On Friday afternoon, the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities hosted a panel featuring Brooklyn-based artist David Opdyke, journalist Lauren Sandler, historian Tara Ward, and arts curator Amanda Krugliak to discuss the effectiveness of art as activism. The conversation centered on Opdyke’s new installation, titled “Paved with Good Intentions.”
The piece is a collection of vintage postcards of popular American sights that Opdyke painted over. The postcards are assembled together, forming a scenic landscape riddled with environmental catastrophes and chaos.
Opdyke said he has always made his art for himself and about his passions, but he has recently started being more purposeful in his creation. He said art is his form of activism and he has chosen to use his talent to try to make an impact.
“I make it because I’m compelled to make it," Opdyke said. "The effect doesn’t just happen … so you can either choose to be super successful in the market and make things because they sell. And I just decided that I, with all the stuff that’s going on in the world, I felt like this is my skill set, this is something I can do, and I should start thinking about being more intentional with it being about that, despite the fact it might be a little weird for certain people … there’s a little bit of risk involved in this, but I never was gonna make sofa paintings. I was never gonna make things that just hang over people’s furniture.”
Opdyke continued the conversation by talking of his decision to begin creating pieces about the environment because of the severity of climate change.
“Now looking back at it, I think I feel like the things that are happening that are maybe more critical to worry about,” Opdyke said. “Not about this presidency or this Congress, it’s more about, basically the environment. I mean global warming makes all that stuff pretty much irrelevant.”
Opdyke said his art is not meant to “hit people over the head” with a message, but to make people think about it for themselves, and he tries to achieve that through humor and absurdity.
The goal of “Paved with Good Intentions” is to make people think about environmental issues that may not be impacting them directly, Opdyke said. He described how he wants people to put themselves in the shoes of those who have dealt with natural disasters and said he used the postcards and different scenes to bring that feeling to familiar places for his audience.
“I was literally trying to bring the whole anxiety of the people that live in North Carolina and have their homes destroyed on a regular basis and do or do not go through the FEMA process, whether they rebuild or do not, they see what’s happening,” Opdyke said. “People in California fires and stuff like that, that’s a lived experience. They either have the resources to say ‘Okay, no big deal’ and keep going, or it wrecks their lives. There’s a whole bunch of the rest of the country that doesn’t have that kind of drum beat of ‘Shit, this is getting worse,’ and I was kind of trying to deliver that sense into every backyard and public park and highway that I could imagine.”
Panelist Lauren Sandler, a journalist and author, said the absurdity of the art leaves more room for open thought. However, she claimed the vastness of climate change and Opdyke’s piece can be overwhelming. She said many people find it easier to condense the issues into problems they can tackle more simply and noted the diverse regions portrayed in Opdyke’s work.
“I mean, the scale of it is so enormous,” Sandler said. “The enormity of this crisis and the enormity of our world is something that becomes too big to quantify for oneself and too easy to be personalized, and I think that this is why it was so easy for people to feel like it was going to be a question of lightbulbs or tin can recycling or plastic or paper bags at the grocery store instead of these really large policy decisions or universal changes of habit of how we live.”
LSA sophomore Alice Hill said Opdyke’s talk prompted her to think about how hard it is to measure whether or not art has actually made a difference or achieved its goal — something she said she had never thought about before.
“I’d never really considered the sort of limitations on quantifying impact in the creative forms such as art,” Hill said. “It’s hard to define or even answer the question of whether your piece has been effective in producing the result you were looking for.”
Sandler said institutions like the University have leaders in research on a variety of topics, but said she found often, there is a lack of communication between them.
“I think something we see most dramatically at universities, but throughout the rest of the world, is how siloed everything is,” Sandler said. “Yes, there are people here who have spent their lives researching what activism works and what social policy is necessary and how things are a public health crisis and how we can understand them historically. And all of those ideas, all the answers to these questions are all here on campus. And yet because we are so anti-interdisciplinary in our thinking and in how we fund things and how we have dialogues.”
Sandler concluded the discussion by saying the specialization and isolation of skill sets and research at the University makes it difficult to solve problems like climate change. However, she said these challenges could be addressed through collaboration.
“It’s an opportunity for people to say, ‘How can we use this art to get people more motivated to make the change that we have been researching’ and if they don’t believe that, here are the biologists on campus who can give us backup on it, and they can then connect with people who are thinking about social movements and how to energize and engage people,” Sandler said. “But I think that we’re really bad at that, and I think that is part of our problem right now.”
Audience member Sophie Grillet, also an artist, brought the conversation to the University’s relationship with climate issues, saying the University was not doing enough to impact climate change.
“Here we are in this University that everyone supposedly agrees on climate change and yet we still have plastic spoons everywhere and we still mow all the lawns and nothing is changing,” Grillet said. “That urgency isn’t there. I’m just thinking it might be a matter of encouraging courage and encouraging urgency.”