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Earthworks: Harvesting An Understated Directive From Environmental Art

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

By Shirlynn Sham

Casual appreciators of art may conventionally expect it to be confined to museums, existing apart from the realm of grassroots activist work. Yet there is a possible intersection between art and policymaking: The “Earthworks” movement of the late 20th century. Inaugurated in the 1960s in part as a revolt against the commercialized nature of Pop Art, Earthworks, also known as land art, may serve as a fertile drawing board for collaboration between environmentally-conscious artists and legislators.

Earthworks diverge significantly from traditional media of painting or sculpture.  Rather than being delimited by the four walls of a gallery, Earthworks consist of art forms that are created out of nature, using rocks, branches, leaves and sand to forge site-specific works. As such, they are often subject to nature’s forces, and ephemeral in exhibition. Consequently, Earthworks may stand as a powerful directive against the destruction of the environment. Policymakers can use this message to enforce more concrete legislative action vis-à-vis environmental sustainability.

Perhaps one of the most compelling Earthworks that serve this purpose is Andy Goldsworthy’s Five Men, Seventeen Days, Fifteen Boulders, One Wall, a 2,278 feet long wall structure located on the sprawling compounds of Storm King Art Center, a sculpture park in New York’s Hudson Highlands. An amalgamation of stones and boulders taken from the site itself, the Wall may not possess any apparent practical utility. It is simply a part of the landscape, penetrating a mass of trees and descending into a lake before re-emerging on the opposite bank. As such, the Wall highlights the superiority of nature over human labors, compelling us to be mindful of our ecological footprint.

Earthworks could additionally be a useful tool for environmentally-minded policymakers through the reverence that they inspire. One of Goldsworthy’s notable artistic influences is Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian-born sculptor who inculcated the concept of ‘aura’, first theorized by German philosopher Walter Benjamin, into his sculptural works. The notion of ‘aura’ is best encapsulated by cult objects, which require a certain distance between themselves and the viewer and thus engender respect for their craft. Analogously, Goldsworthy’s Wall, as an environmental work that is simultaneously artistic and natural, – possesses an ‘aura’ that leaves the viewer with a sense of veneration for the inviolability of nature.

The policy world stands to gain significant traction in its legislative processes by harvesting the messages of such artists and translating them into action. The messages of Earthworks artists are not very much divergent from the aims of policymakers working towards environmental sustainability. Incorporating the Earthworks movement into policy could help humanize the oftentimes-rigid dictates of legalistic language.

Critics may contend that Earthworks are usually situated in far-flung locales and thus inexpedient as a medium for disseminating agendas. For this reason, Earthworks often rely upon photography and mass media to ensure viewership and discourse. A showcase of a collection of Earthworks, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art has accomplished this summer, can enhance dialogue on the intersection between the arts and policy worlds. Titled “Land Marks”, the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition (on view through August 18, 2013) is an assemblage of nineteen photographs of Earthworks from the Museum’s permanent collection, featuring such heavyweights as Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim and Anselm Kiefer. Through careful curating of landscape, these artists’ works emphasize Man’s irrevocable connection to the Earth.

There are precedents for collaboration between the arts and policy worlds. Artists and designers have spearheaded sustainability efforts like the cleanup of toxic waste sites and rivers, and have developed public awareness projects. Merle Laderman Ukeles, a self-proclaimed “maintenance artist”, is committed to enacting social change in urban issues through her art. She has used a variety of creative projects – including Touch Sanitation (1978 – 1984), Flow City (1983 – present) and Fresh Kills Landfill and Sanitation Garage (1989 – present) – to initiate dialogue on sanitation issues in New York City and global environmental management in urban areas. Beachcomber artists Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang have, since 1999, collected waste plastic along Californian beaches and carefully curated them into aesthetic forms. Their work highlights the soiling of the natural world by the industrial one, and informs the public of the extent to which seemingly trivial daily actions of disposal harm the environment.

Numerous intergovernmental policy frameworks promoting creative energies already exist. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), for instance, harbors important legal instruments such as the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which includes artistic expression, and the Convention for Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The former stipulates that promotion and maintenance of cultural diversity are an essential requirement for sustainable development for the benefit of present and future generations. Similarly, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has a body directed towards the cultural and spiritual values of biodiversity, which complements its Global Biodiversity Assessment.

Taken together, it seems that the global network of environmental policymaking already possesses the tools to develop a legislative nexus between the arts and policy worlds even further. All that remains is for more legislators to recognize artistic imagination as the rich storehouse of public engagement, understanding and awareness that it is.

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Shirlynn Sham is a research assistant at the World Policy Institute and an undergraduate student at Columbia University majoring in Art History and Political Science.

Photo courtesy of Leonel Ponce.

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