Art as an agent of change

At a recent panel discussion on IE’s campus in Madrid, three art experts discussed how art can change society—and help save the planet.

Can art change the world? Where’s the line between “artist” and “activist”? Is veganism ultimately pointless?

These are a few of the musings explored at the talk “Art as an Agent of Change” on IE’s campus in Madrid this past December 3rd. The event formed part of IE’s two-week series of panel discussions in celebration of the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference, #COP25.


Photo courtesy of IE University

The three panelists represented the trifecta of the art world: the institution, the patron, and the artist. As Director and Co-Founder of TBA21 Academy, moderator Markus Reymann represented the institution. Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, aristocrat and lifelong art collector, represented the patron. And John Gerrard, of Irish origin, was our artist.

“The heart cannot feel what it does not see”

Markus kicked off the discussion with some background about his brainchild, TBA21 Academy. It all started as a mission to “foster a deeper understanding of the ocean through the lens of art and to engender creative solutions to its most pressing issues.” But as Markus told us, when the initiative began, “we discovered we knew very little about the oceans.” They realized that, before they could foster understanding, they themselves needed to truly understand. 

So the academy turned a group of artists into an army of sea voyagers, sailing the world over alongside scientists, marine biologists, designers, and engineers, to identify problems and ideate creative solutions to them. 

Back on shore, the artists take the issues they’ve seen firsthand, and bring them to life in various art forms.

One such form is Moving Off The Land, a performance and installation work commissioned by TBA21 Academy and created by 82-year-old artist Joan Jonas. Jonas spent years researching the seas firsthand and speaking directly with scientists to get a better understanding of humanity’s ages-old connection with bodies of water. The resulting piece is described by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum as: 

A tribute to the oceans and their creatures, biodiversity, and delicate ecology. Her new works dive deep into the ocean water, swim with the fish inhabiting it, and weave in literature and poetry by writers who have homed in on the liquid masses that cover two-thirds of the planet.


Without artists, translators of culture, the public isn’t moved to act as scientists insist. Artists have the unique power to elicit an emotional response to issues facing society and the planet. By working with experts to first get the whole picture, then finding moving ways to convey that picture, artists can shape collective thought.

Art you can’t look away from

Markus then turned the conversation to John Gerrard and his work of similar nature.

John qualified his response with a controversial take on sustainability: going vegan, not flying in planes, and wearing shoes made of plastic from the ocean is not enough. John warned about getting distracted by long-game activism, and forgetting about major, immediate change.

“It’s a red herring to focus on art and sustainability. Who is going to ban petroleum and when? It affects art, consumption, everything… America is a rogue state at war with itself and shows no sign of banning petroleum. Which country will do it first? The tanker of consumption is not stoppable, so real policies are needed, now.”

But not everyone is a politician, policymaker, or activist. An artist, according to John, is someone who “can affect or move the public.” Artists can therefore act as a middleman, changing the minds of the people to then change how they vote.

And when it comes to changing public opinion, the more public, the better.

“If art is to be an agent of change,” John claims, “It needs to be in the streets. We should encourage artists to work as publicly as possible, not behind closed doors in cultural spaces.”

This explains the reasoning behind his piece Western Flag, now on (very public) display on a screen outside of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. The physical piece stands tall in Spindletop, Texas, at the world’s first major oil find—which is now entirely barren. It consists of a flag pole, the top quarter of which has been punctured with seven, evenly spaced holes, each one emitting a stream of thick, black smoke that lingers in the shape of a flag before drifting off into the air.

It sends a very clear message that climate change threatens the very nature of the nation state. 

western flag

Photo from the artist’s website:

Another iteration of the work was an image that cut into television programs on Channel 4 in the UK at calculated intervals for 24 hours—a constant reminder of the uncontrolled violence we have and continue to expose our planet to. It was the first art installation of its kind.

Using your power for good

As a patron of the arts, Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza has worked with a similar raison d’etre

“I began inviting artists into [TBA21 Academy] who felt an urgency to address a social issue. When I started doing this I was hugely criticized for expressing my own personal values.”

In the early days of her career, she already supported transgender artists, Burmese artists fighting for independence, and projects that looked to shed light on the massive human rights abuses in Tibet. 

More recently, she supported and participated in a workshop in Vienna called “Green Light,” in which artists and asylum seekers created green lamps to represent Austria’s open arms to those fleeing hardship in their home countries. The workshop was part of a series of educational initiatives for refugees, such as free German classes.

Francesca made it clear that she only supports projects that deeply move her; projects that matter.

“If these projects are missing that element of controversy,” she told us, “it would indicate that we aren’t asking ourselves the right questions.”

So why art? Why not get directly involved in politics and or donate to worthy causes? Markus posed this question as he wrapped up the talk.

Francesca responded that “she didn’t choose the art world; the art world chose her.” It’s what she’s driven to do. Which is really the point of all of this. Each person—whether a politician, a data scientist, an artist, or a deep-sea explorer—should use their unique position, skills, and power to drive change in their own way. 

We are all agents of change. 


Hailing from Indianapolis, Indiana, Meagan Gardner has been working in content creation and editing for the past four years. She now proudly serves as Rewire Mag’s Editor-in-Chief, and works hard to ensure its content inspires current and future HST students to drive change in the new world of work. Link up with her here.