Maximizing Art's Mark / Minimizing Art's Footprint

Ignoring is tantamount to collusion. Denial is no longer an option.  Evidence abounds that Earth’s systems are being stressed and its resources are being depleted. Consider, for example, the exorbitant demands for comforts and the intemperate desires of privileged populations of human beings. Now compound these environmental burdens by adding exploding human populations seeking the same material advantages as their wealthier neighbors. While remedying these conditions is everybody’s business, art instructors can play a pivotal role in environmental reform. They prepare students who, as artists, assume the cultural roles of visionary, missionary, designer, problem-solver, moralist, communicator, and proselytizer.

By advertising spacious studios lavishly outfitted with the latest technologies, most art departments  perpetuate the assumptions of affluence that arose during the first flush of industrial productivity. Required lists of art materials reinforce the boom mentality that propelled it. They require students to avail themselves of the abundance that exists on store shelves crammed with inexpensive packaged materials. At the same time these mandates exempt them from concern about waste, contaminants, and landfill accumulations. Thus, before the first class meeting, professors have already sacrificed the opportunity to address environmental responsibility in the practice of art. As anyone charged with cleaning out studios at the end of a semester can attest tolerance of commercial consumerism and waste can be equally glaring after the last class meeting,

Such classroom protocols relegate art to the cultural backwoods while the frontier is being occupied by manufacturers, advertisers, religious leaders, scientists, and politicians whose are vigorously overhauling their practices, while local and global responsibilities are factoring into many career and recreational decisions.


Art instruction is ripe for topical and procedural change. These impending pedagogical changes are so sweeping that they may well exceed the restructuring of curricula that occurred throughout the 1980s and 1990s,  when ”new media” courses sprang up on campuses everywhere to align art instruction with advanced digital tools and processes. Fear of impending shortages, contaminations, and disruptions are obliging the next wave of arts curriculum reforms. Future job announcements for art educators may soon state, “Art instructors needed with the ability to conserve energy, knowledge of the environmental impact of a broad range of materials, and the skill to minimize waste and consumption.”

A century ago, art and physics joined to re-envision the physical environment in which space, matter, and time were no longer considered to be discrete entities. Cubism was the revolutionary product of this merger. Today’s artists confront a comparable challenge. Even elementary topics like line, shape, and pattern become arenas of exploration and discovery when they are viewed through the lens of ecology. This is because ecology defines every element of the physical environment as a component of a four-dimensional system of interdependent energy exchanges. Today’s artists have the opportunity to expand the Cubist vocabulary of forms by embracing the many disciplines that factor into the evolution of life on Earth. Ecology assimilates numerous ”ologies” into one integrated discipline - biology, geology, meteorology, climatology, hydrology, and so forth. It mirrors the multiplicity and interdependence of the ecosystems it studies. For this reason, preparing students to meet the challenge of environmental responsibility requires that Art 101 include components of Ecology 101. The product of the marriage is anything but simple.

Within this unified world view, even minute alterations in one part of a system can influence the whole. As a result, no human act is inconsequential - including the creation of art. Ecological considerations expand art’s impact beyond the studio. In the past, it sufficed if an artwork was made with the intention of affecting human perceptions, sentiments, sensations, and interpretations. Today, artists  also need to monitor their artwork’s affect upon air, water, soils, plants, animals, and microbes. Past and present intentions have much in common. The impacts of both can be immediate or eventual, temporary or enduring, subtle or apparent, specific or diverse.

Foundation art instructors initiate the students’ lifelong relationships with materials and processes. As such, they are primary candidates to bring the next generation of artists into accord with the new ethical foundations of behavior.


How-to manuals related to figurative art typically encourage students to delve beneath the surface of an anatomy to gain knowledge of the body’s structures, connections, tolerances, and functions. Bolstered by such scrutiny, singular nuances and universal patterns that might otherwise be overlooked become noticeable. Figurative art is enriched by the ability to account for the body’s surfaces, shapes, tones, and textures.

In a similar manner, appreciating how ecosystems cohere into functional units enriches artworks. Such awareness connects art to a heritage that dwarfs the mere history of human accomplishment. This heritage extends to the origins of matter and the first stirrings of life on this planet. Instead of viewing art and artists as detached from society, ecological study integrates art into the broader fields of space, time, and matter. Likewise, it entwines artists into the total web of life. In sum, understanding why and how life on Earth acquired its forms and capabilities enables artists to contribute to the evolution of culture in alliance with vital ecosystems.

They bear little resemblance to art training that subscribes to art as an enduring material object; or artworks that are isolated from the material and energetic systems in which it exist; or from art strategies that focus exclusively on human-to-human communications; or from career goals founded upon a personal reputation. These are the precise values that environmentalists are currently subjecting to a broad-scale reevaluation. Integrating environmental responsibility into art instruction involves ”minimizing art’s footprint” by developing ecologically prudent studio strategies and ‘maximizing art’s mark’ as a force of cultural reform. Together, they lay the foundation for the production of art tuned to the present moment.


While special containers may guard students from hazardous waste and ventilators may protect them from contaminated air, these safety procedures do not eliminate danger; such protections and strategies merely divert it to the soils, the air, and the people outside the studio. Other aspects of concern include art practices that guzzle fossil fuels or rely on non-renewable resources. They, too, are slated for retirement from the Foundations curriculum. But discontinuing such environmentally irresponsible practices does not need to constitute an impoverishment of creativity. In fact, as many eco artists are currently demonstrating, seeking environmentally benign materials, tools, and processes can greatly expand art’s repertoire of means and themes.

When art educators seek alternatives to mass-produced mediums and tools, including those designed for electronic data-gathering and digital manipulation, they discover a vast depot of materials and techniques. Some investigations may lead to the sensual shaping of compost, sap, pollen, feathers, bark, rock, bone and innumerable other ingredients that account for the wondrous uniqueness of the planet we call home. Some may uncover the profusion of discarded and degraded materials. Ultimately, these investigations lead to creative interactions with millions of species of plants, microbes, and animals. Even this array can be expanded by including the habitats in which these living entities reside as potential artistic resources. Alpine rocks, ocean sand, and bog muck unleash dramatic narratives of relationships among a massive complex of materials. They can transform the bland landscape inside our laptops and outside our car windows into captivating interactive installations and aesthetic delights. 

These relationships also rejuvenate the artist, awakening sensory capacities that tend to languish when the human organism depends upon the electronic generation of virtual worlds and the uniform predictability of manufactured items. It offers the surest route to membership in the emerging environmental era, complete with rights, privileges, responsibilities, and infinite creative possibilities for artists to participate in the ecological reform of contemporary culture. 


An artwork’s ecological ‘footprint’ is calculated by measuring the quantity and sustainability of the resources it consumes and the byproducts it produces. The complexity of conducting such calculations contradicts the simplicity of the concept because the entire existence of the artwork is subject to footprint scrutiny. Calculations begin with choosing a workplace and gathering mediums, tools, and materials. It proceeds throughout the work’s creation, storage, crating, transportation, display, promotion, and maintenance. Each of these activities concerns both the material and the energetic components of local and distant ecosystems in the present and far into the future. 

Minimizing art’s footprint raises the following questions:
    How shall the studio be sited, constructed, lit, and heated?
    What equipment, tools, and mediums can be gathered locally?
    What are the ecological consequences of a work’s size and weight?
    How can packaging and other protections be reduced or eliminated?
    How can the manufacturing protocols of art-related goods be improved?
    How can studio waste be recycled?
This expanded range of consideration within art pedagogy tampers with an assumption that many entry level students cherish - that artists are at liberty to express the ”self” without regard for codes of conduct that reflect shared goals and communal responsibilities. Thus, in addition to reforming material choices, instruction entails promoting ”eco-centric,” as opposed to ego-centric, artistic motives. The magnitude and gravity of this shift in allegiance is comparable to formulating a new manifesto, or subscribing to a new constitution, or converting to a new moral creed. I propose that the way to accomplish this daunting task is to encourage students to become more materialistic, not less!

Jane Bennett, Professor of Political Theory at Johns Hopkins University, explains this startling proposition by supporting a new ‘environmental materialism’ to replace personal materialism. The concept is a means to solve a troublesome contemporary dilemma that she poses in the following question: “How can matter and energetic forces course through humans and cultures without being exhausted or corrupted by them?” Bennett asserts, “Greater sensitivity to ‘thing-power’ can induce a stronger sense of ecological responsibility.” 
Bennett defines ”thing-power” as awareness that the common artifacts of daily use are never insignificant. Every ”thing” has ”power” because it belongs to the dense web that connects all living and non-living components of the environment. She asserts that thing-power yields two positive results. One is enchantment, “a sense of having had one’s nerves or circulation or concentration powers tuned up and recharged - a shot in the arm, a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life.”  Such enchantment contrasts with the complacency associated with affordable abundance. The other positive result is “prudence,” good judgment in practical matters. It contrasts with the waste and indulgence associated with consumer-oriented materialism.  

Bennett presents environmental materialism as a goal; she offers thing-power as the means to achieve it. Her strategy for cultural transformation can be applied to every human endeavor. Foundation instructors adopt it choosing materials, tools, and processes for enchantment and prudence, as well as cost and convenience. In this manner they introduce students to the ethical, cultural, and environmental components of being an artist. It is ethical because it exceeds personal convenience and satisfaction to include the wellbeing of others. It is cultural because it consciously manifests shared knowledge and values. It is ecological because it considers the environmental consequences of all material choices.

ASSIGNMENT – Ecological Materialism
Enjoy an ecological materialist party by bringing a food or drink to class that is ”prudent” (locally grown, avoids wasteful packaging, seasonal, etc.). As a class project, decide how these foods should be consumed to maximize ”enchantment” (delight and appreciation).  Reactivate prudence and enchantment when deciding how to manage leftovers and discards from your celebration.


Two words in the English language refer to physical substance, but they are not interchangeable within the context of art. Artists use ”medium” to refer to the physical component of works of art, not ”material.” This verbal convention suggests that art is not merely the manipulation of physical ”materials;” it also functions like a ”medium” to convey intangible transmissions such as emotions, metaphors, symbols, and concepts.

Foundation level courses typically address four ways that mediums contribute to art:
1. Form: color, texture, opacity, shininess, etc. 
ASSIGNMENT: Artistic Functions of Medium
Focus on the visual formal components of medium by creating a two dimensional work of art that utilizes two mediums with opposite visual characteristics. For example, panes of glass are smooth, flat, and transparent. Orange peels are bumpy, curved, and opaque.

2. Structure: enduring, flexible, rigid, light weight, heavy, etc.
ASSIGNMENT: Focus on structural attributes by creating a three dimensional sculpture that utilizes two mediums with opposite structural characteristics. Select one medium that provides support and another that requires support.  For example stone is rigid and ribbon is flexible.

3. Theme: places, people, concepts, emotions, objects, events, etc.
ASSIGNMENT: Use disposable beverage bottles as your medium to communicate your opinion about the use of disposable beverage bottles.  Do they maintain your health? Do they squander resources through packaging and transport? Do they clutter landfills? Do they compromise the watershed from which the water was taken? As a medium, plastic bottles can be sliced, crushed, flattened, painted, filled, punctured, suspended, buried, and/or assembled.

4. Serviceability: predictable, affordable, manageable, etc. 
ASSIGNMENT: Choose the most serviceable medium to create a work of art that responds to wind, can withstand rain, and is visible at night.

Minimizing art’s footprint entails adding a fifth quality.
5. Environmental efficacy: non-polluting, energy efficient, renewable, etc.

The Foundations curriculum is ripe for the creative orchestration of course content and the imaginative composition of student experience. Minimizing art’s footprint constitutes an exciting frontier of pedagogical change. All art instructors are welcome to join in its exploration. The strategy described in this essay presents three pairs of material characteristics that cultivate ”thing-power:” manufactured and non-manufactured, biodegradable and non-biodegradable, living and non-living. Familiarity with the characteristics of these categories of earthly matter enables students to mitigate environmental harm and contribute to environmental sustainability within the creation of art.

Manufactured and Non-Manufactured

Manufactured mediums.
While mediums can be crafted manually, it is far more common for artists to purchase mediums that have been manufactured industrially. Increasingly manufacturers are incorporating sustainable practices in their protocols. However, few claim to subscribe to the numerous demands of environmental protocols: eliminating the production of harmful by-products, the consumption of non-sustainable ingredients, and exploitative labor practices,  while assuring local production using local ingredients, environmentally responsible facilities, warehouses, packaging, and transport.  

Some categories of manufactured mediums for use in art that minimize its footprint often consist of: 
    - Newly manufactured materials with ingredients recycled from previous human use
    - Newly manufactured materials with virgin resources that were generated sustainably
    - Used objects
    - Used objects that can be used for an unintended function
    - Discarded objects that can be dismantled to harvest useful components
    - Overruns
    - Items stored and unused
ASSIGNMENT: Select a manufactured object that fulfills two requirements: First, it is constructed out of a variety of materials. Second, it is a discard, an overrun, or it is stored and unused. Dismantle it to separate the material components. Utilize this entire material inventory to create one or more works of art. For example, a shoe might be dismantled to provide a rubber sole, cloth shoe lace, plastic shoe lace tip, metal rivets, and vinyl uppers. Leave no waste. 

Non-manufactured mediums, whether they are commercially sold or personally harvested or mined, are subject to the same mandates as manufactured mediums. The environmentally-conscious act of selecting them also involves discovering if these processes produced harmful by-products, consumed non-sustainable ingredients, or utilized exploitative labor practices. Non-manufactured materials available for adoption include:
       - Plants     
- Plant parts: stem, leaf, root, shoot, pod, flower, seed, bark, needles, twigs, boughs, juice, sap, charcoal, gum, berries, cones, husks
     - Animals 
    - Animal parts: feathers, bones, hooves, horns, fur, scales, shells
    - Mineral elements: stone, metal, glass, water, sand, clay
ASSIGNMENT: Choose one complex non-manufactured object. Demonstrate its potential as a medium by dismantling it as delicately as you can. For example, a pine branch consists of at least two layers of bark, needles of varied sizes, possibly pinecones at different stages of maturity, sap that includes various resins and water, and layers of wood that vary in hardness, color, and texture. Explore how each of its parts can be manipulated as a medium. For example, bark can be sliced, incised, scraped, shredded, chopped, soaked, woven, curled, knotted, etc. Create an artwork that applies many methods of manipulation.

Biodegradable / Non-Biodegradable
Biodegradable organic substances such as leaves, bark, and manure undergo a chemical transformation when they are decomposed by populations of bacteria, fungi, worms, and insects who utilize  these materials for their existence. These hungry decomposers digest organic molecules from dead organisms as well as those sloughed by living organisms. In this process, fertilizer, humus, compost, muck, and soil are formed.
Composting is a human induced waste management scheme that utilizes biodegradable discards and thereby reduces pressure on landfills. Decomposition occurs without human intervention in forests, grasslands, jungles, and gardens, wherever dead organic matter collects. 

ASSIGNMENT:  Titles can be important in art because they direct the viewers’ responses. Exploit the power of a title by choosing one that reverses the common disgust associated with degrading biological material. Prominently display this title beside a sculpture you create using such biodegradable mediums as food, leaves, fur, or moss. Accelerate decomposition by exposing your sculpture to moisture, sunlight, insects, etc. Your title should elevate this example of decomposition by reminding viewers that decay is the process that replenishes the vitality of ecosystems.  

Non-biodegradable, industrially manufactured materials like steel car frames and asphalt must be industrially processed to be recycled. These processes require additional inputs of energy and material resources. Not all non-biodegradable manufactured materials are good candidates for industrial recycling. Some degrade in quality when they are recycled; some consume excessive resources during recycling; some are costly to transport to a recycling facility; some produce harmful by-products during recycling; some can be reused in their current state without recycling; some can be easily repaired to extend their usefulness.

ASSIGNMENT: Select a discarded object that is made of a manufactured, non-biodegradable material. Use it in its existing condition to create a functional work of art. The new function was not intended by the manufacturer. In this manner, you avoid the need for recycling.

Non-biodegradable, non-manufactured mediums include stone, nugget, crystal, gems, petrified wood, fossilized bone, chalk, gypsum, marble, granite, sand, clay, and water. All these mediums resist the dismantling actions of living organisms. Works of art made with many of these materials endure without being protected from weather or the action of life forms. Others are more reactive to physical and chemical changes in the environment.

ASSIGNMENT: Select one non-biodegradable, non-manufactured medium that can withstand weather and use it to create an enduring monument that ‘lays to rest’ something that annoys or upsets you. Treat the work as a grave, memorial, burial vault, or tombstone to honor your departed annoyance. Then choose one non-biodegradable, non-manufactured medium that does not withstand weather, and use it to make a temporary offering to your departed annoyance.

Lifeless / Living

All earthly entities are either lifeless or living. Examining the distinct attributes of these comprehensive categories of matter not only familiarizes students with the vast range of forming potentials as mediums (enchantment), it tunes their sensibilities to ecosystem dynamics (prudence). 

Some lifeless entities were always inert. Others were once alive. Neither can self-initiate actions. They can only respond to external influences. Lifeless matter is, for instance, altered by accretion, friction, eruption, gravity, temperature, wind, and acid.  It has neither the will nor the means to resist these conditions. Likewise, lifeless matter can be altered by incursions from living entities. It is altered, for example, by root penetration, nest-building, food gathering, and waste products. Although each lifeless material offers specific possibilities for artistic manipulation, none can change its mind, feel too ill to work, or complain about its treatment.   
ASSIGNMENT: Create a ‘hands-off’ work of art by subjecting a lifeless medium to any outside force except your personal manipulations. This project focuses on artistic interactions that are initiated by the artist and then released from artistic control and intervention. Maximize the extent of material change by carefully choosing a medium that is highly reactive to your choice of influence. 


Life is defined by the active process of gathering energy and using it to produce the complex molecules that constitute an organism’s body. While it is conventional for Western artists to select controllable, stable, and durable mediums, minimizing art’s footprint invites living entities into the repertoire of art. A profusion of formal and expressive opportunities accompanies them. Living mediums can be plant or animal, old or young, endangered or abundant, threatening or benign, massive or microscopic, complex or simple, grown in the wild or cultivated, and so forth. They introduce birth, growth, degradation, evolution, mobility, personality, and morbidity into the catalog of art production. 

Living entities are active. Like non-living entities, they too are subject to conditions in the surrounding environment, but they also self-initiate change by conducting seven essential life processes: movement, reproduction, sensitivity, nutrition, excretion, respiration, and growth. Some of their manners of fulfilling these functions are influenced by inherent, involuntary responses to external stimuli, while others are learned behaviors. These responses are triggered by light, sound, touch, heat, chemicals. They may originate from a bolt of lightening, the roar of a predator, a mother’s hug, or an officer’s command. All living entities are continually responding to the perturbations and enticements in their environment.

Positive responses function like desire; they attract organisms to life-sustaining resources or conditions. For example, flowers seek light and flies seek rotting meat.  Negative responses function like aversions; they repel organisms away from conditions that are harmful to them. For example, deer flee forest fires and salmon avoid warm waters. They motivate competition and cooperation, aggression and companionship.

ASSIGNMENT: In order to experience the dynamic conditions imposed by living mediums, create a sculpture that offers a healthful and a dangerous condition to a living organism. Allow its response patterns (involuntary and voluntary) to create the form of your work of art. For example, activate an ant’s attraction to sugar and its aversion to acid, or a frog’s attraction to water and its aversion to sudden movements.  

Footprints measured by environmentalists extend far beyond the toe and the heel of a person’s foot.  Today’s environmentalists calculate footprints for individual, city, national, and global populations upon forests, grazing lands, fishing sites, and many other ecosystems. Such footprint calculations indicate that humans are tromping on the web of life by imprinting the earth with the crushing weight of automobiles, ATVs, tractors, backhoes, 18 wheelers, drilling rigs, and the effects of their usage.  Data reveal that humans in privileged societies are squandering material and energy resources through excessive use of herbicides, leaking oil, clearing forests, laying impervious surfaces, over fishing, over hunting, draining wetlands, filling coastal estuaries, emitting  carbon dioxide, and producing acid rain. In 2003, The Global Footprint Network announced that humanity's total footprint exceeded the Earth's biological capacity for renewal by 23 percent.  

Scaling back the norm in privileged societies, gearing up efficiency, and slowing down population growth are the responsibilities of everyone living according to the conventions of industrialized societies, as well as those aspiring to achieve this lifestyle. Artists share this responsibility.
Foundations courses, because they engage the next generation of artists, can serve as epicenters of reform. This essay explored strategies to intensify ”thing-power” and instill ”ecological materialism,” with the goal of minimizing the footprint of studio art practice. Since ”minimize” is a relative term, four levels of commitment to this goal constitute the conclusion of this essay. The first, limit harmful practices. The second, curtail harmful practices. The third, repair a damaged or depleted condition. The fourth, enhance the vitality of an ecosystem.

ASSIGNMENT: Create a work of art using scrap cardboard or newspaper (utilizing a discard ‘‘limits the harmful practice” of dumping waste). Form this material without relying on any newly purchased commodity (eliminating unnecessary consumerism ‘curtails a harmful practice’). Identify a plant or animal confronting a survival challenge and use your materials to provide it with nourishment or shelter (nurturing ”repairs a damaged or depleted condition”). Locate your work in a situation where its decomposition enriches soil (decomposed paper ‘enhances the vitality of ecosystems’).

Look before you leap.
Think before you step.
Tread lightly.

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