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Vision: How a New Crop of Innovative Artists Are Joining the Climate Activist Movement

A new, dynamic generation of green artists are forming a growing public sphere and cultural economy supporting those who grow or make what they sell. So can you!
 
 
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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:

[Artists] sense trouble early, and rally to isolate and expose and defeat it, to bring to bear the human power for love and beauty and meaning against the worst results of carelessness and greed and stupidity. So when art both of great worth, and in great quantities, begins to cluster around an issue, it means that civilization has identified it finally as a threat. Artists and scientists perform this function most reliably; politicians are a lagging indicator.

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.

ElephantIn 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.

 
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