Glenn Parsons, “Art in Nature”



2.      Two questions about art in nature (env art)

         a.      To what extent is nature a part of env artworks?

                   i.       And can we say we are appreciating nature when we appraise these works?

         b.      Is there something unethical about treatment of nature in creation of env artworks?


3.      Wide spectrum of env art

         a.      Large scale manipulations of natural sites, including earthworks by artist like:

                   i.       Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) 1500 feet long in Great Salt Lake

                   ii.      Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969-70) (50 feet deep, 30 wide, 1500 feet long constructed with bulldozers and dynamite)

                   iii.     Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown

         b.      Temporary env art

                   i.       Christo Surround Islands (1980-83)

                   ii.      Christo Arkansas River Fabric Project (2012)

         c.      Small-scale, unobtrusive works that incorporate natural materials/sites

                   i.       Andy Goldsworthy Sycamore Leaves Stitched Together (1987)

                   ii.      Goldsworthy’s Red Pool, Scaur river, Dumfriesshire (1994-5)



5.      Environmental art incorporates nature as part of the art in two ways

         a.      Nature is a substantial part of the medium employed by artist

                   i.       Fact that natural materials and sites are used in work are essential to the work

         b.      Nature is also part of artworks content

                   i.       Not just made of natural materials (e.g., sycamore leaves) but about those natural materials

                   ii.      Acknowledging the natural element of env artwork is vital for understanding the meaning of the work

6.      Env art defined as art that uses nature as part of its medium to express something about nature

         a.      Are Chris Jordan’s works Running the Numbers env art by this definition?

         b.      Is Ansel Adams photography environmental art by this definition?


7.      So in answer to first question above

8.      Nature is necessarily part of env art

         a.      And when we appreciate env art, we necessarily appreciate various natural forces and objects (though always within context of artwork)



10.    It makes sense to ethically evaluate env art

         a.      Env art involves artist intervening in nature and appropriating it for artistic purposes

         b.      If accept that our treatment of nature merits ethical evaluation then, we should ask if this treatment of nature in creation of env art is ethically acceptable or not


11.    One reason the treatment of nature in env art could be wrong is if it caused serious ecological harm to nature

         a.      Serious concern with works of Heizer and Smithson

         b.      Less concern with works such as those of Goldsworthy (or Christo?), as they have little or no env impact

         c.      Parsons not interested in this (legitimate) critique of env art


12.    Parson’s main ethical worry about env art:

         a.      **Env art constitutes an aes affront to nature

13.    Aes affront = an insult, indignity, or slight to X based on interference with the aes qualities of X


14.    Two factors relevant to claim env art is an aes affront to nature:

         a.      Prior to intervention of artist, nature had a set of aes qualities which it had as the natural thing it is

                   i.       E.g., Mountain face might look rugged and imposing; an aes quality it has as the natural thing it is

         b.      In creating env art, artist converts nature to art, thereby changing its aes qualities

         c.      Worries

                   i.       Yes (some/all?) of its (nature’s) aes qualities change

                   ii.      But is it (nature) changed into art (no longer nature)?


15.    LHOOQ Analogy

         a.      Marcel Duchamp’s conversion of copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa into Dadaist work LHOOQ (1919) by adding mustache and goatee

         b.      Altered aes qualities of work

         c.      Object acquired new aesthetic qualities, such as looking ironic or discordant (qualities it lacked before conversion into Dadaist work)

16.    Similarly conversion of nature into artwork comes at cost of nature’s aes qualities which are destroyed or obscured by new aes qualities imposed on it

         a.      Replacing aes qualities of a natural object with a different set of aesthetic qualities by converting it into an artwork can be seen as an insult, indignity or slight to aes character of original object

17.    If Duchamp had used the original Mona Lisa in creating LHOOQ* he would have been affronting the original work

         a.      Manifest attitude Mona Lisa not worthy of continued unmolested existence

         b.      Since deemed necessary to replace it with something else LHOOQ

18.    Note: Even if temporary, would be an aes affront

         a.      Even if erased the mustache and goatee after a few days, he would have affronted the work


19.    LHOOQ* applied to env art

20.    Env art can be similarly construed

         a.      As manifesting the attitude that the original natural object is not worthy of continued unmolested existence

         b.      Because deemed necessary to replace it with something else (env art)

         c.      Note: True even if temporary alteration of aes qualities


21.    Possible problems with argument:

         a.      Does it depend on what Duchamp does to the Mona Lisa or what env artist does to env?

                   i.       LHOOQ was an insulting change

                   ii.      Some env art might be an insulting change (Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown or Heizer’s Double Negative)

                   iii.     Some might not (Goldsworthy’s Stitched Sycamore Leaves)

         b.      Problem with this suggestion is that any change to the Mona Lisa insults it

         c.      Is it true that any change of nature’s aesthetic qualities insults it?



         a.      Some env art has special character that makes it immune to effrontery charge

23.    Three features of these env artworks that mitigate charge of aes affront

24.    One: Some env art shows regard for nature’s aes qualities

         a.      Some env art shows a “a form of aes regard for nature”

         b.      Artist pays careful attention to original aes value of nature and develops env art in way acknowledges and relates to that value

                   i.       E.g., Goldsworthy use of natural materials and incorporation of natural forces (heat of sun or winds and tide)

                   ii.      His works might get us to pay closer attention to nature; to the look of leaves or subtle effects of wind and tide

                            (1)    Emily Brady: “Artists role enables or increases attentiveness to nature’s qualities by pointing to them and working with them creatively”

         c.      These types of ephemeral artworks show aes regard for nature

         d.      Unlike “macho aggression” of certain of Heizer’s works

25.    Two: Env art can bring about aes improvement

         a.      Env art can be aes valuable and even more valuable than undisturbed natural sites in which situated

         b.      This is a positive feature for nature as well for ourselves as it is natural site that is aes improved through creation of the artwork

         c.      E.g, Goldsworthy’s sycamore leaves are a powerful, vivid and bold arrangement of nature’s materials and this is a benefit we ought to weigh against cost of nature’s original aesthetic qualities

26.    Three: Env art can help advance environmentalism’s agenda

         a.      E.g., it might get us to pay closer attention to human/nature relationship

                   i.       Goldsworthy’s Red Pool, Scaur river, Dumfriesshire (1994-5)

         b.      Lintott: “Env art has potential to unite humans in the inclusive and progressive mindset of environmentalism”

27.    Conclusion of this defense of env art

         a.      Given these 3 factors, charge env art constitutes an aes affront to nature is overblown

         b.      Extreme cases may be an affront

         c.      Conversion of nature into art can be done in way shows regard for nature’s own aes qualities, improves aes value of env and is env beneficial for nature

         d.      Note that Duchamp’s LHOOQ* has none of these 3 feature

                   i.       Does not show respect for Mona Lisa’s aes qualities

                   ii.      Does not improve on Mona Lisa aes qualities

                   iii.     Does not benefit the Mona Lisa

                   iv.     So while LHOOQ* is clearly an aes affront, env art with these features need not be



29.    Gussy up your living room example (to gussy up = to fancy up, dress up, to embellish)

         a.      Come to your house for a visit and while you’re in kitchen making tea, I rearrange furniture/paintings in living room

         b.      Clearly an aes affront

                   i.       Manifests attitude that what is originally there is not worthy of continued unmolested existence

                   ii.      As deemed it necessary to replace it with something else

30.    So it is not only the wholesale and casual obliteration of nature’s aes qualities that is an aes affront, but so too is a milder treatment of nature that preserves or enhances its aes character

         a.      For it is a kind of gussying up of nature and this is an aes affront

31.    In living room case, none of the 3 mitigating factors defeat charge of aes effrontery

         a.      Gussying up you living room constitutes an affront even if

                   i.       It is respectful of your living room’s aes qualities

                            (1)    I notice harmony of furniture and paintings and bring this out a bit more by careful adjustment of sofa position

                   ii.      Improves on aes value of the room

                            (1)    I’m an interior designer and know better

                   iii.     Benefits your living room

                            (1)    You and your guests enjoy it more

         b.      It is an aes affront as it manifests attitude that what is there originally is not worthy of continued unmolested existence since it is deemed necessary to replace it with something else

32.    So too, the 3 mitigating factors do not defeat the charge of aesthetic effrontery toward nature due to env art

         a.      Still manifest the attitudes that what is there originally is not worthy of continued unmolested existence

         b.      If it were worthy of such existence, the artwork in question would not have been created (135)

33.    Worries

         a.      Both with living room and nature, changing its aes qualities does not commit one to the idea that it is “not worthy of continued unmolested existence” nor that it is “necessary to replace it”

                   i.       Rather if commits me only to idea it is permissible to change those aes qualities and perhaps that it is desirable to do so

         b.      Might it be the case that only for things intentionally created a certain way (art or living room aesthetics) can changing their aesthetic qualities be an affront?


34.    Env art necessary to save planet?

35.    Response:

36.    Even if it were true that env art was necessary to save the planet from being destroyed by humans, it would still be an aesthetic affront

37.    Parading natives in European capitals

         a.      Capturing and parading native individuals through the capitals of Europe to increase awareness of their plight was an indignity, an affront to them, even if it was necessary or helped indigenous peoples

38.    **That fact that people in our time are so ignorant and apathetic about nature that it takes a glowing red pool of water (Goldsworthy’s Red Pool) to interest them in nature does nothing to mitigate the effrontery of such frumpery (=abuse)

         a.      No reason to deny one wrong simply because existence of larger one.

39.    Updating the Mona Lisa

         a.      By loving adding new patches of color here and there, inserting a few items of interest into the background all in the interest of enhancing works continued interest to contemporary viewers

         b.      Could be well intention, aes successful and even necessary in a barbaric age

         c.      Still an indignity to the work of art



41.    One: Can only affront (insult) persons, someone who can think, feel and respond to those actions in some way

         a.      Can’t affront nature (e.g., a desert mesa)

         b.      Just like you can only form a contract with a person and not a lake

         c.      If env art affronts, it can’t be nature but only other people (who get upset about what env art does to nature)

42.    Parsons thinks some forms of affront/insult do require the recipient have mental capacity

         a.      “You’re a failure” for example is an insult makes sense to address to a person (with mental capacities), but not to a river (that fails to make it to the sea)

43.    But not all affronts require recipient have mental capacity

44.    The kind of affront involved in env art does not require this

         a.      Namely thinking “piece of nature not worthy of continued unmolested existence as deemed necessary to replace it with something else”

45.    Manifesting a particular sort of disregard, disrespect, or contempt for an autonomous thing

         a.      An undue “messing with it”

                   i.       But notice that this does not fit well as a description of Goldsworthy’s work (probably does Heizer’s)

46.    This type of insult/affront does not require object to have mental capacity


47.    Two: If env art is an aes affront, so too are benign practices like farming and building homes

         a.      To survive we need to intervene in nature to get food, water, shelter

         b.      Obtaining these requires we take attitude that nature needs to be replaced by something (agriculture, houses, wells)

         c.      We are messing with nature’s aes qualities

         d.      But it is absurd to think these practices are an aes affront to nature

48.    Reply: Difference between env art and using nature for the practical necessities of life

         a.      Since it is not possible to avoid using nature in these ways, we can’t fault someone for “messing with nature’s aesthetic qualities” by drawing water or growing food (since ought implies can)

         b.      But env art is not necessary in this sense; we don’t have to do it.

                   i.       We will not die or suffer pain w/o env art

         c.      So we can be faulted for messing with nature’s aes qualities by making env art

         d.      To avoid this response need to argue that w/o env art, human life would be radically impoverished


49.    Two worries:

         a.      This seems to lead us to the conclusion that agriculture and home building (using nature for practical necessities) is an aesthetic affront to nature, but one that is justified or can’t be faulted

                   i.       Parsons seems to indicate he does not want this conclusion for he says (139) “any line of thought that renders drawing water, building houses, growing food affronts nature is absurd and unacceptable”

                   ii.      Maybe Parsons can avoid this by claiming that using nature for necessities does not involve contempt, disregard, and disrespect for an autonomous thing, whereas using nature for non-necessities (things whose lack would not radically impoverish human life), like env art, does

                   iii.     But then he seems committed to the idea we should only use nature for what is necessary to avoid an impoverished human life, which seems too weak and limited a view of permissible human use of nature

         b.      His earlier argument that env art is necessary if humans are going to protect nature would then show env art is a practical necessity

Questions on Parsons, Ch 9, Art in Nature

1. What is Parsons’ definition of env art? Is Ansel Adams photography env art on this definition?

2. What is Parsons’ main criticism of env art? Does he object to it because it causes serious env harm?

3. Explain with examples the notion of an “aesthetic affront.” Explain why and how Parsons thinks env art is an aes affront to nature.

4. How does Parsons use the example of Duchamp’s LHOOQ to make his criticism of env art?

5. How does Parson respond to the argument that env art that is temporary is ethically unproblematic.

6. What are the three reasons (“mitigating factors”) that Parson’s considers which weaken the charge that env art is an aesthetic affront to nature?

7. How does Parsons use his living room example to respond to this defense of env art?

8. How does Parsons respond to the defense of env art that such art is necessary as a way to help protect the planet?

9. What is Parsons’ response to the argument that one can only insult/affront persons, not mindless entities like nature?

10. How does Parsons respond to the claim that if env art is an aes affront to nature, so too are agriculture and home building?

11. Explain why Parsons approves or disapproves of environmental art. Do you agree with him?