Environmental Art – It Ain’t


I’ve always been interested in art. However, I’ve always felt a bit like an outsider (did you ever see the Simpsons episode where Homer becomes famous for his “outsider art”?) since I can’t draw my way out of a paper bag.

Nowadays poor drawing skills are not so much of a hindrance. The general definition of what is “art” has expanded tremendously in recent years (maybe a little too much) beyond the traditional drawing/painting/sculpting thing when I was a kid. Back then the kids that went off to art school after graduation were the ones who could draw Skippy the squirrel and since my Skippy looked liked it had recently been involved in a fiery automobile accident, I went to school to get a Chemistry degree.

So I have no formal education in the arts, but I’ve kept a hand in through the years with my photography, going to museums, reading, and watching shows on PBS. Lately I’ve been getting more serious about my photography and as a way to improve my image-making, I’ve gotten more serious in my studies of art in general. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading about aesthetics – why do we call some things art and some not, why do we find some things beautiful and some not, etc.

I’m planning to do a few blog pages about aesthetics, particularly aesthetics of nature, once I feel that I have at least a tentative grip on the subject. Anywho, one blog on the subject of art that I like to read is ars longa;vita brevis. This blog is written by a very nice and very thoughtful artist who can draw her way out of a paper bag.


While exchanging comments with readers about a recent ars longa post, I mentioned my interest in natural aesthetics. The name of Andy Goldsworthy came up as an “environmental artist” whose works might interest me. A quick web search brought up several informative articles about his work (see below). Goldsworthy is an accomplished British artist that uses found natural materials like rocks and sticks to create his works.

The work that he and other environmental artists do is certainly interesting and thought provoking. On the other hand I quickly became disenchanted with much of the work that I saw. My problem stems from a misunderstanding of the word “environmental”.

As a person reared in rural America with degrees in Environmental Science and Natural Products Chemistry that I picked up in the late seventies and early eighties, the word environmental holds for me a connotation of restoration and protection of the natural world from man’s often destructive influences.

Unfortunately as it is commonly used to describe this type of art, environmental has more the meaning of merely employing materials and choosing locations for construction from one’s general surroundings in the world – one’s local environment. Oftentimes this means using sticks and rocks from a field or wood and creating a sculpture out of doors rather than in a museum.

There are some works under this heading that do indeed attempt to restore or protect the natural world, but these are in the minority. Most environmental artists hold to a European aesthetic of nature along the lines that there is no mountain so beautiful that a prominent castle, formal garden, and a rock wall lined roadway would not improve upon it. Unadulterated nature is disturbing.

This is opposed to the more American aesthetic espoused by the likes of John Muir that prefers nature wild, untamed, and “gloriously” unimproved by the hand of man.

Environmental artists make a lot of claims that their works are “ephemeral” and do no harm to the surrounding habitat. Their works are supposedly like gossamer and disappear with a breath of air.  Well, I’m not buying it.

Ephemeral is when you stick your hand in a running stream and watch the water play over it for a few minutes and then walk away.

Constructing a six foot high cairn of rocks is not ephemeral. Yes, technically the land and water and air were not significantly damaged and unless the thing falls on one, no animals are harmed in its construction. On the other hand, the forest has been marred visually. Building cairns in “wild” areas is no less a blight on the landscape than tossing empty cardboard food containers on the ground. Hey, they’ll decompose – eventually.

Unless I go deep into the forest where few people ever go, I am almost guaranteed of seeing several cairns built along any local streambed that I choose. This is on public land mind you – set aside to preserve nature for everyone to enjoy.

When I go to the forest I’m hoping to experience the works of nature not the works of some yahoo that thinks piling up rocks somehow improves the looks of a waterfall. These cairns last for months destroying the beauty of the landscape all the while. Ones built in the summer can easily last until (with any luck) the next spring floods finally knock them down.

Besides cairns I have seen stones that people have painted various colors and placed at intervals in the stream. Sometimes people draw pictures on gully walls by scraping them with small sharp stones. Sometimes they write inspiring bits in chalk like “Peace and Happiness” (I’d be way more peaceful and much happier if they had stayed home). A classic one is carving things into tree trunks – ‘nough said. I’ve seen tree branch structures. I’ve seen clothing arranged on tree branches. I’ve seen ice sculpture. I could go on and on.

One of Goldsworthy’s works involved dyeing a pool of water next to a stream bright red. Apparently the pigment was made from sandstone which makes it “natural” so it is somehow OK. I wonder how long other people were subjected to this red pool. I wonder how long the rocks remained stained after the water evaporated. Maybe we got lucky and it washed away in a rain storm (the solution to pollution is dilution). I can’t wait to start going into the forest and find everything dyed bright colors.


My bottom line comes down to two points.

One is that when you hear about a person doing “environmental art”, please be discerning enough to tell the difference between the two meanings of the word environmental. Don’t pat someone on the back for trashing up the woods under the guise of ecologically responsible art.

Second, if you fancy yourself an artist and you want to build a stone arch next to a tree on some university commons or you want to go out to a farmer’s field and cover some of the stones in mud – knock yourself out. Just remember to stay out of the forest.

Note: I used Andy Goldsworthy as an example of an environmental artist since his work was the starting point for my learning about this genre. I am pretty sure he has never been in upstate NY building cairns on public property. As a responsible professional artist, I’m hoping that he would never think of defacing pubic property with his works. Still his works certainly don’t do wild natural areas any favors and so I think the confusion about the title “environmental artist” holds.








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5 Responses to “Environmental Art – It Ain’t”

  1. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Thanks for the plug for my art blog. I must say I’m very much appreciating the dialog. Also, am smiling at the temperature that is rising in the discussion.

    Semantics can become a stumbling block when one word, in this case,environmental. has several meanings. It seems to have touched a nerve with you. Quite understandable, given your background where the meaning is quite specific – and somewhat contrary to the art terminology.

    I prefer to think of Goldsworthy’s work as an outgrowth of Conceptual Art that happens to use natural elements.

    I had most of my art education in the late ‘Sixties when Expressionism was in vogue. It was still considered acceptable to make works of art on canvas and paper, and in rectangles. This is considered horribly passé in the Educational institutes of today.
    By the time I’d taught high school art for some years, I felt the kids could draw better than I could. Some of them came with an innate ability to draw in a draftsman-like manner and I was very envious.
    When I had the opportunity, I went back to school.
    I had wanted to go to Art School when I started my post secondary education, but my parents wouldn’t allow that. So it was at the age of 30 that I headed off to an Art School in Rheims, France.
    In my third year there, the Direction of the school changed immensely. A young blood Art Educator decided to turn the school into one that promoted Conceptual art and soon, the students were being asked to take the stools they normally used for sitting upon to design installations within the school boundaries. Drawing and painting took back seat.
    Since this movement to Conceptual Art training invaded the art schools across the Western world, Art has not been the same. There are no borders as to what is Art and what is not. These students have become the curators of our Art Institutions and they are determined to ensure the last 40 years of leading edge art is exposed to the masses.
    It’s the equivalent revolution of the Classicists in the Nineteenth Century to the Impressionist. It’s misunderstood and even hated by the general public, and hailed as the new guiding star by the initiated.

    It’s the way of the world. Remember how, in the ‘Fifties, Rock and Roll was considered raucus and definitely not music, by the elderly. When you listen to it now, it sounds sweet and gentle compared to Heavy Metal, Hip Hop and Rap. I wonder if these latter “schools” of music will ever be considered tame, fifty years hence.
    Those “ugly” paintings of van Gogh now sell for mega millions. He couldn’t sell them while he was living. Troubled Vincent may still be the number one star of the auction houses.

    I agree with your position on the defacement of park reserves and forests. My biggest peeve in this area is Mount Rushmore. Who in their right mind would think they had the right to carve up a whole mountain!
    Changing subject only slightly, the desire to leave one’s mark (on trees, on abandoned train tunnels, on hard to access rock faces, graffiti, etc ) seems to be a human trait.
    It just takes us longer to accept some of these “Art” forms. We rave over the Lascaux caves (I’ve not seen them in real life, but have seen plenty of pictures and the drawings are stunning). We go looking for native and aboriginal pictograms in many parts of the world; we treasure and protect them. Native sand drawings are another early form of “environmental” art.
    The Innuit inukshuk – the standing stones – are another.
    So it begs the question: Will the people of this era eventually come to terms with the underlying meaning that is inherent in the new works, just as the people of this era have come to accept the beauty in a van Gogh painting from a previous era?
    I think that it takes time to understand, and whether I like something or not, I try to leave the door open so that I can learn, if learning is there to be had. I admire craft as part of a work of art and can accept some works on their level of craft even if I don’t like the concept or the final image.
    And a final word in this rambling:
    There are thousands, nay, perhaps millions of self-proclaimed artists out there in the world today. Some of them are noteworthy enough to be proclaimed on Wikipedia while still alive and working. Some will never be noted, never be seen until they are dead. Some are selling like hotcakes in the commercial galleries and aren’t worth the canvas they are painted on. These latter are decorative wallpaper for living room; go-with-my-couch enhancers. In a century from now, that whole jig may have changed: The unknown discovered and brought to the fore. The expensive above-couch paintings assigned to the thrift stores. Who knows what will be considered eternally, essentially worthy and lasting? Or fashionable? It’s a moving target and only time will tell.

  2. barbara Says:

    Greatly enjoyed your commentary, and I couldn’t agree more re: leave the forests and wild spaces wild. So you forest ‘artists’ – go stick pink flamingos inside rock cairns on your own front yards. Thanks.

  3. forestrat Says:

    I don’t want to come off as a guy that dismisses all contemporary art out of hand. This environmental art thing just struck nerve with me.


  4. fencer Says:

    Enjoying your human artifact photos…

    I kind of agree with your point about messing up the woods, but if the best ephemeral art of that sort adds to the mystery, or a mysterious sense of connection, I like that…


  5. Mark Says:

    Quite an interesting post, and I couldn’t agree with you more. In some ways, I think it implies the arrogance of humans where we feel that we can improve on something that is already existing.

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