Environmental Art Has ‘Landed’

The following text was drafted for my upcoming book, co-authored by Natalie Jeremijenko, entitled Studio Art Environmental Health Clinic. Comments are welcome:

‘Land’ connotes soil to a farmer, property rights to a lawyer, a commodity to a developer, a voting district to a politician, habitat to an ecologist, a yard to a suburbanite, natural resources to an economist. Yet members of each profession have claimed space under the umbrella term, ‘environmentalism’ even as they adhere to their specialized agendas. What they share is an abiding commitment to the well-being of planet Earth

But what is ‘land’ to an artist?

The long history of Western is imprinted with three land-related narratives. One account tracks those artists who frame a vista and record its visual contents. These artists define ‘land’ as scenery, a source of visual stimulation, a repository of bounteous optical evocations. The second version is occupied by artists who, instead of representing the optical manifestations of land, conscript these visual elements into the service of symbol and metaphor. These artists strip the elements of ‘land’ of their authentic identities and recast them as symbolic representations of phenomena that are not elements of land. Trees, for example, may convey knowledge of good and evil, or communion with the spirit world, or the human brain and spinal cord. The third artistic approach to land is emotionally-charged. Artists who pursue this approach forego compliant observations and the active construction of symbols. They manipulate the components of ‘land’ so that, through such distortions and exaggerations, they register personal passions and sensitivities. In this instance, ‘land’ becomes a vehicle for expressing terror, awe, tranquility, etc.

In the 1960s and 1970s and new movement was launched added a fourth accounting to the art/land legacy. Indeed, it was called ‘Land Art’, a designation that was well-earned even though its practitioners rejected their predecessors’ strategies of interaction, depictions and interpretations; Land artists located their artworks outdoors. Furthermore, they dispensed with neutral mediums, like paint and crayon, to manifest their creative endeavors; instead, they worked with the actual materials of the land. Michael Heizer, for example, used a bulldozer to displace 240,000 tons of earth from the edge of a Nevada mesa, and Robert Smithson laid six thousand tons of black basalt rocks and earth along the shore of the Great Salt Lake to create a peninsula shaped like a counterclockwise spiral.    

Few would quarrel with the assertion that the artists who pursued these courses have generated treasured artistic masterworks. However, despite their esteemed positions within the history of art, none fit under the environmentalist’s umbrella. These artists are disqualified by their shared fixation on human perceptions and human responses; it is the non-human universe, key to all environmentalist considerations, that is missing from their works. For example, artists who depict land as scenery neglect the fact that life on Earth depends upon how the components of land function, not on how they appear. Similarly, artists who construct symbols ignore the fact that life is sustained by material and energetic forces, not abstract mental constructs. Likewise, artists who manipulate appearances to register their emotions manifest the behaviors of consumers who disrupt the planet’s energetic and material resources to serve their immediate, short-term, private interests. Finally, Land Art practitioners’ willful assertion of human power are more intent on creating an imprint on the land that serving as its steward. Despite their diverse positions, these approaches to ‘land’ are equally disengaged from the physical conditions that maintain the unique ability of our planet to sustain life.

The Studio Art Environmental Health Clinic was formed to demonstrate that the stances described in the previous paragraphs are not only ‘un-environmentalist’ (problem of ‘omission’ by disregarding the land’s cycles and systems’); it is ‘anti-environmentalist’ (problem of ‘commission’ by using materials and processes that disturb the planet’s soils, waterways, and atmosphere, threatening the manifold species who occupy these habitats). These artists are as implicated in the ongoing and escalating rampage against the lands we inhabit as irresponsible industrialists and opportunistic politicians.