Art in a Time of Mass Extinction

There are more artists on the planet today than at any other time. Just imagine if all these artists were saying one thing. They would have a very powerful voice indeed. 

Yet what would it take to rally all the world’s artists behind a single cause? I’m not sure if anyone cause could ever unite all artists, but if there was one cause, perhaps it would be a mass extinction. 

Well, we are experiencing a mass extinction right now, but it is not of the human race. At least not at this moment. But the human race is causing it.

art in a time of  mass extinction
Diadem Shifaka by Shimhaq

Mass extinctions wiped out much of the planet’s life many times in the past, but it is only recently that humans have contributed to the extinction. For example, between about 130,000 years ago to 8,000 years ago, human hunters contributed to the extinction of most of the large animals on the planet. Mammoths, mastodons, sabertooth cats, and giant sloths, all of which had been around for millions of years, disappeared within thousands of years. 

The rate of extinctions today greatly exceeds what happened in the past. Biologist E.O. Wilson calculated that half of Earth’s “higher lifeforms” will be extinct by 2100. A poll conducted by the American Museum of Natural History 20 years ago showed that 70 percent of the biologists surveyed agreed that the extinction event in progress was human-caused. 

That seems to add up to a mass extinction event to me.

Paradis perdu by Jean-Francois Gambino

Yet we do not see thousands of artists responding to the mass extinction by producing thousands of artworks. Our eyes and ears should be throbbing with calls for a stop to the habitat destruction, pollution, poaching, overfishing, and the other strife we are inflicting on nature. 

Andy Warhol called attention to the extinction crisis back in the 1980s with a series of silk-screened animals. It is 2021 now and Warhol’s contribution is four decades old. Since then, scientists have been learning more about the crisis and warning it is worse than they thought. Yet they don’t seem to be getting through to the public and policy-makers.

A Siberian tiger from Andy Warhol’s 1983 extinction series.

This is where artists come in. Scientists need help communicating to the public. Artists need to form alliances with scientists to help them in their effort to get the word out. 

Fortunately, there are a number of artists today are aware of the situation. They are responding to the crisis with their artwork. It is scattered thinly over the internet. Some websites, like the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and the Artworks for Change, are aggregators of extinction-related art. They host galleries and competitions. 

Other artists, like many of those showcased in this post, have been patiently creating artwork on their own, hoping people will notice.

“The Vanishing” by Cathering Lidden

Hoping people will notice. I guess that’s the dream of most artists. I should know, I’m one of them. I created a series of paintings—my Extinction series—that I placed on exhibit in a solo show in 2020 called Salient Points. I put the images on my website, posted them on Instagram and Facebook, and elsewhere. 

Like many other artists, I hope people will notice and like my artwork, perhaps even buy it. But also like other extinction artists, what is more important to me is that I hope that by adding my voice to the voices of other artists we can have a real impact on the extinction crisis.

“Fragile” by Anagruz

I realize that many issues concern artists today. But if we could add many more artistic voices to call for a stop to the ongoing mass extinction we might be able to have the impact Andy Warhol and others have wished for, but not had. 

It is important to try to do this for many reasons, but I will highlight just two. 

First, the current mass extinction is intimately tied to the human impact on climate. We can address climate change and extinction at the same time.

“There’s no smoke without fire” by Scarlet Henderson.

Second, mass extinctions are biological holocausts. That means they are chaotic and beyond human control. We just saw how relatively ineffective we were against a potent flu-like virus. In a biological holocaust, not only can many heretofore unknown deadly diseases appear, but whole ecosystems that support our ability to provide food for ourselves could collapse. 

To get a perspective on the problem, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences stated that livestock makes up about 93 percent of the non-human mammalian biomass on the planet. That means only 7 percent of the mammalian biomass is wild. It is the same picture for birds, where there is three times more biomass of poultry than wild birds.

“Saola” by Christopher P. Sloan. This piece is from the Extinction series, which, unfortunately, is ongoing.

What if, in a biological holocaust, livestock were to die from some virus like the ones we’ve been seeing attack pigs and poultry? We’re playing with fire. And the likely result is that our house will burn down if we continue.

If you are an artist, consider joining other artists in our fight to save wildlife and wildlife habitats and bring a halt to this mass extinction event. Remember, it is not just animals that die in mass extinctions. It is a global ecosystem that dies. And there is no guarantee that humans will be part of whatever new global ecosystem emerges when the biological holocaust is over.


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