THE CRISIS OF MODERNISM IN THE 1960S AND 1970S by hcj

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THE CRISIS OF MODERNISM IN THE 1960S AND 1970S

Robert Baldwin
Associate Professor of Art History
Connecticut College
New London, CT 06320

robert.baldwin@conncoll.edu

(This essay was written in 2003 and is revised every few years.)



Abstract Expressionism was, in many ways, the last great hurrah of modernism as a
dominant artistic ideology. Let me distinguish between modernist and modern. By
"modern" I generally refer to the art which focused on modern life (politics, landscape,
peasants, cities) which followed the collapse of court culture and its system of history
painting. That is, "modern" refers to all art which came after the French Revolution all
the way to the present. (One could put modern back as far as Chardin and Greuze,
painters of "modern life").

By "modernism," I refer to that more extreme form of modern art which emerged with
Post-Impressionism and Symbolism in the 1890s which ascribed a new autonomy,
expressive power, seriousness, and heroic truth to aesthetic form itself and which could
shed all mimesis by 1915. Modernism was the system of art which made artistic form
itself into the only important component of art. Modernism was the system which
justified the search for a "pure" or "essential" artistic form reducing each medium
(painting, sculpture, architecture) to its most pure, "true" formal elements as seen very
clearly in Constructivism and International Style architecture.

Modernism was the search for the "essence" of artistic form beyond all subject matter. It
scornfully rejected traditional representation as "false" and outmoded", as untruth to
modern life. So too, it rejected all contemporary mass culture as a low-class kitch, a
vulgar, commercialized, thoughtless, superficial world of commodities. Instead,
modernist art claimed to soar above the mundane, the momentary, the worldly, the
natural, the everyday, and the commercial, offering a retreat-like, high-minded, visionary
purity of one kind of another. Each modernist movement and each artist offered a
different version of this heroic, free, vision. Gauguin offered a liberating "primitivism".
Matisse offered a beautiful sense of the decorative. Kandinsky and the Expressionists
offered a nature mysticism and a burning spiritual vision. Cubism offered a new focus on
pure pictorial structure which Mondrian and the Constructivists (and much International
Style architecture) took even further. The Surrealists (including the early Pollock and
Rothko) searched into the elemental interior world of the psyche and the unconscious.
And so on.
The First Crisis of a Modernism in the 1960s
For some seven decades after 1890, the modernist art movement continued to grow in
impact and importance. By the 1940s and 50s, it had achieved a powerful, even
hegemonic position in urban elite culture. In new, big-money museums of modern art in
New York, above all MOMA and the Guggenheim, modernist art was institutionalized in
official museum culture. After World War II, modernism triumphed in many of
America's leading architecture and design schools. Harvard even appointed the Bauhaus
architect, Walter Gropius, to head its school of architecture. Mies van der Rohe achieved
similar influence in Chicago. By the 1950s, modernism in American architecture became
synonymous with postwar optimism, progress, power, and a distinct, American sense of
political identity and superiority. America had always lacked the sense of extended
history and traditions found in Europe. While this led at times to a certain sense of
inferiority in the nineteenth century, the emergence of America as a superpower after
WW2 provided the perfect cultural moment for American political, academic, and
corporate institutions to embrace modernist aesthetics and above all, modern architecture.
By the early 1960s, American elites used modernist aesthetics to proclaim the United
States as the most technologically advanced, progressive, powerful, and democratic
nation in the “free world”. Modernism, especially in corporate and civic architecture, had
become inseparable from a new American nationalism and pride.

The most remarkable aspect of the official success of modernism in this country was the
patronage of Abstract Expressionism by urban elites with powerful connections to the
federal government in the late 1950s. At a time when the Cold War had heated up, the
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) began a new international program funding shows of
the best American art to travel around the world. The first major show of this kind, The
New American Painting, was created and funded by MOMA and toured eight European
countries in 1958-9. It consisted wholly of Abstract Expressionists.

While many Americans were not yet ready to make Abstract Expressionists into an
international, cultural emblem of American political freedom, modernity, and progress,
the biggest obstacle lay in the leftist political leanings of many of the artists and the
vulnerability of the whole movement to right-wing American attacks on all modern art as
"communistic". This was, after all, the height of anti-communist hysteria in America and
a period when the Federal government conducted a massive witch hunt of all
"Communist sympathizers". In a remarkable essay entitled "Is Modern Art
Communistic?" published in the New York Times Magazine as early as 1952, Alfred
Barr, president of MOMA, argued that abstract art was the opposite of communist art
because of its free, autonomous, individual voices. Barr pointed out that all communist
and totalitarian regimes were implacably opposed to abstract art and required all artists to
work within "socialist realism". In 1961, after Stalin had relaxed Soviet Communist rule
in Poland long enough to allow Polish artists to move from a Stalinist "socialist realism"
to an Abstract Expressionism derived from Pollock, MOMA even organized a big show
of these Polish modernist artists and hailed their shift to Abstract Expressionism as a
triumph of American cultural and political ideals over Communism.
To sum up these developments, elite cultural institutions in New York with strong
connections to the United Nations and to the Federal Government were able to transform
some of the most difficult and demanding modernist art - Abstract Expressionism - in the
finest example of modern American art accepted at the highest official levels and worthy
of the proud contemplation of all Americans.

This is not to say that modernism had triumphed everywhere in America by 1960. On the
contrary, its triumph was primarily confined to the tastes of urban elites. And there was
always a lag time as newer, more difficult forms of modernist art slowly won exhibition
space in galleries, museums and the homes of millionaires before filtering down to later
to more popular, upper middle-class taste. While the growth of museums as urban
institutions was very important here, so too was another development of the later 1950s,
60s, and 1970s, the spread of modernism through the much broader institutional culture
of higher education. For this is the period when the new field of Art History began
circulating among elite colleges and universities. If art history has remained a popular
subject among upper middle class undergraduates in American higher education, it is
interesting to note that one area of Art History by far remains the most popular: the study
of modern art and architecture.

Needless to say, the success of modernism was never complete in so far as it rarely
reached below the upper social strata of a well-educated, professionalized upper and
middle class living in the larger American cities. Of course, some "easier" artists like the
Impressionists, Post- Impressionists, and Fauves (especially Matisse) achieved a
remarkable success which eventually penetrated into every social level regardless of class
or educational level. More difficult modernist art like Cubism, Constructivism, abstract
Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism never achieved any comparable success. These
movements remained "popular" chiefly among urban elites.


The Problem of Success
The problem of modernism's remarkable institutional, social, and commercial success by
the later 1950s becomes apparent when we remember that modernism had always defined
itself in terms of a lofty autonomy from everyday life and especially vulgar business and
commercial values. While modernist artists were certainly happy to see larger groups
responding favorably to their art, many artists in the early 1960s were increasingly
troubled by what they saw as a co-opting of modern art by commercial forces and a
corresponding loss of autonomy, purity, and seriousness.

A number of factors came together here to make this the first crisis for modernism. These
included the following.

1) The two decades which followed World War II (1945-65) was an unprecedented
period of economic growth in American history. This remarkable economic expansion
produced huge new pools of excess capital in search of suitable luxury objects for
investment.
2) As a rapidly expanding, international museum culture took more and more Old Master
paintings permanently off the art market, modern art inevitably became increasing
attractive to market forces.

3) The growing institutional success of modernism at the high level of major museums,
academic institutions, and political patronage at every level made modernist painting and
sculpture even more attractive to the large pools of excess capital present in major
business centers.

As a result, an increasingly popular modern art became sucked up into the art market and
into the commercialized culture of galleries, auction houses, high-society collectors, and
nouveau riches elites in business, banking, real estate, and finance. Even museums
contributed to the commercializing of art by competing to get on the band wagon and add
modern art to their collections and by merchandizing art in ever-expanding gift shops
stocked with posters, postcards, slides, catalogues, coffee table books, clothing, jewelry,
ceramics, and high-priced reproductions. As prices shot up, even investors with no
interest in modernist painting joined the fray, eager to capitalize on any new investment
opportunity. The more excess capital the market economy produced, the greater the
competition to buy the best works of modern art. The result was a price explosion which
continued, unabated, until late 1980s when a single Van Gogh went for 52 million.

While this commercialization dated back to the very beginnings of modernism in the days
of later Impressionism, it took seventy years of gradual institutional and market
acceptance to reach the crisis stage of the 1960s (and 1970s). Paradoxically, modernism
had to reach a certain widespread success before its proverbial autonomy was threatened.
And this only took place in the 1960s

Looking back with a more critical perspective, one can say that an inevitable crisis finally
occurred within modernist art in the early 1960s. In a modern, market economy, any
artistic success necessarily brought with it an extensive, multi-faceted commercialization.
For all its rhetoric of a lofty spirituality and freedom from vulgar, mundane occupations,
modernist painting was by the 1960s increasingly seen as a trophy of excess wealth,
prestige, social status and taste. All along, it had defined itself as a universal cultural, a
spiritual "aristocracy" of lofty aesthetic sensibility available to all humanity and
supposedly speaking for all human aspirations with a universal language of aesthetic
form. Yet by the 1960s, modernist at was increasingly reduced to the compromised
plaything of an old-fashioned economic aristocracy, a display of class available primarily
to economic elites.

The supreme irony of this development was the intense attraction of excess capital
precisely to those forms of modernist painting deemed the most pure, the most spiritual,
the most timeless, the most difficult, the most authentic and true, the most removed from
vulgar commerce. Thus the intense and rapid commoditization of Abstract
Expressionism. Here we can see a larger principle of all market economies, namely their
continual search for new objects to fetishize and commoditize. This constant market
pressure also produced a unique pressure on the latest art. In some ways, the latest
modernist art was often the most strange, novel, and difficult. Thus it was the least
susceptible to commoditization, at least for a decade until something more strange and
difficult made it look tame by comparison. But the same resistance to commoditization
also attracted, at least on the highest economic levels, an upper strata of patronage from
very wealthy collectors eager to distinguish themselves from the growing mass of modern
art collectors. The more remote a work was from easy market appeal, the more some
sectors of the market were drawn to collect it. It didn't matter at all whether some types of
modernist art ever became truly popular, as with Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, or
Matisse. Because there were increasing amounts of excess capital competing for a
increasingly smaller number of modernist works as museum acquisitions took many of
the best works off the market - there was more than enough money to drive up prices on
even the most difficult, obscure works of modernist art. In the end, the market forces
devoured virtually all modernist art.

To sum up, it makes sense to see how excess modern capital caught up in anxieties about
itself in an increasingly uniform, mass-produced, commercial world, eagerly sought out
unique, hand-crafted, high culture objects endowed with a conspicuously "individual"
vision tied to pure, lofty, "timeless" significance. While the excess capital of the modern
market economy was by no means the only larger economic and social factor in the rise
of modernist art, it helped produce the unique luxury culture of modernism as a villa-like
refuge from its own modern anxieties while simultaneously displaying its own high social
and economic class. (As with the villa culture of Renaissance and Baroque Europe, elites
could escape and affirm their wealth at the same time. Like the nature of traditional villa
culture, modernist abstraction offered a pure realm beyond money where one could still
contemplate universals feelings and forms, all the while showing off your five million
dollar Matisse.

While the spread of an impersonal market economy was only one of a number of larger
socio-economic factors in the rise of modernism, it increasingly visible and disturbing by
the 1950s. And it led to the first crisis of modernism in the 1960s as a whole series of
artistic movements sought either to restore modernism's lofty autonomy or destroy it once
and for all in a new "art of modern life" which reveled in every form of shallow
commercialism (Pop Art).


Modernism in the 1960s as a Response to Commoditized Modernism


The Collapse of the Avant-Garde
While other artistic possibilities existed in the 1950s besides Abstract Expressionism, that
latter was hailed as a dominant movement by leading critics and institutions. One way to
see the 1960s as the first serious crisis of modernism and the beginning of its steady
decline is to see how the traditional modernist notion of a coherent, single avant-garde
collapsed. Avant-garde is a nineteenth-century French military term which refers to the
forward attack unit. As a central term within modernism, it expressed modernist
hostilities to popular taste and morality and the notion of a single, coherent, original
cutting-edge of art. Each avant-garde was a new, leading movement building on and
critiquing its predecessors. The notion of an avant-garde was thus inseparable from
modernism's own history of modern art as a coherent, Paris-New York succession of
leading, innovative movements. Here was a linear, hermetically sealed history of style
outside all social, political and economic history, a formalist history of modern art
running from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism and Symbolism, Fauvism,
Expressionism, Cubism, Constructivism, Surrealism, up to the triumph of (American)
Abstract Expressionism.

One of modernism's many problems after 1960s was the collapse of avant-garde thinking
in the face of a spreading plurality of simultaneous and conflicting art movements. Up
until then, it had been possible for successive movements to lay claim to a certain
centrality or hegemony as the dominant movement, as the latest avant-garde. After 1960,
the orderly modernist history of art with its single avant-gardes yielded to a plurality of
different movements: Earth Art and Site Art, Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and
Happening Art. To make sense of the new plurality of movements in the 1960s, it helps
to see how they all worried about the co-opting of modernism by market forces and
responded to that problem in different ways.


Pop Art
One solution was taken by Pop Art, as seen in the work of Richard Hamilton, Andy
Warhol, Liechtenstein, and Oldenberg. Pop Art is the clearest possible symptom of a
crisis within modernism. Coming immediately in the wake of the triumphant success of
Abstract Expressionism with its extreme modernist autonomy and exalted self-
importance, Pop Art deliberately sought out the most commercial, mass-produced, kitchy,
pornographic, mundane objects and images and made art out of them. Drawing on the
rhetorically bombastic and sentimental imagery of cartoons and on the dot appearance of
cheap, newsprint images, Roy Lichtenstein developed a cartoon-based Pop art which
satirized the modern culture of romance novels, pulp fiction, and even Abstract
Expressionism itself in a cartoon painting of wild, broad brushwork.

Some of this art was ironic and even satirical, as in Hamilton's Just What It Is That Makes
Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? of 1956. In this work, at least, there was a
certain seriousness implicit in the critique of middle class materialism and the
commoditization of household gadgets, of leisure (television) and the erotic body (porn).

By picking mechanically-reproduced objects from the most common, trashy popular
culture of commercial advertising, film and celebrity magazines, tabloid newspapers and
pulp fiction, and pornography, Pop art mocked the unique, genius-images of modernist
art with their exalted claims to autonomy and higher, visionary truth descending from
above. Pop art redefined the "modern" image as the trashy, mass-media image devoid of
any meaning except its own trashiness and lurid, hyped, consumerism. By repeating and
expanding on such mass-media images, Pop art called attention to the disturbing
"pornography" of modern consumer society with its obsession with slick, empty, outward
images, fetishized household consumer objects, and mass-media images and pop stars.

In a larger sense, Pop art made visible the cultural destruction of high art and "serious"
images in a modern, consumer, mass-media society and the inability of any serious image
or sign to preserve its integrity and meaning in a world where all images were
appropriated, cannibalized, transformed, and reused in a thousand ways. Modernist art
was built around the almost fetishized worship of the unique, irreplaceable, artistic
image, sprung directly from the unique, individual soul and hand of the artist. Pop art
demolished the whole modernist culture of uniqueness, of unique sensibilities and unique
images, and replaced it with a new, distinctly modern image which suggested the end of
the hegemony of modernism.

The irony and social-critique of Hamilton's pop art became more subtle in the Pop art of
Andy Warhol which reproduced large Campbells Tomato Soup cans or pop culture icons
like Marilyn Monroe in a far more deadpan manner. Warhol started out as a commercial
artist drawing illustrations of women's shoes for department store magazines and
catalogues. In the end, there was a certain irony in Warhol's Pop art which allowed it to
maintain a certain, traditionally modernist, critical remove from mass-culture. Needless
to say, there was a world of difference between his subtle irony and the "heroic"
autonomy and lofty pursuits claimed by all earlier modernist art (except Dada and some
Surrealism). And to a large extent, even Warhol's deadpan irony was undermined by his
obvious love for all things tacky, superficial, and empty and by the way he aggressively
pursued in his own life the empty, mass-media celebrity his art seemed to criticize.


A Modernist Art Beyond the Traditional Object
The other solution of 1960s artists to the growing commoditization, trivialization, and
prostitution of modernist art was to get rid of the art object, or at least the traditional art
object, and thus preserve art from the market economy with its fetishizing search for
objects.


Happening Art
Some artistic movements of the 1960s such as Happening Art eliminated the art object
and replaced it with temporary, theatrical happenings which could only be recorded
second hand on camera or film. Another variation was Temporary Art, created for one
brief period and disassembled or destroyed so that it couldn't be commoditized.


Conceptual Art
Much though not all Conceptual Art which sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s offered a
different variation on the same idea by replacing art objects with artistic problems and
questions. The work of art was often nothing more than a series of questions or
instructions typed up on paper and distributed. Even when Conceptual Art did use
objects, it generally used non-traditional objects devoid of any traditional aesthetic
appeal, physical beauty or poetry. In this way, it tried to remove these objects from the
reach of the art market and to restore a certain high-minded seriousness and autonomy to
modernist art.


Minimalism
Minimalism was another 1960s movement which solved the problem in its own way by
using objects of little or no value (for example, bricks) and arranging them in simple
patterns. The goal of Minimalist art was to raised issues and intellectual problems about
art itself instead of "expressing" human feelings or creating sensual objects. By avoiding
any materials, techniques and formal shapes tied to sensuality, elegance, and decoration,
Minimalism tried to purge art of the physical qualities which made it attractive to
collectors and which allowed earlier, high-minded modernist visions to become objects of
luxury decoration and social class. While Minimalism succeeded in fashioning an art
which resisted the extremes of commoditization suffered by most earlier modernist art,
the most elite sectors of the modernist art market - galleries, modern museums, and very
wealthy collectors - proved more than ready to see a austere "beauty" in Minimalist forms
and to invest in that rare and difficult beauty.

Minimalist art also suffered a relative commoditization, paradoxically, because of its very
resistance to market forces. Here it succumbed to the same market forces which plagued
earlier difficult art, for example, Abstract Expressionism. The more a given work of art
defined itself as beyond a corrupt world of commerce and vulgar spectacle, the more it
created an alluring artistic aura. This process was greatly assisted by the aura cast by an
extensive critical discourse hailing the seriousness, complexity, and importance of
Minimalist works and by the willingness of important modern museums to mount major
exhibitions of Minimalism (complete with elaborate catalogues stuffed with lofty critical
discourse) and to spend large sums to acquire Minimalist works such as 60,000 for a row
of bricks by the British sculptor Carl Andre.

In the end, the most difficult, subtle Minimalist works became an index of the subtle,
discriminating sensibilities of the viewer and collector. As an interest in modernist art
became increasingly common, it became increasingly difficult to use that once difficult
art to define a superior taste, a sensibility above that of the common herd. Ironically,
Minimalism gave some of these people the art they had been waiting for, a modernism
which would once again be too difficult, too demanding for any popular appeal, a
modernism perfectly suited for the highest economic levels to display its own aristocratic,
cultural superiority. In the end, Minimalism created not so much an art outside the
corrupt market as an art which allowed the highest sectors of that corrupt market to
separate themselves from a lesser herd and define the highest levels of taste and
comprehension. Collectors willing to invest 60,000.00 in fifty bricks or lead rectangles
arranged in a certain pattern by a Minimalist artist were perpetuating a well-established
pattern of earlier collectors of modernist art who sought out the most difficult and
demanding forms of modernism to mark out their identities in a lofty, universal, eternal
artistic world supposedly beyond all sordid notions of money and class.
Earth Art. 1967-1980
Major Earth artists include Robert Smithson, Walter de Maria, Nancy Holt, James
Turrell, Charles Ross, and Michael Heizer. The dates 1967-1980 refer only to the period
of Earth Art's greatest vitality. Like even artistic movement, it continued long after its
period of greatest novelty and impact, especially since some projects were on a vast scale
requiring years or even decades to complete. Turrell's Roden Crater and Rosse's Star Axis
are still under construction.

Earth Art was site art located outdoors in landscape settings. Like site art, Earth Art
began in the later 1960s, partly in reaction to a widespread commercialization of art,
whether involuntary, as with Abstract Expressionism, or voluntary, as with Pop Art. As
with so many other artists of the 1960s, Earth artists tried to develop forms of modern art
which could successfully resist the all-devouring, fetishizing, modern market economy.
In 1979, the important Earth artist, Nancy Holt, commented,

       "I think the whole gallery structure is archaic. I look on the frenzy of the past few
       years as a sign of the way things get as they're near the end. Art has begun to talk
       to itself, to be a purist, remote sort of thing. If a work hangs in a gallery or
       museum, the art gets made for the spaces that were made to enclose art. They
       isolate objects, detach them from the world. Sun Tunnels grew out of its site. It
       can't be anywhere else. I'm sure as many people will see this as will see any other
       work. We live in the jet age." 1

Earth art solved the problem of a commercialized modernism by making very non-
traditional objects whose large size made them impossible to exhibit, buy, or sell and
whose meaning was inseparable from its setting. In this way, Earth artists hoped to
restore some autonomous, stable, "higher" meaning to the modern art object. To escape
the commercial art world, much Earth Art was located in the Southwest desert, far from
major art centers. In the solitude of the desert, modern art could find some freedom from
the art market, the buzz of critics, the pressures of fashionable galleries, rich collectors,
and the social elites in which modernism had been entangled from the start. In its desert,
modern art could escape the commercial spaces of museums, galleries, boardrooms, and
trophy homes.

Not all works of Earth Art fled to the desert to engage the natural surroundings in any
coherent manner. In those works which were geared toward the surrounding landscape,
the isolation of Earth art worked to guarantee a solitary viewing experience of
"untouched" nature celebrated in so much landscape painting since the Romantics. De
Maria's Lighting Fields has one small cabin nearby with no water or electricity. Holt's
Sun Tunnels has no adjoining shelter. Visitors sleep in the tunnels themselves or in tents.
Considerable planning is needed to protect against the desert heat, rattlesnakes and
scorpions, and to reach the sites without clearly marked roads. Earth art requires maps,
compass, extra water, heavy boots, flashlights, and special vehicles. Visitors are often
guided in and out so they won't get lost.
Needless to say, the remoteness of Earth Art discouraged casual looking. In the urban
world, the experience of modern art was imbedded into thousands of other experiences
and tended to become routine. Though isolated in the "autonomy" of museum spaces, the
modern art object was absorbed into a larger world of exotic things and images which
were endlessly reproduced, manipulated, transformed, transferred, commoditized, and
stripped of any unique qualities and meaning. Since seeing a work of Earth Art required
an enormous pilgrimage taking the viewer into a remote and silent wilderness, the
experience presumably acquired a uniqueness and lasting impact distinct from the
countless, mundane experiences and perceptions of everyday life, aesthetic and
otherwise.


Earth Art, Social Hierarchy, and the Market Economy
Earth art also redefined traditional landscape by stripping nature and landscape of its
traditional ties to class and to social and economic hierarchies. If earth art could not be
bought or sold, it suggested a nature (and an art) which was no longer conceived as
hierarchical and used to justify and naturalize all such hierarchies. Nature as a place of
privileged leisure was still very much present in the works of Matisse though it was not a
theme in the works of later modernists such as O'Keeffe. By working outside land
associated with private wealth and outside the art market and its objects, Earth Art went
one step further in defining a nature and an art beyond class.

This doesn't mean that Earth Art was entirely free from issues of wealth or class. Its
remote locations demand considerable financial means and leisure time to visit as well as
the larger aesthetic leisure necessary to comprehend such odd, conceptual works to the
point of investing in lengthy journeys.

So too, the contempt of Earth Art for the mainstream art world did not mean Earth Art lay
completely outside modern markets. The great expense of Earth Art required large capital
investment which it received in the form of corporate foundations and art foundations set
up by wealthy patrons whose money came ultimately from big business. Members of the
wealthy Texan De Menil family whose money came from oil, banking, and real estate set
up the De Menil Foundation to fund a variety of expensive contemporary art projects
including the Rothko Chapel (at Rice University) and some of the most famous and
expensive Earth Art including De Maria's Lightning Field and Turrell's Roden Crater (the
latter still undergoing construction after 30 years).

Earth Art was not even completely separate from the commercial spaces of art galleries,
private collections, and museums. Most Earth artists began their careers with works
exhibited in art galleries. This was an important early stage without which these artists
could not have established the kind of reputations necessary to attract funding for larger
projects located far from urban art centers. By working initially within the urban art
system, Earth artists attracted the attention of critics, media, collectors, curators, artists,
wealthy patrons, and the contemporary art crowd. And even when these artists fled the
big city to make Earth art in the Southwest, their art remained tied to the sophisticated art
culture of the major urban centers.
De Maria's "Pure Dirt" and the Gallery Origins of Earth Art
Needless to say, the kind of work designed by Earth artists for gallery spaces was ironic
as gallery art and strongly resisted commoditization. In 1968, Walter De Maria exhibited
Pure Dirt, Pure Earth, Pure Land, a work which filled in a New York gallery with dirt up
to waist level. Here, De Maria used dirt to make the ultimate statement on the traditional
comparison between art and nature. The title of the work wittily demolished the
traditional claim of landscape art to show the truth of nature, to reveal a pure, unspoiled
natural realm. In contrast to earlier art which invariably transformed and reshaped nature
in order to show its higher meaning, Pure Dirt offered a pure, unadulterated nature utterly
untransformed by art. Here was a "true nature" and a kind of true landscape art, ugly,
worthless, base, and completely material.

As a reaction against the commoditization of art in the 1960s and the traditional
commoditization of nature in landscape art, Pure Dirt was as far from any traditional
notion of art as the art object could get. In the best Dada tradition, it was a witty anti-art
which no one could buy or exhibit.

At the same time, the installation of ordinary dirt in an avant-garde art gallery in 1968
and the provocative titling of this ordinary earth made Pure Dirt in some ways into a kind
of ultra art object. Even dirt could be transformed into art through the interpreting power
of the artist's mind. Here was an art whose materiality, paradoxically, heightened its
origins in artistic imagination and higher mind. In this sense, one might even argue that
Pure Dirt was also a kind of "pure art," an art of pure mind which had no essential need
for nature. In the end, Pure Dirt works as modernist conceptual art which uses "nature"
not to interpret the natural world but to develop a discussion of contemporary aesthetic
issues and problems. In its autonomy and concern with representation, Pure Dirt was still
a typical modernist work in some ways even as it rejected modernism's heroic personal
expression.


Earth Art as Late Modernist Art
If the analogy of pilgrimage illuminates one aspect of Earth art, the differences between
the objects and process of medieval pilgrimage and the journey to see a work of Earth art
are equally illuminating. Unlike the medieval relic visited by the pilgrim which was
defined by and materially imbedded in powerful institutions, Earth art exists in a typically
modernist, quasi-vacuum far from other people and objects. The medieval pilgrimage
was a profoundly social or communal rite, a group effort aimed at objects representing
shared values and located in grand public institutions. Many medieval pilgrimage were
ordered by church officials as an ritual act of penance. And all pilgrimages served sacred
images and sites which made visible the corporate culture and institutional authority of
the church. Nothing could be further from the isolated, alienated, individual journey of
the modern aesthete journeying to see an object connected to no one except the "true",
solitary, modern self.
By isolating themselves so radically from modern cities, Earth art effectively removed
itself from any audience most of the time. Thus it took to a certain extreme the typical
modernist idea of an autonomous art true only to its own higher vision. If much
modernist art showed a certain alienation from mass audiences, Earth art all but removed
art from any audience. Ironically, this meant that most Earth art was known not from
expensive and lengthy first-hand visits but from books, videos, and commercialized
reproductions. In the end, the struggle of Earth artists to escape the commoditized image
was not wholly successful.


Earth Art and Nature
As usual, a number of ironies are present in the relation of Earth art to nature. First, the
modern landscape artist (or a supportive foundation like the de Menil funded DIA
Foundation which owns Lighting Field and Roden Crater) now had to buy a piece of
nature to work with an unspoiled environment. This problem, in somewhat different
form, already appeared with Monet's Poplars and garden scenes at Giverny.

Second, if the inaccessibility of many Earth works guaranteed a solitary "authentic"
experience of nature which no Friedrich could offer hanging in a cozy, nineteenth-
century German home, this experience of nature was also striking for its brevity. Earth
artists chose uninhabited natures, places to visit, not places of dwelling or rural
community. Visitors stayed only as long as they were willing to camp in harsh wilderness
areas. The remoteness of the areas and difficulty of access also suggested a new
alienation from nature, a new sense that a true nature had to be farther and farther away
and all but inaccessible to human visitation. If the natural world took on a powerful
otherness and, in some works, a certain sanctity, it also acquired a poignant strangeness
for the observer.

Third, the desire to free (landscape) art from the urban art market required Earth artists to
raise money for their expensive grand projects by marketing smaller works to galleries,
museums, private collectors, corporations, and foundations.

Fourth, Earth art relied heavily on modern technology. Sites were selected by airplane
and heavy earth moving equipment was imported to shape the site in various ways.
Michael Heizer's Double Negative is a giant gash dug with such machines. Modern
materials were often introduced such as the concrete tunnels of Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels
or the 400 steel rods of Walter de Maria's Lightning Field.

The historical coincidence of Earth Art with a new environmental movement was also
significant even if there was less direct connection than a shared concern for preserving
spaces and things (art objects) from market forces and commercial values.


One Form of Earth Art and the Collapse of "Nature"
In so far as Earth artists produced a difficult, conceptual art using landscape settings as
material to explore modernist aesthetic problems of the 1970s, it was even more remote
from the consciousness and concerns of rural inhabitants. For all its distance from the
New York art world with its "false" commercial culture of commoditized art objects,
Earth art was profoundly tied to a sophisticated, urban, east coast world of avant-garde art
criticism and theory. It was the modernist art object fled to the desert in a futile attempt to
remove art-making and viewing from the "corrupt" city.

In this sense, Earth art repeated a traditional landscape dynamic of "retreating" from the
city without necessarily engaging the countryside or offering grand interpretations of
nature. While some Earth artists did interpret "nature" and thereby locate the viewer in a
larger cosmos, the Earth art of Smithson and De Maria was focused on itself and made
sharp distinctions between art and nature. These two artists fled to remote natural settings
not to engage those surroundings or offer grand interpretations of nature.

Thus their works had nothing in common with traditional desert landscape culture such as
Bellini's Francis in Ecstasy where desert retreat allowed transforming epiphanies into
nature's sacred orders and eternal truths. The desert of Smithson and De Maria was not
the wilderness or desert of traditional Western culture allowing a higher spiritual,
philosophical, or political insight into nature and human nature. Their works did not
retreat like the solitary "hermit" of Renaissance-Baroque art or the poetic wanderer-
explorer of nineteenth-century (Romantic) wilderness landscape. Nor did their works
pursue O'Keeffe's modernist poetry of the desert which still presumed a spare, modernist,
aesthetic beauty in the surrounding land itself.

In contrast to earlier wilderness landscape culture, Smithson's Spiral Jetty and De Maria's
Lighting Field fled to the desert not to engage nature as much as to escape the urban art
market and produce a new kind of modernist art object free from commoditization and
co-opting. Both works addressed contemporary aesthetic issues and the dilemma of urban
art objects without trying to interpret their surroundings in ways to locate art and
spectator within nature. Neither work encouraged or allowed belief in a universal nature
invested with grand meanings and transcendent values. Instead, these works suggested a
collapse of traditional "nature". Both works remained profoundly alienated from "nature"
in the very midst of natural settings. Metaphysically disconnected from their own
environments, these environmental works locate the viewer in a contemporary, urban,
aesthetic discourse, not a natural cosmos.

At best, the desert locations served to endow these urban, avant-garde works with an
"inner" distance from an urban art market and an all-devouring, transforming market
economy. The desert setting was enlisted as an agent in an urban discourse about urban
problems. Rather than telling us something about nature, these works used nature to tell
us something about the dilemmas of modernist art in the 1970s. Except for "remoteness,"
the qualities of the surrounding landscape were irrelevant to these works.

If these works chose the desert out of a new alienation from all inhabited spaces, all
mundane, commoditized objects, and all mass audiences, rural and urban, they were also,
in the end, equally alienated from traditional ideas on nature. They located themselves in
a particular natural setting not to discuss or interpret it but to use "nature's" remoteness to
separate profoundly urban art objects from urban markets and a urban commercial
culture.


Earth Art and the Continuity of "Nature"
All Earth art did not come out of a new alienation from nature or a collapse in traditional
thinking on nature. On the contrary, the relative collapse of traditional ideas on nature as
a reassuring, orderly cosmos in which human life was meaningfully imbedded itself
produced more traditional or nostalgic forms of Earth art which interpreted surrounding
landscape settings in meaningful ways. Conspicuous among these works are Nancy Holt's
Sun Tunnels, James Turrell's Roden Crater, and Charles Ross's Star Axis. (The last two
works are still under construction after decades of work.)

While these more "traditional" Earth artists also used remote settings to escape the
commoditized modernism of the contemporary city, they created works which engaged
the surrounding countryside and which interpreted it in traditional, romantic-modernist
ways. All three works interpret nature as ineffable, sublime, timeless, poetic, cosmic, and
harmonious. All allow individual viewers to locate themselves meaningfully within a
larger cosmos or system.

Yet even here, one can speak of a relative alienation from nature in these works. While
their engagement with a coherent "nature" made these works more accessible to a larger
audience, urban and rural, they were primarily aimed at the same urban, avant-garde
audiences targeted by Smithson and De Maria. None of these works went to the
countryside to engage rural conditions and the experiences and concerns of those living
in the countryside. Leaping over the world of those living in rural settings, these works
all addressed a "sublime" nature beyond everyday experiences and time, whether urban or
rural. In their concern with larger cosmic cycles and experiences, these works
reconstituted the Romantic-modernist search for an ineffable eternity, a "nature" beyond
everyday life and mundane, inhabited spaces. Like the nature glimpsed for the first time
in Friedrich, the meaningful nature represented by the more nostalgic Earth artists
remained profoundly alienated and solitary.

[This essay continues with a discussion of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. That section
has been split off as a separate document and will be available on line when I retire.]




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