Can Art Be Green?

Being conscious of the environment may be worthwhile, but what does it have to do with art? In a way, everything. According to Merriam-Webster, art can be defined as, “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination, especially in the production of aesthetic objects.” Based on this definition, art can be broken down as a form of production, a form of work. Art is the skill of creating an object, the process, as well as the object itself. Theatre is also so much more than the production. From play selection to strike, there are supplementary materials that go into making the final product. It comes down to a number of processes and tools. Art is work, whether or not the artist gets paid, and work always produces waste. In the theatre, for example, the shop sink is often a dumping site for half-used solvents and stains, and other toxic substances such as spirit gum and petroleum-based makeup are frequently thrown in the trash.

The question, however, is how to deal with that waste. How does an artist conserve consumption, reduce waste production, and yet still maintain creative integrity and innovation? It seems as though such a compromise may be impossible. Theatre artists tend to stay isolated in their own worlds of creativity. Sometimes there are artists who have always worked in a specific way, and it can be difficult for some to divorce themselves from a system that has proven itself tried and true. Should artists be limited to their resources and how they work? Mike Lawler asserts in his article, Toward a More Sustainable Theatre, that “no artistic director wants to tell his or her creative team to limit themselves in order that they may reduce the endless cycle of waste generated by their productions.” The “endless cycle” Lawler mentions is exacerbated by the common desire to create something beautiful and poignant from scratch. There has often been the philosophy that to make masterful theatre, designs and pieces must be built fresh and new. Though the lifespan of a particular set may be short, it must maintain artistic innovation and be profound. Because of constant replacements, it can be argued that theatre is therefore a “temporal art” – thereby inherently wasteful and environmentally irresponsible.

A compromise may lie in an organizational structure, one that does not condemn or restrain professionals in the arts for their production choices, but rather acts as a guide to aid these professionals in creating their work with minimal waste and even challenge their creativity. Stephanie Smith writes in her book, Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art,

“The convergence of [art and design] can provide rich opportunities for artists to create satisfying visual forms that provide ways of embodying critical practices. And when this convergence occurs around environmental questions, it resonates strongly with sustainable design’s goal of bringing social and aesthetic concerns together with environmental and economic ones.”

Theatre artists may feel limited at first, but ideally, the push toward sustainable design will push artists to think out side the box for creativity and they will develop a deeper connection to not only their craft, but their environment.

It is also important to note that theatre artists cannot be alienated from the rest of the world. It is inherently impossible and implausible. Theatre companies act as role models for the community. Putting on a production is not merely a portrayal of stories. Companies and their actions are visible and can influence the communities which surround and support them. As Larry Fried and Theresa May articulate,

“As members of state and municipal arts networks and of local chambers of commerce, theatre organizations have an unusual opportunity to take a stand on principles of sustainability. Our audiences tend to be people who are educated, active in the community, and concerned about social issues. If we can inspire them to care about an ecological ethos, they will inspire many others.”

In an interview with Sam Bowers, of greenmuseum.org,  he stated that because “art is a very powerful tool for communicating ideas” it is very much the responsibility of arts organizations to take on the role of organizing and developing a paradigm shift in the way the community views and relates to the world. So can art be green? If we want to live, work and play in harmony with the Earth…no. It has to be.

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