Visual art, music and nature have another part to play in wellbeing, one which may be sidelined. They may contribute to any movement for change – a way for people to express and share their responses to environmental decline, to the climate emergency, to injustice, to oppression, to conflict or to economic reform on a local or global level. This may be a personal response as an individual creates or performs alone. Or it may be a group, community or other public response as people contribute to a cause or movement, to build awareness and call for action.

Photo by Markus Spiske on

Some use the arts to draw attention and to rally support. Others use their practice to express emotion or mood and to lament, to commemorate, to struggle or to celebrate. This is not only freedom of expression but freedom through expression.

Movements, campaigners and regimes have all harnessed music’s power to reach and engage communities in different ways. Music may come to represent a nation’s quest for freedom, like the South African anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Or it may become a tool in movements for change like Rock Against Racism, a 1970s movement begun by UK rock musicians. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez are two singer-songwriters who wove activism into their music in the mid to late 20th century, following on from Woody Guthrie and others. Leonard Cohen’s songs also have powerful thoughts to share. And as spoken word verse over instrumental music, rap has an immense part to play in ‘music as challenge’, within and across all settings. But so has all music, across all times.

Creativity may capture the public imagination and come to define an era. Famous works of art or songs may be the ones remembered, but in every age people will have created music, art and dance which is now forgotten or lost. One recent response was crafting rainbows to display during the coronavirus pandemic, as creativity drew on a biblical sign of hope.

Maybe art’s most obvious contribution to campaigning is the use of banners in marches and demonstrations, sometimes handcrafted or hand- or screen-painted. Any movement for change has a visual presence, maybe a distinctive logo or mascot.

Art responds to all times. Think of the May 2020 Banksy artwork in Southampton, at the height of the coronavirus lockdown. In this monochrome image, a young boy sits on the ground, playing with a nurse doll wearing a face mask. At his side his usual toys, Batman and Superman dolls, have been cast into a waste bin. We need new superheroes now.

One striking example of art as challenge was Kathe Kollwitz, who became a major graphic artist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her lithographs depict poverty and struggle, from the Weavers’ Revolt cycle to other prints drawing on her experience of loss in two world wars. Many war artists, official and unofficial alike, have used their work to respond to the realities of conflict on and off the battlefield. From photomontages by Hannah Hoch to Louise Bourgeois’ femme-maison paintings, women’s identities were one major theme in 20th century art. Another was the natural world: artists like Patricia Johansen and Nancy Holt turned land reclamation and ecosystem renewal into an art form. In the 1990s the Environment Art movement was formed by Andy Goldsworthy and others as a direct response to environmental decline. Artworks used natural materials from stones to twigs, and mainly survive now only through photography.

As awareness of ecological decline and planetary emergency has grown, so too has the role of music, art and nature in expressing and communicating that decline. Imagination and creativity fuel responses to climate change. And as species loss intensifies, sound and music become one way to remember. Sound recordists, composers and singers draw on biophony to recall species in decline as extinction looms.

Creativity may capture the public imagination and come to define an era

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