Thomas Prior / The New York Times

September 9, 2019

Art for Climate Activism’s Sake

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Is this going to make me look like a tree-hugging hippy?

Squatting over cardboard in the backyard of the Ecology House, sketching out an offshore drilling platform, some friends and I discussed the optics of our project. We were painting posters of fossil fuel extraction infrastructure, with plans to bring them out to a public thoroughfare for passersby-ers to paint over our oil rigs with pictures and ideas they hope to see in a just and fossil-fuel-free future.

It’s still hard for some parts of me to take the project seriously. I’m worried it will be written off because it doesn’t seem actionable or measurable enough. I have been pretty well conditioned to work toward clear and measurable goals with laser focus on efficiency, so when the path to a goal meanders at all, I get a little worried that I won’t get there. Furthermore, I’ve started to associate certain types of actions as inherently inefficient, time-wasting or meaningless.

I don’t think this thought process is rare at all, especially not among the many self-aware, goal-oriented, determined students who find their way to Cornell. One of the activities that this judgment of mine comes down hardest on is art, because of the relentless stereotyping of artists as goalless, drifting and unable to be effective members of the working society. While some great artists get to be revered for their contributions to social movements, those who do art without commercial or popular success are characterized as lazy or unintelligent.

So, despite having already outlined our clear, actionable and measurable goals for the project, and decided the project was a fun, easy and engaging way to synergize many of our goals for the semester, we once again dissected the project, making sure it really did align with our values.

The finished products of our paint session bear similarity to preschool finger paintings. The art we made probably doesn’t have much value as a finished project. Our art would not receive critical or popular acclaim. But was it worth our time and effort?

We asked people to think critically and set goals for the political action we want to take. Using art was an alternative to traditional brainstorming and collaborative goal-setting which still allowed us to ground and unify our plans for the future.

Doing art allowed us to have more friendly and meaningful conversations. By working while we talked, we were able to have more conversations with people who find certain conversations (with new people, with being asked to join something, etc.) stressful. Additionally, we slowed down the conversations, so it wasn’t such a rush to give the spiel while handing over a quarter card.

Tons of people stopped and talked, or worked, with us. It was fun and didn’t require too much stress for the organizers. It called on people to use a variety of skills and was inclusive of different skill levels, knowledge and opinions.

By fighting the urge to streamline and traditionalize our activity, we still met the goals which we set out for ourselves, but we got to do something unique and fun. And, thank goodness, we didn’t have to table.


Katie Sims is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]Resident Bad Media Critic runs alternating Tuesdays this semester.