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Resources on Plastics in the Environment (June 2022): Plastics in Art and Culture

By Margaret Manion

Plastics in Art and Culture

Many readers will likely remember a scene from the 1967 movie The Graduate in which the young protagonist is advised that a desirable future career can be summarized in “one word—plastics.” The scene is recalled in the foreword to Erica Cirino’s recent Thicker than Water (see below). By the time the movie was produced, plastics had already begun their upward trajectory, having been in common use for some time. The advice was not unlike telling somebody during the 1990s that majoring in computer science would make for a promising future career. Since then, however, the epithet plastic, when used in reference to people, has come to convey a connotation of being artificial or lacking qualities associated with personal depth. Google users maintaining a personal Google Account can actually visualize the meteoric rise in frequency of the usage “plastic fake” since 1960 by searching that term through the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Yet, the remarkable contrast between usages involving the term plastic and phrases employing the derived term plasticity in distinctly different contexts related to cultural and even evolutionary vitality has become part of today’s common knowledge, a situation anticipated in the 1990s by Jeffrey Meikle in his acclaimed cultural history, American Plastic, and confirmed by Heather Davis in Plastic Matter (discussed above). In a somewhat different vein, Amanda Boetzkes in her recent book Plastic Capitalism draws connections between the growth of the global fossil fuel economy and the popular visualization of plastic waste in contemporary art, which she connects, in turn, to the rise in public environmental awareness. Boetzkes argues that such art has become an integral part of current ecological perceptions and activism. By way of illustration, readers may be fascinated by the copiously illustrated Plastic Ocean, edited by Ingeborg Reichle, whose introduction answers the question “Who Lives in the Plastisphere?” by introducing some thirteen different science-based fine arts projects, all involving visual artworks constructed from found materials extracted from marine debris. Another arresting collection of activist eco-art is found in the first chapter of Mare Plasticum—The Plastic Sea, edited by Marilena Streit-Bianchi, Margarita Cimadevila and Wolfgang Trettnak. The book, which includes contributed essays on various aspects of marine plastic pollution, including a brief history of plastics, documentation of marine litter at various world locations, and other scientific topics, begins by showcasing an exhibition of mixed media works on canvas incorporating marine debris and representing eco-oceanic themes, created by editors Cimadevila and Trettnak, who began a ten-year artistic collaboration by collecting beach litter in Galicia (northwest Spain). Their chapter explains the origins, educational intent, and exhibition history for the various works presented, and the book concludes with an “eco-cartoon” created by Trettnak (“The Bottle-nosed Dolphin”) to inspire ecological awareness among young viewers. Finally, Provocative Plastics is a collection of conference papers edited by Susan Lambert, mainly illustrating that plastics are indeed controversial, but that also includes chapters highlighting the cultural impact of plastics on creativity itself.

Works Cited