Art Reflects The Current Times Cultural Studies Essay

Our times are an age of information media and of fast track communication. Everyday new concepts and ideas are urbanized, spreading to reach and influence the perceptions of the general public. We perceive nature as goodness and magnificence but also as the wildest most terrifying violence. It is the source from which we harvest sense and discipline yet it holds a great paradox, nature is of the highest order and wildest anarchy. We have a complex and tricky bond with this world, balancing out the dominance of technological and industrial advances of our basic surviving ways such as livestock raising, hunting, cultivation of crops, all this while an immediate ecological emergency, that is the consumption of all natural resources useful to our existence on this planet, leads us to an inevitable environmental crisis. We see nature today as life in rapid transformation.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, paintings were of forests and seascapes, urban views in the distance, of an un-manned world, which was the immediate comprehensive reality of these times. As an early example of historical pioneers of the genre, Jacob Isaackszoon van Ruisdael (or Ruysdael) (c. 1628 – 14 March 1682) was a prolific Dutch Golden Age landscape painter, dissimilar to the other grand Dutch landscape painters, Ruisdael was not trying to capture specific pictorial scenes , instead he composed his work from carefully thought out and arranged elements of nature , infinite in variety. These elements range from subtle contrasts in the formation of clouds, plant and trees forms and colors, and the effect of light. He particularly excelled in the painting of cloudscapes which are seen as the cover of a landscape, and play a primary role of determining the light and shade of an object. This reality of the times was represented in the nobleman’s view over their idea of a landscape, their lands, vast and wild, the beauty of the subtle man-made constructs in the distance; those were represented through an early detached mélange of post-baroque and the picturesque. Expressed within the regulations and conventions of the tradition, the historical landscape was viewed ‘from above’, the proprietorial view, the view of the landowning classes. It was a view that mirrored the advances of industrialization, scientific advancement, social change and ideological transformations of these early times. 


In the twentieth century, avant-garde art complied with the rise of the industrialization of machines and nature was reformed, with great abstract efficiency, but artifice. Such as in the work of most leading surrealists (Max Ernst, Joan Miro, Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali) or linguistic approaches such as Marcel Duchamp and Dada. Towards the end of the 20th century, early 1960s, the drive of the avant-garde liberating movement branched in a multitude of ways, establishing new forms of artistic expressions, happenings, performance art, and multimedia.


Our pattern of transformation and change only grew exponentially throughout the last decades, precisely by the mid to the late twentieth century, from a point of view of technological evolution to a rise of general human awareness, in society at large and therefore in landscape practice, this change subsequently brought forth new means of expression and observation. From aerial photography bearing significant new possibilities in the perception of our world, altering the way we worked with perspective and the human figure from position of viewer and viewed. The landscape practice as well as the diversely interpreted meaning of landscape therefore underwent a thorough process of deconstruction. During that time, the post-war multi-dimensionality society sought to merge artistic genres, such as painting and sculpture, art coexisted between mediums. Naturally different meanings, point of views, and interpretations came to be with this new multidisciplinary attitude towards artistic creation. Artist’s works therefore became cultural products and had to be considered in the context of such times. The way people approached Landscape became more of a critique that extends past its sole field and into the culture of the times it was produced. It became a dialog, where the viewer’s presence was critical, about class, gender, race as well as other collective expressions. The once métier, the position of orthodoxy, was replaced by process. Traditions learnt, experienced and practiced were replaced by questioning, experimentation and discovery. The fresh means of expression across all disciplines were form and practice, modernist sculpture and minimalist modern painting had seen the light of day as means of abstract expressionism, while minimal and conceptual art rehashed site-specificity. Unsurprisingly landscape was still directly correlated with wealth and patronage. The economy, which includes authentication and distribution of art as a commodity, had the sellers and distributors of art directly dependant of this artistic price tag, which comes with rarity, demand, general public and professional praise of a piece, thus making art quantifiable through currency. Some conceptual artists wanted independence from such institutional apparatus and uprooted landscape from its composite web of implication, releasing the conventions of orthodoxy in this field. Landscape profession faded from economic pressure and place, and that is where artists started creating impermanent and unrepeatable works in the "outdoors", the external confines of an office space with the legal boundaries of a contract. This new Avant-Garde was spearheaded by the Land Artists, Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Mkichael Heizer, who temporarily left the galleries of Manhattan to make large works, earthworks and land art, in remote locations in the wild west, Nevada desert, California, Utah and new Mexico." […]art abandoned the closed spaces of galleries, moving outdoors to discover "uncontaminated" places. " (Alessandro Rocca, Natural Architecture)

Land art was a ‘back-to-the-land’ reaction directly linked with growing environmental concerns and a re-evaluation of the moral aspect of Landscape Architect’s longing for works in nature for nature, and not only Man. The work was determined and directed by the landscape itself, only natural material was used in the creation and construction of any design implementation worthy to be called Land Art. Earthworks consisting of natural materials, wood logs, twigs, sculpted soil found on site, rocks gathered on site or around it in a non-destructive way for all the bio life in the area.

After the publication of Robert Smithson's essay 'The Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects', in 1968, the trend took roots with a first exhibition entitled 'Earthworks’ taking place at the Candace Dwan Gallery, New York. A few months later, in early 1969, a key 'Earth Art' exhibition was staged at Cornell University's Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art. Participating artists included: Walter De Maria (b.1935), Jan Dibbets (b.1941), Hans Haacke (b.1936), Michael Heizer (b.1944), Richard Long (b.1945), David Medalla, Robert Morris (b.1931), Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson, and Gunther Uecker (b.1930). Other American artists who later eventually took part in this movement include Nancy Holt, Alice Aycock, Alan Sonfist, and James Turrell (b.1943). The scale of the works ranges from ‘earth art’ to ‘earthworks’ where mechanical earth moving equipment was used. Such as for the Spiral Jetty (Robert Smithson).

Robert Smithson was born in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1938. In 1953, as a high-school student, he was awarded a scholarship to New York's Art Students League, spending the next two years studying, while also taking classes at the Brooklyn Museum School in 1956. He considered his first mature works of writing and sculpture to be the ones produced in 1964. The Spiral Jetty is one of many earthworks of this American sculptor, it is located in Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah. Constructed in April 1970 with only mud, precipitated salt crystals and rocks stretching out counterclockwise into the lucid red water of the lake, it is considered as one of his most popular projects and is still to this day documented with maps holding directions on how to get to the location of this land mark. A 32 minute film was made also titled Spiral Jetty, where Smithson documented the construction of the sculpture. In the words of Robert Smithson, "Artists themselves are not confined, but their output is. Museums like asylums and jails have wards and cells-in other words, neutral rooms called ‘galleries.’ A work of art when places in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world" ( Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Jack Flam, Published by University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California; University of California Press,Ltd., London, England, 1996)

The impact and scale of this sculpture would most likely touch anyone who gazes upon it, either on photographs or in person, giving a sense of grandeur for the simple act of setting the rocks in a spiral form, a celestial symbol of cycles and of life, for time to do with it as it does with everything else, transform it.


Given its large, distant and especially ephemeral nature, land art is almost always documented through photography and mapping, to be exhibited in galleries or to simply survive the strains of time, whereas the original project would sooner than later succumb to the fierce grips of overwhelming natural forces and be forever forgotten. When Land Artists transport smaller scale works appropriate for displacement, it is greatly argued that the movement’s original intention is undermined. Leading artists in this field argue that such land art can only be properly appreciated from the detached and general point of view, that would be the aerial view, therefore transporting it to galleries becomes obsolete to the purpose of such art works. Ironically,Robert Smithson died in an airplane crash whilst surveying a large ‘piece’ of work, around Amarillo, Texas, in 1973, while working on the Amarillo Ramp.

By using documentary material, pictures, text, maps to represent the works, a crisis of authenticity and authorship became imminent. The evidence documented as photographs, drawings, sketches, field notes and instructions of installation came to play a significant role in the authentication of the work apart from the site.


This movement has left a heritage of change in perception, both physically and figuratively that allowed the people looking to reconnect with the landscape to do so, through creation or observation of other’s creations, as well as allowing the landscape to reconnect to the environment. Landscape as an art form has established a vast flexible association with fields of interests that vary from global capitalism, resettlement, displacement, post-colonialism, land rights, wilderness, industry, militarization and the ecological devastation of the earth and even space. The modern field of Landscape practice as it is envisioned today is a discipline bridging arts and science and mediating between nature and culture.

The human race have been creating works of art with landscapes for centuries, but the modern land art movement saw its early development with the pioneering Land Artists, Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Mkichael Heizer.

A composer and a sculptor, Walter De Maria’s early most famous work would have to be The Lightning Field, a land art work in Catron County, New Mexico. It consists of 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular one mile by one kilometer grid array. It was commissioned and maintained by the Dia Art Foundation, a nonprofit organization that initiates, supports, presents, and preserves art projects. De Maria is an American born in 1935 in Albany, California, in 1957, he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, where he eventually earned his MFA in painting two years later. De Maria emerged as one of the main figures of the Earthworks movement in 1968 when he filled the Galerie Heiner Friedrich in Munich with dirt. Domus Magazine, an Italian bilingual magazine that focuses on design and architecture, had an article pusblished accompanied by many photographs of the installation in action, in other words with lighting activity, originally published in Domus 606/May 1980. The writer, Germano Celant, couldn’t put it in better words as to how interestingly natural and refreshing the observation experience of such an art piece is, "This Land Art project in a remote area of the high desert of western New Mexico must be seen for at least twenty-four hours, so as to allow participation in all of the natural incidents and incidences, from dawn to sunset." The Lightning Field could clearly be visited, weekly, by a very reduced number of viewers, no more than six, and every inspection took at least 24 hours, for the complete experience of the drastic changes in meteorological pressure in this field where the installations were carefully planted and geographically precisely positioned. Of course at these times the concept of having a overwhelmingly vast exhibition space for a project was not of common nature, as stated in the magazine article "Lightning Field overturns the logic of the museum, in that to an enormous quantity of space there corresponds a single work of art and a reduced number of visitors. We might imagine of individually disposing of a museum, for a whole day ".

Mkichael Heizer’s early works were also funded by the Dia Art Foundation, born in Berkeley, California, in 1944, the son of the anthropologist Robert Heizer. After briefly attending the San Francisco Art Institute in 1963 to 1964, he moved to New York in 1966. In 1967 Heizer began creating large Earthworks, primarily in California and Nevada. As his first one-person show, at the Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich, in 1969, he removed 1,000 tons of earth in a conical shape to create Munich Depression. He continued this with Double Negative, displacing over 240,000 tons of earth to make two vast incisions opposite one another on the edge of Virgin River mesa, Nevada. As described by the Dia Art Foundation website’s introduction of Heizer’s works, "In the mid-1960s, during the same period that Michael Heizer was making large-scale, shaped, "negative" paintings in his New York City studio, he began a series of trips to his home states of Nevada and California to experiment on the expansive raw canvas of the American desert landscape, where he created "negative" sculpture. The genre that he and his colleague Walter De Maria invented there—later dubbed "Earth art" or "Land art"—changed the course of modern art history. Working largely outside the confines of the gallery and the museum, Heizer went on to redefine sculpture in terms of scale, mass, gesture, and process, creating a virtual lexicon of three-dimensional form. " Michael Govan (article). Heizer prefers the term Size to Scale, when describing his work, mainly to emphasize the realistic direct visual implications of the actual distance traversed while observing the phisical work, both traversed by the eyes viewing the work, and by foot visiting it. This completely new way of sculpture, back then, allowed multiple viewpoints throughout the journey in time and space required to experience and comprehend it. In the words of Heizer himself, "It is interesting to build a sculpture that attempts to create an atmosphere of awe. Small works are said to do this but it is not my experience. Immense, architecturally sized sculpture creates both the object and the atmosphere. Awe is a state of mind equivalent to religious experience, I think if people feel commitment they feel something has been transcended. . . . I think that large sculptures produced in the '60s and '70s by a number of artists were reminiscent of the time when societies were committed to the construction of massive, significant works of art." As a son of an Archeologist, he always had in mind the titans of architecture withstanding the stress of time, the archeological remains of once great civilizations we now call wonders of our world. While these structures were once constructed with religious and/or political views as their motive, Heizer had absolutely no religious implications when it came to his work, , for him such grand works generated their sense of awe through their intense commitment to constructing work of such size that it becomes both the object and the atmosphere of the place. (Info from Dia Art Foundation Website)

-Evolution of Land Art. From the 1960s to TODAY.


-Going Back to the early days of humanity, Land Art SEEN FROM SPACE NOW BUT NOT THEN.

-Land ART as religious or superstitious settlements.

-How Land Art Defines the world of TODAY ? CONCLUSION

" If asked to draw the landscape, each party would no doubt produce a wholesome variety of graphic models and representations, reflecting their own peculiar mode of (re)cognition. Drawings might range from a cartographer's map, to an ecologist's transect, to an artist's perspective rendering. A poet might prefer words and tropes to visual images when describing a landscape. Collectively, each of these texts would "draw out" of an existing landscape a particular description, or analytique, as seen through a specific conceptual lens, and would subsequently alter or transform the meaning of that landscape. Landscapes are thus the inevitable result of cultural interpretation and the accumulation of representational sediments over time; they are thereby made distinct from "wildernesses" as they are constructed, or layered." James Corner "Representation of a Landscape"

"The challenge is to re-present, in contemporary terms, the ancient naturalistic idyll, pursued by filtering the beauty and authenticity of natural elements, and landscapes through the culture and sensibility of our time and by agreeing to confront the simplest of sentiments- belonging, alliance, complicity with the natural world- with the unshakeable complexity of the world as it appears to us today." (Alessandro Rocca, Natural Architecture)

The movement had a great impact and its openness to the landscape destroyed the automatic relationship between work and exhibition space. From that time on every site was eligible to be occupied and redeemed by art, this new freedom of action led to a whole series of subsequent outdoor experiences applied to situations of all kinds: Countryside, sculpture parks, decaying outskirts of cities (reconnaissance missions of Robert Smithson) and in the center of cities with the rise of public art.

(For a better relationship with the reality of places, creating a new more direct channel of communication with the audience.)