warnings that we need to do changes in our everyday to sustain our world, it is always good to question why we do things in the way we do, the resources we are using, and how can we be more efficient in doing any activity, such as cooking or creating an artwork or any other thing.

Sustainability is something that would need to come hand in hand with the educational system, not only in the arts but in all topics in which we can make positive changes for our surroundings. Talking and understanding what sustainability implies relates directly to our capacity of living in society, and the difference between dwelling and residing in a place, as explained by Orr (1992) cited by Taylor (1997). As such, sustainability can be taught as a concept while partaking in the art practice –the representation of sustainable and environmental concerns, how individuals interact with the environment–, by re-utilising materials for the creation of artworks –such as using recycled materials, ready-made, and reutilising what you have in hand– or both. Bear in mind teaching about sustainability, or how to have into mind sustainable practices can be done through different ways, and we should not depend only from the state institutes or other formal organisations to do this.

How we can use art education

In the early nineties, some academics were still trying to understand how to apply the topic of ecology within their classes, as for many it seemed as a separate entity. It has been over time that some professors, at least in the United States at this point, have realised that this topic needs a multidisciplinary focus. Even the teaching of art, has undergone through many changes in time:

In the past, we have made much of the idea of art as a mirror (reflecting the times); we have had art as a hammer (social protest); we have had art as furniture (something to hang on walls); and we have had art as a search for the self. There is another kind of art, which speaks to the power of connectedness and established bonds, art that calls us into relationship (Taylor, 1997: 17).

Taylor, P. “It All Started with the Trash: Taking Steps toward Sustainable Art Education”. Art Education, Vol. 50, No. 2, Concerns in Secondary Art Education (Mar. 1997), pp. 13-18

As many other things, artworks can also cause students to question basic assumptions about life; art criticism can be used to raise questions about social issues critiques. As Barrett (2000), quoted by Milbrandt (2002) observed, “good criticism is careful and engaging argumentation that furthers dialogue about art and life”.

With this in mind, what is called an “inquiry model” of teaching might be the best way to go through all topics. It is characterised by questioning, analysis, observation, thinking of alternatives, and decision-making from an informed point of view, among others. However, thinking of education primarily though the academic and institution pathways is a simplistic way of looking how information can circulate within a society. Through the work of certain artists, we can also promote conservational practices, and thought-provoking pieces that can lead to discussions of the current state of the world. Moreover, we should also take into consideration informal and communal organisations, from which we do not hear enough because they are not part of the institutional, Western accepted organisations that we have easier access to hear from.

However, the institutional model will be more informed if it is done in an interdisciplinary way, with the interconnectedness of different fields and how they affect one another. Although difficult for most professors to accomplish, making some well-directed questions about what they see in other subjects, or talking to your colleagues, can be helpful to work in how to connect other subjects with the environmental issues.

Students learning how to work on multidisciplinary, cross-functional art can, ultimately, contribute to the life of their community, as project-based activities in the classroom stimulate authentic learning experiences.

What messages we can convey through art education

As a personal appreciation, the ideal of any education, besides teaching individuals practices that will help them on their everyday lives, as well as provoking their minds to incite creative thoughts for future and unpredictable obstacles, should be to get people to understand their place in the world and in society, and to have a look into the future to either affect on it in a positive way, or to at least not effect it negatively. A way to do this in a less coveted way, as it can occur through other topics and mandatory lessons, is through art.

In this way, some authors, such as Ron Neperud quoted by Lankford, have identified three specific goals in which we can focus:

  1. develop an awareness and/or multiple and interconnected dimensions of the student’s environment;
  2. be concerned with local and global environmental integrity; and
  3. to act sensitively and responsibly in improving environmental condition.

It has been mainly within the scope of interior design art education, that academics such as Pollack and Pillote (2006), explained by Hasio and Crane (2012), developed a total of seven Rs of sustainability, which they felt should be integrated into a sustainable education:

  • Rethink—Lineal fragmented or compartmentalised thinking must be changed.
  • Redesign—Design for flexibility, durability, longevity disassembly and ease of maintenance.
  • Reduce—Do more with less—reduce or eliminate toxicity and pollution.
  • Reuse—Specify products that can be used over and over again. Question the ultimate consequences and impact of new products.
  • Renew—Specify products from rapidly renewable resources
  • Refurbish—Give new life to existing products and buildings.
  • Recycle—Establish a policy to recycle all applicable materials.

This principle of the seven Rs can be applied not only to art education but to our every day lives.

The practical part – alternative ways to teach about sustainability

Some academics have considered that recycling materials could actually incentive the consumption of products, as it is with the remnants of other products that we could be creating – asking students to bring a specific material might make the parents or the student themselves buy materials they would at first not have access to, defying the purpose of reducing the usage of new materials.

Nonetheless, if given the correct meaning load, recycling can be a powerful tool.

There are some professors that believe that although recycling is not really that relevant to help the environment, it can be a naturalised practice to understand other elements of society. In some cases, recycling can be seen as a link to culture, spirituality, heritage, transformation, the fluidity of life, the roots of creativity, and there may also well be aesthetic concerns. Recycling can mean self-sufficiency, renewal, a spiritual activity, and as aesthetic transformation, having all to do with recalling one’s heritage or roots, restoring balance and meaning to one’s life through the recycled creative process and product. This has been seen particularly relevant in the context of BAME communities in the United States, for which recycling can also be an identitarian technique that, if used correctly, can also have environmental implications.

A good question to ask students, before engaging with any artistic practices, is to think of the journey all the material they plan to use has done until the material is in front of their desk. Another question to make about the project they are going to start is, what will be the destiny of their end project? Think about an artistic activity such as performance, what will you need to achieve it, and how can you do it by being the one that creates less waste after it is done?

I am putting an example below of a quick exercise that could be done for every activity that the students want to do, and this can be discussed afterwards, or even before the activity itself.

Example: A performance about recycling What will you do: a dance

You can work on focusing on the “No” on the “re-using” column and find a way to make them less consuming and, therefore, more sustainable.

Example: What can we do to make the performance more sustainable?

The idea with this example is not to limit the student’s ideas or willingness to produce a specific artwork, or to make them decide against doing a performance or any activity, but to observe their own production patterns and assess what can they do to reduce them. This would be a thought-provoking activity that can be taken and normalised to the everyday life, not having to mean a complete change of our lives, but to create awareness on how every action we take can make a difference in our environment.

With taking the first steps of making conscious the different decisions we take in our lives, different artistic projects could be at the same time expressing their concerns about the environmental issues we are currently facing, while at the same time having conscious actions on the effect we can have in our biosphere and, thus, contributing to a sustainable art education from two fronts. In this way, sustainable art education can be done from the two proposed fronts, not only from the performative, but from the conceptual zone.

Other sources

  • Congdon, K. “Beyond the Egg Carton Alligator: To Recycle Is to Recall and Restore”. Art Education, Vol. 53, No. 6, Enlarging the Frame (Nov., 2000), pp. 6-12.
  • Hasio, C. and T. Crane. “Teaching Art a Greener Path: Integrating Sustainability Concepts of Interior Design Curriculum Into the Art Education Curriculum”. Art Education, Vol. 67, No. 6 (November 2014), pp. 35-39.
  • 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.
  • Lankofrd, L. “Ecological Stewardship in Art Education”. Art Education, Vol. 50, No. 6, Art and Ecology (Nov. 1997), pp. 47-53.
  • Milbrandt, M. “Addressing Contemporary Social Issues in Art Education: A Survey of Public School Art Educators in Georgia”. Studies in Art Education, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Winter, 2002), pp. 141-157.
  • Mosko, S. “Stepping Sustainably: The Potential Partnership Between Dance and Sustainable Development”. Consilience, No. 20 (2018), pp. 62-87.
  • Taylor, P. “It All Started with the Trash: Taking Steps toward Sustainable Art Education”. Art Education, Vol. 50, No. 2, Concerns in Secondary Art Education (Mar. 1997), pp. 13-18.

Author: laverias

...is 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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