Carlson on Environmental Art
 “Is Env. Art an Aes Affront to Nature?”

1986, Canadian Journal of Phil


Def of Env. Art

      Site is part of the work itself

      Part of nature is part of aes object, it is part of the work of art

      Not just art that is located in nature

Christo’s Surrounded Islands 1983

DeMaria’s Las Vegas Piece 1970

Smithson’s Spiral Jetty  1970

Nature of Carlson’s criticism

      Not moral or ecological criticism

      E.g., Flooding parts of Asia as artwork would be morally and ecologically wrong

      An aesthetic criticism:  Aes affront to nature


Aesthetic Affront to Nature

      Aes indignity

      Aes imposition

      Due to aes qualities of env. Art

      Affront to nature, not nec to appreciator

   Even though nature doesn’t know it being affronted

   Jones might also not realize or be able to realize he’s being affronted


Mistaken accounts of why Env. Art is Aes Affront

      Similar/identical in appearance to things like mining/industry/commerce that all agree are aes affronts

   We require reclamation/restoration

   Because such an eyesore


Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown 1969

      Looks just like industrial pollution

      So it’s an eyesore like industrial pollution is and thus an aes affront

      Road foreman:  “If I dumped my extra asphalt like that they’d make me clean it up.”


Heizer’s Double Negative 69-70

      Looks like skyline mining notches in Appalachia

      Thus it’s an eyesore like those are

Reply:  Same appearance not = same aes quality

      Aes qualities of object those it appears to have when appro  appreciated as the kind of thing it is

    When appreciated in the right category

      Two things identical in appearance can have dif aes quality if dif kinds of things

      E.g., Duchamp’s fountain

      E.g., Asphalt rundown is art, not pollution, thus it may have dif aes qualities

      Heizer’s double negative can have majesty while identically appearing mining notch does not

Why must app aes object in right category

      Lively or a bit sedate?  Post impressionism or German Expressionism

German expressionism

Change in kind of object can/must? change its aes qualities

      Does change in aes qualities of an aes object lead to (nec?) an aes affront?

      Examples where it does

Duchamp’s LHOOQ

      Duchamp’s mustached and goateed Mona Lisa changed work’s kind from Renaissance Portrait to 20th century Dada and changed its aes qualities

      A clear denigration and aes affront

Michelangelo’s David

      Monty Python’s turning of Michelangelo’s David into a kinetic structure with a moveable right arm

      Would have dramatically different aes qualities even when arm at rest

      An aes affront



Env art is aes affront to nature because


      Changes kind of thing part of nature is

      Changes if from being part of nature to part of an artwork

      Aes qualities are changed

      Env. art an affront because turns nature into art and changes aes qualities and this is an affront


      Even if env. Art is not nec an aes affront, many env. Art in fact are like Duchamp’s LOOQ and Python’s David in constituting an aes affront


Ned’s questions

      Depends on how aes qualities changed, not that they are?

      Is any dramatic env. change to nature an aes affront?

      Depends on intention of env. artist?



Some env. Artists intend to affront nature


      Smithson:  “Disruption of earth’s crust can be compelling and has a primordial grandeur”

      Heizer:  “I’m in the construction business.  I mess with nature.  I defile it.”

      Picasso:  “Nature exists to be raped”

Carlson replies to 4 objections

      Affront is only temporary

      Env. Art improves nature

      Artist is a part of nature so not changing kind of thing piece of nature is

      Env. Art not changing nature’s kind or aes qualities, but spotlighting them


Env. Art is temporary

      Much env. Art is temporary and nature is resilient

      But affronts still affronts even if temporary

Christo’s Valley Curtain, Rifle, Co 1970-71

      Christo’s response to whether the valley near Rifle Colorado remains unaffected after having hosted Valley Curtain

      “Perhaps not”

Env art typically improves nature

      Because done in non-scenic areas

      Because all of nature has positive aes qualities, can’t argue no affront because there is little of aes merit there to affront.

      If done in significantly humanized areas, not aes affront to nature as not nature, but attempting to restore some natural aes qualities

    E.g., Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscapes in NY City

Christo’s Running Fence 72-76

Env artist is part of nature

      If env. Artist is part of nature then env. Art does not change nature to something that is not nature so no change in kind and no aes affront

      Not plausible to say Duchamp’s LOOQ not an affront because both art

      If artist acts purposely like nature, then its like vandalism

Heizer’s Mass Removed and Put Back