Upcycled art has had to fight a lot of generalized misconceptions. Some think it’s nothing more than repurposed garbage, while others believe it can only be politically charged. Additionally, upcycled art is highly consumerist—so some question whether the environment can be saved by the commodification of waste.
So what is it, really? Is upcycled art actually an effective way around environmental waste or just a playful pastime?
The ‘aesthetics of thrift’: understanding upcycled art
Upcycling stresses the movement of found environmental art since the style prizes itself on spontaneity and resourcefulness.
On June 24, an exhibition in downtown Muskegon, Michigan revealed “Wisdom,” two owl sculptures made of metal during the Lakeshore Art Festival. This sculpture and the Muskegon festival are a part of the rebranding effort for upcycled art.
The Lakeshore Art Festival is one example of how upcycled art can become a part of public infrastructure itself; especially as a testament to the community’s commitment to finding new uses for waste.
However, there has been a push from renowned artists to make upcycling into a luxury craft. Upcycled art is, in a sense, a style usually employed by the upper class. Young designers often quit high paying jobs in the corporate art world to start their own green galleries.
Chris Billinghurst, founder of the House of Upcycling, did exactly that. She states that the “aesthetics of thrift” is the biggest detractor from upcycled art. But with her contributions, she wants to rebrand the connotations of thrifting and lean into the art’s high-end potential.
And some artists celebrate upcyling, stating that using everyday waste makes creating art more accessible. However, given art’s troubled relationship with gentrification and money, there is a concern as to whether promoting more consumerism is the correct way to effectively tackle environmental waste?
Does it actually mitigate environmental waste?
Consumerism of waste can still lead to more waste. So we must consider the end destination of art once displayed. CoveringsETC is one of the companies that uses upcycled art in its product design.
Its newest collection of products, Urban Fossil, “fossilizes” different plastic bottles in recycled glass. Magela Pons, head of Media and Communication, states that it derives “from the concept that we can create modern impressions of timeless depictions with fossil-like imagery showing what society leaves behind.”
The stance on whether this style is a perpetuation of wasteful behaviors, however, is up to the artist. “It’s not going to have a great impact if there’s not that many people doing it,” LSUS Professor of Biological Science Dalton R. Gosset says. “But anything you can do to reduce the solid waste is a positive step whether it’s a little or a lot.”
Jessica is a writer based in NYC, with bylines at Vox and EGMNOW. You can pitch her stories at jessica [at] therising.co