Reduce, reuse, recycle. These are three words ingrained into our brains from a young age. I remember being in primary school and being told to think about the “three Rs” when it came to our waste products. We often think about this mindset regarding everyday items, in our use of glass jars or plastic bags. We’re familiar with the process and it seems to most of us, hopefully, to be second nature. However, how often do we think about the three Rs in reference to our artistic and creative practices?
Art is, at least for me, something that is hard to define. Art has a highly contested definition, the intention of the creator impacts whether or not something is art; however, the perspective of the audience also influences whether or not something is considered art. This umbrella term of art captures a large variety of creative practices, with complete diversity of subject matter. Art can include design, architecture, music, painting, craft, and dance (to name only a few). What is and isn’t art is genuinely up to individual interpretation. I am not here to argue about the definition of art but rather to further expand how we think about art and the mediums we create, and more importantly, how sustainable practices come into play. Does our opinion on whether or not something is considered art depend on the creative process itself?
Sustainable art practices challenge the way we think about not just art but also waste. There are two ways of thinking about sustainable creative practices. The first is creating artwork made from sustainable materials or using products that are usually considered to be ‘waste’ or ‘rubbish’. The second is creative thinking when repurposing and repairing items for functional and everyday purposes. It can be argued that the latter is not a creative practice, but I believe that it is.
Practices such as visible mending are prime examples of functional, sustainable art. The fact that this act of repair is apparent and striking highlights a creative and artistic approach. It showcases the history of the item, shows that it has been loved, and this mending process is a part of its story, both ergonomically and aesthetically. This is also seen through Kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending pottery where gold, silver, or platinum is used to repair the piece. It brings about a new form of beauty, acting as an aesthetic embellishment while simultaneously serving a functional purpose. I feel that this is a form of creative practice, regardless of whether or not this is conventionally considered to be an art form. While in these two cases, there is a clear aesthetic and artistic purpose for these mending practices due to the intense visibility of the repair. However, if this was done in a less obvious manner, who is to say that this is not a creative, artistic practice?
I like to think about things that we do everyday that can be seen as artistic and creative. The ways that we fix things and the way that we go about things. I believe that when we think about resourceful or functional creative projects, we often don’t think of them as artworks. They are deemed ‘crafty’ or ‘thrifty’. This relates to how art and the definitions of art and the creative process are subject to gatekeeping through arbitrary and classist definitions, checklists, and qualifications. Only certain people and processes are legitimised through the title of an ‘artist’ or a ‘designer’.
As creatives, the intention as to why we are making something is integral to our process and the final product. Incorporating the three Rs into creative processes, whether this be through directly reusing waste materials, or just thinking about the environmental impact of our work is not only just a good way to think about art, but it also adds more to the narrative of the piece. In a way, this moves us away from a capitalist mode of creative production, with our reliance on new materials and continuous innovation, rather than allowing for things to naturally evolve with different approaches.
Capitalism has definitely fucked with our creative process; conscious of it or not, we create with profit as an incentive. This means we are drawn away from engaging with the key environmental or societal impact, ignoring key contexts that make art important and interesting. Sustainable art processes allow us to be more innovative with the materials around us, and also allows for us to connect to our environments better. This creates an inclination towards an engagement with our complex and important social and political situations. Moving away from a capitalist mode of creative production is one way we can strive towards a more sustainable creative practice, which pulls valuable and interesting materials from the world around us, to encourage more nuanced aesthetic forms.
Prime examples of profit incentivised art and it’s prevalence today is seen with the rise of the creation of and buying and selling of NFTs. Despite arguments of this being beneficial in regards to access to art, it removes the element of creating art for art’s sake. Not to mention the environmental impact that NFTs have on the planet.
We need to shift our approach to creative work. It should at least consider Reduce, Reuse, Recycle in some way. Making art that follows sustainable practices like these is not simply thrifty. Rather it shows an awareness of one’s context and an openness for change, it allows for us as creatives and as observers to rebel against normative consumption processes to create something valuable and meaningful.