The ethics of earth art — different approaches to understanding ourselves in relation to the planet.

Today’s Q&A feature is with Amanda Boetzkes, assistant professor of art and design at the University of Alberta and author of the soon-forthcoming The Ethics of Earth Art.


Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970. Photograph JEK 2005 ©. Art © Estate of Robert Smithson/ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo from

Q: You write in your book’s introduction: “Contemporary art counters two deeply flawed but nevertheless pervasive stances toward the earth” — the instrumental view that seeks to master the planet and the romantic view that seeks a “state of unencumbered continuity with nature.” Does your book find a middle ground?

The arguments I put forward in The Ethics of Earth Art implicitly critique two ways of understanding ourselves (humans) in relation to the planet. On the one hand, there is the more dangerous of the two, in which humans presume dominion over the earth by harvesting natural resources for profit. This means that not only is the planet conceived entirely as a means to the human end of producing a reserve of energy that can be exchanged for money, but also that there is an infinite demand for those resources which inevitably leads to the exploitation and destruction of highly complex ecosystems. The global economy is entirely dependent on colonizing the earth in this way, without regard for the health and diversity of other forms of life. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is an example of how the drive to instrumentalize the planet can easily lead to catastrophic negligence.

This predicament is perhaps no surprise, but the danger I see is that the instrumental model is also accompanied by a counter-discourse that attempts to criticize it, but in fact does little to dismantle it. This counter-discourse is, at its core, a fiction that humans can return to a natural state of being. I call it a romantic view because it is characterized by a profound, even quasi-erotic, desire to be reunited with “nature.” According to the logic of this discourse, nature is untouched, a Garden of Eden that existed before a mythological time before modernity, before science, before technology, before money. To return to nature would be to recover an essential human condition. But no such essential condition exists, and often the division between what is natural and what is not only serves the purposes of a corporate ideology.

I cannot say that I take a middle road between the two positions, because I see them both as fundamentally misguided. In my book, I try to posit a somewhat different approach. While perhaps our anthropocentricism is inevitable, it is not impossible to recognize our limitations. One’s experience of the planet is bound to a frame of reference that is particular to our species: our history, knowledge, and bodily experience. Yet, there was life on earth long before humans and there will be long after we have died out. It always outstrips what we purport to know about it or experience of it. To me this is a sublime realization. I argue that earth art gives rise to this humble position in the face of the earth’s excessiveness. A stance of ontological humility is the beginning of ethics. From this perspective, a position of transcendental mastery is impossible and the notion of “the natural,” entirely untenable.

Q: Some suggest that Robert Smithson was the first earth artist; others disagree. Where do you stand?

Earth art is far too diverse to be attributed to any one artist. I am also wary of patrilineal histories that posit a single male artist as the creator of a movement or style. There were many artists who were roughly contemporaneous with Smithson who were engaging in similar forms of experimentation, and there were many others who had quite different approaches to making art but who were nevertheless important in defining the arena of earth art in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Performance artists like Ana Mendieta, Dennis Oppenheim, and Joseph Beuys, systems-based artists like Hans Haacke and the Harrisons, environmental artists like Betty Beaumont, and postminimalist sculptors like Richard Serra, all made significant contributions to exploring the aesthetic and ethical territory of earth art.

I do address some of Smithson’s work, which is undoubtedly very rich. However, my goal is not so much to present him as an originator of the massive earthworks sculptures he is often associated with. Rather, it is to analyze how he used a variety of media, such as film, mirrors, installation and photography, to alternately deprive the viewer of an object of representation and then saturate the senses with elemental phenomena such as blinding sunlight or lapping water. In this way, I suggest, Smithson exposed and challenged the limits of the perceptual field.

Q: What specific differences do you spot between earthworks of the ‘60s and those that are more modern?

The standard history would describe a shift from “land art” to “eco-art.” Often it is understood that most earth art of the ‘60s and early ‘70s consisted of monumental sculptures that were deliberately inaccessible and did not have any particularly “environmentalist” content, while the following decades saw the rise of smaller scale interventions that reveal the ecological subtleties of a landscape or public space, and are more invested in environmental restoration and activism. To me, this story is not historically accurate and is perhaps too simplistic in its characterization of the ethical investments of the artworks.

Certainly, it is true that ecological imperatives have become a more familiar discursive field from which to interpret more recent artworks. But there are two main points I wanted to make in writing this history of earth art: the first is that the earlier generation of earth artists were not just sculptors, they were multi-media artists who were interrogating the aesthetic experience of the world and attempting to create alternate modes of perception. The aesthetic dimensions of the artworks had ethical implications. Equally, subsequent generations of earth art have not simply been concerned with restoration, but consistently explore how aesthetics are inextricable from ecological investments. So in answer to a question about historical differences, I am actually suggesting that there are continuities between the generations of artists that are sometimes overlooked.

Q: Does feminism fit into your book’s argument?

There is a branch of feminist theory that strongly inflects my arguments about the ethical dimensions of earth art. The book is strongly engaged with the way that ethics is defined in the phenomenological tradition, not only by philosophers such as Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Martin Heidegger, but more importantly by feminist philosophers such as Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler who have developed some of the most sophisticated understandings of ethics. Irigaray is particularly attentive to the way that ontological recession, the precondition for an ethical acknowledgment of “the other,” is associated with an abundance of sensation. Irigaray’s elaboration of the ethical encounter as an aesthetic experience allowed me to consider how ecological imperatives might be redefined through the vehicle of earth art.


Learn more about Amanda Boetzkes’ The Ethics of Earth Art, which will be available this month from University of Minnesota Press.

Works by Robert Smithson and Dennis Oppenheim, among others, are currently on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Between Here and There exhibit. The exhibit ends in February 2011.

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