It may be unlikely to notice at first, but art and trash share an important trait in common: both help us challenge the meaning of things. Although these concepts have already been given well-defined meanings, they have also evolved over time. Art can become trash, and trash can become art. And in the presence of one of these transformations, we can perceive either a sign of transgression or warning.

As a transgression, the encounter of art with trash often criticizes erudite art or society’s beliefs, as it happened in Dadaism. This avant-garde artistic movement of the beginning of the 20th century protested to shock the bourgeoisie and show the chaos and folly of the society fighting the First World War.

In an attempt to deny current aesthetic and artistic values, Dadaists often used deliberately incomprehensible methods. In paintings and sculptures, they would commonly use pieces of material found on the streets or objects that had been thrown away.

In 1913, for example, the French artist Marcel Duchamp installed a bicycle wheel on a stool. The Fountain is also one of his artworks. This famous porcelain urinal is considered one of the most representative pieces of this artistic movement.

Besides contesting standards, art has also played a key role in alerting us to environmental, social, and economic problems and proposing new ways of existing. A milestone of this relationship between art and how man relates to nature was the birth of Environmental Art, one of the counterculture movement’ artistic facets in the ’60s and ’70s.

Land Art, Art Povera, Slow Fashion, Eco-design, and Bio-art are some traditional end contemporary demonstrations of Environmental Art. Through open-air installations in contact with nature or products developed for consumption, all of them propose reusing objects that would be commonly discarded. 

As well as in the late 19th century, when it questioned the occidental ways of life, work, and consumption, Environmental Art is still an essential tool for raising awareness and developing a sustainable mentality. 

It is interesting to realize that, just as the environmental issue has been intensely discussed worldwide, art has increasingly presented itself as a tool for fighting this cause. But what can we understand as art after all? 

Exploring the concept of art

The modern concept of art refers to it as any activity carried out to create pieces with aesthetic value and particular meaning to those who see and analyze them. 

However, art is also an abstract concept, and its definition may vary according to the culture and the historical period. Therefore, art has already been produced and understood in several different ways. Still, its role has always been attached to people’s necessity of portraying their feelings and positions toward a specific context.

From prehistoric art, including rock art, small sculptures, and megalithic construction, works of art have become more sophisticated as humanity’s lifestyle evolved.

Some milestones of this evolution were the emergence of several artistic movements that are still studied today as inexhaustible sources of knowledge about humanity’s history. Classical Art, Renaissance, Modern Art, Romanticism, and more contemporary styles such as Expressionism and Surrealism stand out among these movements.

But perhaps, the main link between art and the development of society occurred when artists found in their gift the possibility of leaving an even more remarkable legacy than a beautiful historical record or decorative article and started to use their work as an instrument of social transformation. We’ll soon be going deeper into this subject. But first, we have a question for you.

From this constant evolution of what is meant by art and the different criteria used to label it, some terms have been created to facilitate the understanding of the relevance and message of each piece. Do you know, for example, the terms Erudite Art and Popular Art?

Erudite art and popular art 

The main criteria commonly used to differentiate these two types of art are their origin, elaboration and transmission processes, accessibility, and community participation. 

Through these criteria, we could understand erudite art as pieces produced by professional artists, based on planned studies, transmitted in schools and written records, having the community only as its audience.

On the other hand, popular art would be represented by pieces produced by artists with no specific training and with strong popular participation and spontaneously developed and transmitted to the public. 

Having said that, there is a problem in considering erudite what has significant cultural value and is accessible only to a privileged class, and associating popular art to what is ordinary and available to most people. Take Brazilian music and opera as an example.

The greatest artists and composers of Brazilian music are considered popular rather than erudite. On the other hand, opera, considered today an expression of erudite culture, was classified as popular in its time. And just like opera, many major symbols of today’s erudite culture have been considered even vulgar in the past. This is a sign that there clearly is still a lot to reflect on preconceived notions of art.

What about when art is made out of garbage? Is the raw material enough to determine the relevance of artwork, or is its value on how the chosen material communicates a message?

Let’s take a more in-depth look at this discussion’s elements, starting from explaining the littering issue. 

Society and the littering issue 

Garbage is one of the main problems in large cities. This process results from the accumulation of waste that does not always have a place and an appropriate treatment and results from a society that consumes increasingly more.

Historically, we can see that the littering issue is directly linked to the development model we live in, linked to encouraging consumption. We often acquire things that are not necessary, and everything we consume has an impact.

Before the First Industrial Revolution, cities and populations were smaller, and the waste they produced was basically composed of organic matter. That way, it was easy to eliminate them, just by burying them.

Later, in the second half of the 20th century, industrialization’s worldwide growth triggered a significant increase in the amount of waste and varieties in its compositions.

From this relationship between waste, the development of the industry, and populational growth, it is possible to realize that waste is a problem that affects several segments. It is not only an ecological problem but also a social and economic one.

When we buy something at the supermarket, garbage is not just generated by the products themselves. It is also generated in their production stages, such as cultivation, mining, transport, and energy. In addition to that, there are also secondary products present when we buy them, such as bags and tax coupons.

In landfills, the accumulated waste produces a liquid called leachate. This substance contaminates groundwater, soils, and people in contact with debris. From there, other problems can arise, such as landslides, silting of water sources, floods, and damage to the landscape.

The dumps also affect a less privileged part of society that, often in inhumane working conditions, look for materials - papers, plastics, cans, among others - to sell as a means of subsistence.

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates, the production of waste worldwide should increase from 1.3 billion tons to 2.2 billion tons by 2025.

For the entity's specialists, waste management and the correct disposal of materials are increasingly essential for the world to move towards sustainable development. That is where there are possibilities for progress.

Suppose we, as a society, address the issue correctly. In that case, waste management has enormous potential to turn problems into solutions and lead sustainable development through the recovery and reuse of valuable resources.

In other words, the economical use of waste may be the way. What if this transformation could also come from art?

The transformative power of combining trash and art 

Garbage’s use in artistic productions at the beginning of the 21st century is directly related to global discussions about the environment. That’s the context where trash emerged to the art world as a possibility of highlighting and protesting against society’s deformations and bringing awareness through art

One of the important artists from this movement was the Brazilian Vik Muniz, known for combining the material and the theme of his pieces. In one of his works, he created a series of large images with objects collected at Gramacho landfill in the city of Duque de Caxias (RJ). Closed in 2012, it was ar the time the largest open-air dump in the world.

Vik Muniz’s artistic project surpassed the limits of art, becoming a social project with waste pickers. The story of these people was portrayed in the British-Brazilian documentary Waste Land, from 2010.

Nominated for Best Documentary in the 2011 Oscar’s ceremony and winner at major film festivals, such as Sundance and Berlin, the film drew the world’s attention to the poor living conditions of waste pickers while giving visibility to the problems of discarding solid waste.

Other examples of artists who have shown us how waste, when turned into art, can become a social and ecological transformation tool are Chirs Jordan and Sayaka Kajita.

The Californian photographer Chris Jordan produces beautiful images with bottle caps, aluminum cans, lamps, and any type of scrap. In the photo Plastic Cups, he used one million plastic cups, the same volume of cups discarded by American airlines in just six hours.

Sayaka Kajita is a Japanese artist who manages to make sculptures out of plastic pieces like spoons and cups. When making animals out of old plastic spoons, for example, she interestingly gives the idea of movement and defines the shapes of each item she assembled.

Conclusion

The relationship between art and garbage shows how garbage can be transformed from an artistic perspective, to question the art itself, and to provoke reflection on the generation of waste for the environment. 

Everything can be transformed into art. The biggest challenge is transforming how we relate to objects, how we consume, and how we discard what is no longer useful. 

The power of changing this scenario is in our hands. How you want this history to be told?