Walking Art and Environmental Ethics:
Walking the Line Between Interpretation and Intention
In the mid-twentieth century modern artists were pushing the historical boundaries of art, trying to produce new and innovative interpretations of traditional subjects. Landscape art was re-interpreted in abstract and surreal ways by the likes of Paul Nash and Paul Delvaux. Though these artists were certainly original in their depictions of landscape, they still used the traditional method of painting. It was not until the late 1960s when a new and truly innovative group of artists would interpret landscape in a radical way that questioned the definition of art itself. Dubbed Earthworks, or Land Art, these works of art were the landscape itself, manipulated in different ways by the artist. Right from the start, art critics attempted to assess the meaning of these works and attribute them to the contemporary American social and political climate. The 1960s were an era when attitudes towards the environment shifted from reactive to proactive. It was this environmental movement and the trend of eco-awareness during the years when Land Art and Walking Art emerged that led many critics to draw their own conclusions as to the artist’s intentions. But did these works really have a political message? Or was there a division between critics’ interpretations and the artists’ intentions?
Ecological issues were pushed to the forefront of public attention following the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, excerpts from which were published in the New Yorker in June of that same year. In the book, Carson, a biologist by profession, spoke of the ecological dangers of DDT chemicals and the alarming degree of negative human impact on the environment. The controversy raised by the publication increased environmental awareness across the country and sparked-off the passing of legislation and founding of many environmental protection bodies. Groups such as the Sierra Club used art to convey their message of environmental protection, exemplified in their 1963 series of coffee table books featuring photographs of picturesque wilderness areas. In September of the following year, the US Senate adopted the Wilderness Act, primarily focused on preserving the undisturbed plains in the West, an area which would soon serve as a setting for the works of Michael Heizer, Robert Morris, Walter De Maria and Robert Smithson, among others. Then, on the first of January, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, aiming “to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony”. Two days prior Robert Morris’ Spaces exhibition opened in the
The timing of these works alone was enough for critics, in the words of Ben Tufnell, to interpret Land Art as “an art form of environmental consciousness and protest”. These eco-friendly interpretations were further supported when the Land artists began taking part in so-called land reclamation projects across the
“Our new ecological awareness indicates that industrial production can no longer remain blind to the visual landscape. Earth art could become a visual resource that mediates between ecology and industry. Current land reclamation projects lack sufficient imagination to catch the public eye…Many ecologists tend to see the landscape through nineteenth-century eyes, while many industrialists see nothing but profits.”
Smithson spoke of a “new consciousness” that could develop through land reclamation projects such as his Tailing Pond,
Critics were forced to reassess their interpretations of these land reclamation projects and the opinion that the Land Artists had gone green when Robert Morris wrote in 1980 that the projects had “a potential sponsorship in millions of dollars and a possible location over hundreds of thousands of acres throughout the country”. Five years later, when Michael Heizer was commissioned by the Illinois Abandoned Mined Lands Reclamation Council to complete a project in
Once recognizing this contradiction with reference to the land reclamation works, the meaning of the Land Artists’ other works becomes even more difficult to distinguish. Some pieces, Heizer’s Double Negative for example, have been controversial from the start due to their ecological impact. Heizer’s 1969 artwork in Mormon Mesa, Nevada consists of two parallel scores into the earth, creating a deep void that extends for 457 meters. Though the sublimity of the massive trench in the desert in undeniable, it is difficult to romanticize Heizer’s works when one considers the process of the art. In the creation of Double Negative, 224,000 tons of sandstone were cleared with dynamite and bulldozers from the near 90 acres of purchased land. Images of Heizer with the work show him in Stetsons and a cowboy hat, bulldozers nearby. The image of the cowboy clearing out the land is far from the image of a tree hugger. However, the sensation generated by the environmental movement led critic Phil Leider to romanticize Double Negative, stating that “the piece was huge, but its scale was not. It took its place in nature in the most modest and unassuming manner, the quiet participation of a manmade shape in a particular configuration of valley, ravine, mesa and sky” . Heizer has been consistent in his denial of an environmental message behind his work. Though Double Negative, Complex One and other Heizer works are set in the West, the vast wilderness of the
Robert Smithson’s intentions are not as simple to comprehend as Heizer’s. In a 1973 interview with Moira Roth, Smithson states that ecological morality and ethics are indeed a part of his work, however many critics tend to associate him with an apathetic view similar to Heizer. This is likely due to the fact that his works seem to be equally as disruptive to the environment as Heizer’s. They share similar aspects of scale and ownership. Works like 1969’s Asphalt Rundown and 1970’s Spiral Jetty modify the landscape in ways that some have seen as ecologically damaging. Further, permission to create a work which Smithson proposed in 1969 involving broken glass on a
While Smithson and Heizer were producing works in remote areas of the
As a student at
Land and Walking Art emerged in the midst of the 1960s environmentalist movement, leading many critics to draw their own conclusions about the intentions of the artists. These eco-friendly and environmentally protectionist interpretations were correct in some cases and almost entirely unintended in others. While many of the Land Artists involved themselves in land reclamation projects, it seems that Smithson was the only one who truly believed in them. Michael Heizer seems to just have an interest with natural materials and open spaces. The Land Artists’ attitudes towards the environment differed greatly from that of their British counterparts, the Walking Artists. This dichotomy seen in their works, between permanence and impermanence, and ownership and communality, reflects their environmental views. The walking artists revere nature. Their art is about a personal respect and enjoyment of the environment, and sharing this respect and enjoyment with others.
Auping, Michael. “Earth Art: A Study in Ecological Politics.” In Alan Sonfist (Ed.).
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Baker, Elizabeth C. “Artworks on the Land.” In Alan Sonfist (Ed.). Art in the Land: A
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Boettger, Suzaan (Ed.). Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties. University of
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Tufnell, Ben. Land Art. Tate Publishing: Millbank,
 Boettger, Suzaan (Ed.), Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties, Pp. 39-40,
 Boettger, Earthworks, P. 40.
 David Lowenthal in Boettger, Earthworks. P. 219.
 Boettger, Earthworks, P. 219.
 Tufnell, Ben. Land Art, p.13, Tate Publishing: Millbank,
 Smithson, Robert in Boettger, Earthworks, Pp. 231-2.
 Tufnell, Land Art, Pp. 98-99.
 Morris, Robert, Quoted in Tufnell, Land Art., P. 97.
 Heizer, Michael, Quoted in Tufnell, Land Art, P. 140.
 Boettger, Earthworks, P. 240.
 Tufnell. Land Art, P. 13.
 Ibid., P. 51.
 Boettger. Earthworks, P. 219.
 Auping, Michael, “Earth Art: A Study in Ecological Politics”, In Alan Sonfist (Ed.),
Art in the Land: A Critical Anthology of Environmental Art. P. 96, E.P. Dutton, Inc.:
 Boettger, Earthworks, Pp. 231-33.
 Smithson, Robert, from Moira Roth, “An Interview with Robert Smithson (1973)”, In Eugenie Tsai (Ed.) with Cornelia Butler, Robert Smithson, P. 88, University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, (2004)
 Auping, “Earth Art”, In Sonfist, Art in the Land, P. 99.
 Tufnell, Land Art, P. 23.
 Ibid., P. 31.
 Boettger, Earthworks, P.172.
 Long, Richard, In Boettger, Earthworks, P.172.
 Tufnell, Land Art, Pp. 76-77.
 Ibid., P. 107.
 Ibid., P.76.