Carlson on Environmental Art

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

       1986, Canadian Journal of Philosophy


Definition 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


       How related to definition of site-specific art? Was TA env. art?


Christo’s Surrounded Islands 1983

DeMaria’s Las Vegas Piece 1970

       Eight foot by ¾ mile earthmark in desert

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

 As it would harm people and nature


       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 necessarily to appreciator

        Nature can be affronted

  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

            50 feet by 30 feet by 1,5000 foot double cut in Virgin River Mesa, Nevada, displaced 240,000 tons of rhyolite and sandstone

            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 appropriately appreciated as the kind of thing it is

  When appreciated in the right category

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

            E.g., Duchamp’s fountain

            E.g., Asphalt Rundown is art, not pollution, thus it may have different aes qualities

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

Why must appreciate 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 (necessarily?) 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

            Was this simply because it was a change in kind, or the type of change

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


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



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

         Depends on intention of env. artist and the nature of the env. art?

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


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 part of nature is

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

When env. art is temporary, so no aesthetic affront?

         Much env. art is temporary and nature is resilient

         Thus there has been no aes affront


         Reply: 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”

            So not perhaps not temporary env art or perhaps affront is permanent?

Env art typically improves nature?

          Because done in non-scenic areas, env. art does not affront

  Little of aes merit there to affront

  “Bringing up” “low profile” landscapes (Smithson)

          Reply: Carlson’s Positive Aesthetics

          Because all of nature has positive aes qualities, can’t argue no 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

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 (no change in kind)

  So even if env. art does not change basic kind of thing nature is, it can change it enough to be an affront

          If artist acts purposelessly like nature, then it’s like vandalism

Heizer’s Mass Removed and Put Back

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


         Env. art is a means of displaying or enhancing nature’s beauty

         Rather like providing the Mona Lisa with lighting rather than with a mustache



          Does Christo’s 1969 Wrapped Coast—Little Bay—One Million Square Feet “accentuate, make more visible, reveal and intensify” the texture and color of the sand by wrapping it in this malleable fabric ?

          Does some env. art frame the landscape (internal skeleton-like frames) that displays and enhances rather than alters object’s aesthetic qualities

Christo’s Running Fence 72-76

         Internally frames the landscape?

         Frame overwhelms that which is framed

Alan Sonfist’s Rock Monument of Buffalo (1976-78)

          Rocks from the local region positioned such that the work “makes clear in one experience the geology of the entire region”

          Presenting rather than altering nature; “nature asserts itself as itself”

          Contrast with Heizer’s Elevated Surface, Depressed (1981), monument where rocks mounted on aluminum slabs and positioned according to geometrical rather than geological considerations


Sonfist’s env. art is most likely not to be an aes affront

          Time Landscape (1965-78) where he restored sites throughout NY City to their likely appearance before urbanization

          Attempt to create pre-colonial landscapes

          These do little if anything to alter nature’s aesthetic qualities and are best case for avoiding aes affront

          Worries that they assume nature can be appreciated only if it is taken to be art.