Impactful environmental activism through visual art

April, 2024
Yunsheng XuRebecca Zhang


Around 63,000 B.C., Neanderthals began exploring the technique of wall art. The shapes of bison and other animals were inscribed deep onto the stone walls in the Cave of Altamira, Spain; these inscriptions are often regarded as some of the most famous Paleolithic art pieces in existence. One purpose of these depictions was to bring a sense of understanding and appreciation to nature and the environment.

Several cultures in Asia similarly embraced nature through art. China’s Shan Shui paintings, mainly depicting mountains, were drawn against a wall of fabrics. They eventually became a means for educated men to seek consolation from nature and to escape the chaos of the world. India regarded plants and trees as sacred beings to be protected. Along the walls of buildings, tribal Gond paintings depicted the Indians’ respect for the flora and fauna, which ruled the Earth before humans.

The 1900s introduced street art and murals. Murals could not only express the complexity of a vast range of themes in a simple way, but they could also be used to speak out regarding the current environmental crisis. Although wall art throughout the centuries has vastly changed in meaning and expression, it has gravitated to environmental art since the 1960s. Differing from depictions of nature, environmental art’s purpose is to raise awareness of climate change and appeal to an audience unfamiliar with the crisis that the Earth is facing.

Environmental damage often feels abstract, meaning most individuals feel detached from its consequences. However, artists bridge this gap by creating powerful pieces to evoke emotions in viewers, sparking introspection and forming a deep sense of connection to the Earth.

Artists directly pose uncomfortable questions to viewers by creating pieces that showcase the beauty of nature, juxtaposed with the negative impact of human activities. They challenge the viewers to confront the consequences of environmental damage and consider the long-term effects of their choices.

For example, an anonymous graffiti artist and environmental activist in the United Kingdom, known as Banksy, uses his talents to advocate for the environment. He paints graffiti on ruins and areas filled with trash which contrasts with the environmental images and messages in his art, to criticize the consequences of disregarding the environment.

One of Banksy’s murals depicts a boy holding a can of paint. The message “I remember when all this was trees,” seemingly painted by the boy, is pasted onto the wall beside him. The message, referring to the surroundings of the mural, is extremely powerful because it contrasts with the decrepit and run-down buildings.

Examples of environmental artwork can also be found right here in Princeton. One example is the Nature's Nation: American Art and Environment exhibit, from 2019 at the Princeton University Art Museum. Featuring more than 120 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, and videos, the exhibit expresses an ecocritical view of American art from the past three centuries. It displays the development of the country, including how industrial development has destroyed the land and its natural environment.

The exhibit begins with an idealistic walkthrough of the pristine landscape before the arrival of humans, then turns to much darker works displaying the destruction of the environment. For example, one work titled “Crucified Land,” by Alexandre Hogue, showcases the eroded terrain that was sacrificed for agricultural practices. Another work by Edward Burtynsky, “Oil Spill #10,” simultaneously presents the majestic biosphere, as well as its degradation caused by the extraction of oil from the earth.

In addition, environmental art can also be found inside Princeton High School. More specifically, the most prominent spaces coated in environmental murals are the science halls. In the 170s, 180s, 270s, and 280s hallways, paintings of animals and one huge tree flourish on the wall as a clear representation of student’s appreciation for wildlife. Furthermore, students recently hung up a life-size diagram of different animals, including a whale, in the 280s hall. Not only does this art brighten up PHS’s appearance, but it also provides other students with a quick refresher on their knowledge of environmental diversity, which is accessible to them by simply glancing up at the wall.

Every year, the murals at PHS seem to just keep growing, a true testament of students’ freedom of expression. Not only do these murals allow every art student to make an eternal mark on PHS, but they also showcase how the environment is highly appreciated in the community.