Christmas at Spiral Jetty


Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970); photograph by George Steinmetz

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Earthworks (or Land Art) has always struck me less as a viable artistic enterprise than as an exercise in human vanity. Initiators of the form considered it a gauntlet thrown in the face of arrant commercialism. In order to maintain the sanctity of art (or so the reasoning went), it had to be removed from the clutches of a privileged elite–galleries, collectors, critics and their ilk–and brought straight to, if not the masses exactly, then Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, locales with a lot of space and that weren’t Manhattan.  A kind of purity was the goal.

A significant amount of impurity was necessary to realize these projects–the taxi magnates Robert and Ethel Scull famously endowed various Earthworks artists, for all intents and purposes codifying the genre.  Just how thoroughly Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and like-minded folks succeeded in toppling the power structure is evident from the ascension of Chelsea. Money absorbs anything in its path. Sticking it to the man becomes The Man soon enough. So much for anti-capitalism.

The great landscape artists–Turner, Shen Zhou and Kensett; or, if you prefer, the nameless artisans who crafted Stonehenge and the effigies on Easter Island–humbled themselves before nature’s ministrations in the hopes of embodying its majesty or to ask for its mercy. Earthworks artists augmented the land in order to indulge their (as Robert Scull put it) “specialized kind of brain[s]”.  So much for modesty.

These thoughts were prompted by a run-in with a young artist.  He was traveling to Utah in order to spend Christmas Day camping on the shores of the Great Salt Lake or, rather, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.  More power to him:  Anyone with the moxie to set up tent in the middle of winter for the sake of art deserves some kind of commendation.  Hopefully, the aesthetic succor he’s seeking will provide a commensurate return for braving the cold and putting out for airline tickets.  But something as lowly as art ain’t got nothin’ on Mother Nature.

The Great Salt Lake; photograph by Lori Arnold

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