A Defense of Functionality and Didacticism in Contemporary Eco Art

If society was envisioned as a living organism, artists would serve as its sensory receptors (gathering inputs issuing from their surroundings) and its brain (bringing key concerns into consciousness and filtering out extraneous data). That is how the history of art came to be a rich repository of cultures as they evolved through the history of civilization. This ongoing account reveals if people, at a particular time and place, were captivated by the afterlife, or a new technology, or social inequity, etc.

What issues will the brain and sensory receptors of art select to embody the current era? Health care, privacy, gay marriage, gun control, missile threats from Korea, nuclear weapons from Iran, unrest in the Middle East are contenders, but they seem trivial compared to super storms, water shortages,  pandemics, depleted aquatic populations, bee colony collapse, climate change, and the numerous other environmental predicaments that have arisen in recent times. Environmental issues seem primed to represent the current era in future annals of art. Beyond expanding the legacy of art by introducing new themes, eco artists are introducing two strategies that originate in the imperative to protect the planet from human indiscretions:    
    - functionality devises solutions and performs tasks to remediate soils, create habitat, recycle litter, cultivate food, produce energy, and conduct a myriad additional environmentally responsible acts.

    -  didacticism provides reasons to replace responsibility for neglect, and incentives to substitute reverence for apathy. Otherwise functional solutions do not remain hypothetical. 

The global scope of the Earth’s faltering ecosystems is reflected in the swelling rosters of international artists who are joining this initiative. How could it be otherwise when fate of life on Earth depends upon strategic approaches and the dissemination of pertinent information?

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Strange Invitations for Digging Deepr

Four culture-shifting actions offer the homey appeal of gardening. They introduce adolescents to farm stand management and investigate heritage food production. These congenial actions subvert existing social values and human attitudes, paving the way toward radical ecological reforms.

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Interview with Linda, July 2013

In the following essay, I discuss the philosophy that accounts for both my professional and my personal decisions. The interview was conducted by Lynn Woods. Exerpts were published in the Hudson River Museum And Gallery Guide.

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Linda's Cicada Lament

After a 17 year gestation, the cicadas returned, bringing with them the opportunity for me to muse and amuse. The divergent paths we humans tread in our quest for eco-enlightenment is here presented in rhyme - with my tongue set into my cheek.

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Critiquing the Critique

The preamble, the sermon, the manifesto, and the coda provide the literary forms for the four sections in the following essay.
    “Preamble” alerts readers that the following text is intended to convey something of shared significance, such as a new set of statutes.
    “Sermon” conveys that the content carries ethical issues that are matters of personal responsibility and conscience.
    “Manifesto” asserts a call to action to overthrow the status quo and install a radical alternative.
    “Coda” indicates that the final paragraphs are not mere recapitulations of the thematic content, but expansions that invite further investigation.
All of these literary forms were summoned to promote the restructuring of art critiques so that they include the criteria by which human actions outside of art are currently being judged. These criteria are founded upon intensifying, looming environmental crises. Manufacturing, transportation, education, investment, and a host of other cultural institutions have demonstrated that minor tune-ups of their practices are insufficient. They are initiating major overhauls of their conduct in order to reduce, halt, and reverse environmentally damaging practices.

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Andy Goldsworthy: Anthropocentric/Ecocentric Beauty

It is through the time-honored association of ‘beauty’ and ‘nature’ that Goldsworthy has earned his acclaim among art-lovers as well as legions of people who rarely engage with contemporary art. The sensual rapture his works evoke is apparent in the following quotes:

-     “Goldsworthy opens our eyes and all of our senses to the beauty and the multiple -enchantments of the natural world that we so often take for granted.”

-     “His work whispers to us of winds streaming off mountains, of shoots and branches, the transience of beauty in nature.”

-     “Using nature as his canvas, the artist creates works of transcendent beauty.”

-     “The work inspires me to embrace each moment of beauty for the time that we have it and to make the ordinary...extraordinary!”

If beauty was merely ‘skin deep’ it would not inspire the bliss expressed in these quotes, or the perennial production of treatises, poetry, and song. They attest to the fact that beauty assumes divergent forms. This formal morphing evolves in tandem with each culture’s defining features.

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Andy Goldsworthy: Assignment from Teaching Guide

A common characteristic of eco art is that the materials/forms/and themes of works of art are derived from the locale in which they are created.

Andy Goldsworthy occasionally imports materials, he is most known for utilizing the physical conditions and resources already existing on the site where his work is fabricated. Other artists apply the word 'local' to flora (Fournier), fauna (Ballengée), architecture (Potrc), humans (Yeh and Reyes), litter (Eke), cultural tradition (Gelitin - Zen in Tokyo), and geological feature (Gelitin -mountaintop in the Swiss Alps). Compare Goldsworthy to any one of these artists in terms of their application of the word ‘local’ to their art practices. Consider choices of materials, themes, and processes. Do you think that engaging local phenomena limits the relevance and impact of these art works?

Eco Materialism: Excerpt from TO LIFE! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet

The words ‘material’ and ‘medium’ are synonymous in the English language, but they are not interchangeable within the context of art. Throughout the last centuries, artists have preferred to refer to the physical component of their artworks as ‘medium’, capitalizing on the word’s double meaning: medium is a physical substance through which an effect is produced, and it is also a person who conveys spiritual messages. Artists’ mediums are, therefore, tangible forms of matter that serve as vehicles to express emotions, symbols, and concepts.

This chapter asserts the timeliness of highlighting the physical material out of which art is produced. Consciously assessing the physical basis of art allows artists to express concern over the state of the Earth’s ecosystems. Thus, in addition to the expressiveness of ‘medium’, they address the fact that art is constructed out of matter, its energies are stored in matter, and its processes are manifested in matter. This approach signals a distinct departure from ‘new media’ that manipulate immaterial data through push-button technologies, key-board operations, and computer-modeled visualizations.

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Eco Art Materials: Studio Art Assignment

Varied approaches to installation art discussed in TO LIFE! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet include scientific experiment (Ballengee, Critical Art Ensemble, Franceschini. TC & A); energy flow (Beuys); collected electronic devices (Yun); a group meeting (Dory); reconfigured found objects (Eke); spoof on spiritual enlightenment (Gelitin); demonstration of miscommunication (Gracie); energy conservation scheme (Greenfort); demonstration of interspecies communication (Haapoja); evidence of industrial pollution and waste (Haacke, Starling); demonstration of food production (Harrisons, Lee); environmental influence over genetics (Jeremikenko); evidence of mathematical principle (Merz); opportunity for DIY architecture (Potrc); evidence of social transformation (Reyes); evidence of weather (Saraceno); too much and too little (Steiner & Lenzlinger); interspecies behaviors (Sherk); evidence of endurance practice (Strachan); climate change (Zurkow).        

Project: Create a miniature installation that consists of five or more objects whose shapes have been formed by water (e.g. soap bars, lozenges, tea bags, etc.). Alternatively, create a miniature installation in which objects are actively being formed by wind (e.g. use fans to blow feathers, leaves, paper, fabric, etc.). Alternatively, create a miniature installation in which objects are formed by temperature.

Simon Starling: Excerpt from TO LIFE! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet

While the Holy Grail has been envisioned in numerous ways over the course of history, it always represents an era’s most elusive and most tantalizing goal. Embarking on a quest for the Holy Grail is, therefore, a heroic venture that is more often associated with quests than achievements. Such lofty pursuits often earn the elevated status of legends.

What is the 21st century version of the Holy Grail? What goal is so improbable that it seems magical and mysterious? One candidate is the quest for a source of energy that is capable of fueling the needs and desires of soaring human populations in a sustainable and affordable manner. The search is being pursued by a global cast of scientists, engineers, technicians, physicists, chemists, astronomers, and biologists all striving to materialize the illusory energy elixir.

Entries in the catalogue of alternatives for fossil fuels are as familiar as the hurdles that accompany them: solar collectors and wind turbines occupy large tracts of land; hydroelectric plants destroy free-flowing rivers and the bottomland in river valleys; harvesting biomass can cause deforestation and soil degradation; processing and burning biomass can pollute water and air; manufacturing photovoltaic cells utilizes toxic substances; natural gas can pollute ground water; spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants is a radioactive hazard; producing ethanol consumes nearly as much energy as it generates.

Simon Starling is not among the contemporary artists who have joined the energy crusade.

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Simon Starling: Art History Assignment from TO LIFE! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet

Starling conducts art like an Xsport. His efforts are often so extreme they carry the charm of clownish stunts, always involving a skill he has not yet acquired: model-making, boat-building, bicycle construction, chair fabrication, etc.  These strivings are essential to his intentions, which is why he leaves visible signs of his efforts. Viewers observe scratches, saw marks, and measurements. Refined mastery is ignored in order to provide evidence of the dramatic transformation that produced the object being displayed, indicating the intensity and duration of the artist’s interventions. 

Starling helps art historians decipher the significance of these efforts by commenting, “One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few years is this idea of a post-conceptual practice and how it’s possible to take some of the very clear, hard-won models from conceptual work, you know, from the sixties, seventies,....

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Dirt: Joe Scanlan Excerpt from EcoCentric Topics

Organic humus and its living occupants are components of dirt. Humus might qualify as a prop for a horror movie because it consists of a grisly admixture of defecated matter from slimy invertebrates and the decaying corpses of virus, yeast, mold, and bacteria. Some other mucky ingredients of humus include twigs, needles, bark, and leaves of plants; and hairs, nails, bones, and skins of animals, all in various stages of decomposition. Environmentalists focus on the wondrous functions performed by this gruesome substance. Humus provides a home for the microscopic organisms that jump-start the food chain upon which we and all other forms of life depend. By channeling moisture and air through dirt, living organisms mix the strata of the earth’s mantle and enable plants to grow.
Dirt: An Ecocentric Interpretation
Dirt, like humus, elicits derogatory connotations. Dirty words are rude. “Dirt cheap” and “dirt poor” signal the lowest of low value. These phrases link the Earth’s principal life-sustaining substance with squalor instead of fertility. They reveal a deep-rooted preference for the sanitized products of technology, engineering, and industry. The word “soil” also carries the distasteful connotations of filth, sewage, and refuse, despite the fact that topsoil is where most roots and microorganisms are located. The dirty thoughts related to soil can be traced to the Indo European word for pigsty, “souil”. 

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Lost & Found: Tim Gadreau Excerpt from CycleLogical Art

LOST! FOUND! When these words appear on homemade posters they convey the powerful appeal of a personal entreaty. Xeroxed on cheap paper in black and white, they often out-compete the slick, calculated manipulations of corporate advertisements.  Lost posters proclaim that someone is in distress and that this distressed someone is a neighbor, not a distant celebrity or an anonymous model.  The local nature of this communication impels people to wonder, Can I help? Have I seen the missing item? Should I take the contact information? In a similar manner, found posters announce that a neighbor has taken the trouble to return a found item to its rightful owner.  Passers-by don’t pass by. They pause to ask, Could I be the owner of this lost article? 

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Eco Feminism: Erica Fielder Excerpt from EnvironMentalities

Feminists frequently note that the elemental rhythms that occur within women’s wombs, and that enable women to create and nourish life, are synchronized with the cycles of the tides and the moon. Over the course of history, some cultures equated these mysterious feminine powers with nature’s uncontrollable omnipotence. They aroused fear in men, spurring insidious suppression and outright persecution of women.

But there are other cultures where the ability of women to conceive and bear children inspired reverence. Coatlicue was the Earth goddess of life and death in the Aztec mythology. Pachamama personified the Earth for the Incas of ancient Peru. Papa was the Earth Mother, according to the Maori people of New Zealand. The Greek goddess Gaia associates Earth with feminine attributes; her name combines the Greek words for Earth and grandmother. And the list goes on. Many of these traditions arose prior to the debut of written history. They emerged from societies that honored the matrix of interdependency among all living entities. Feminists generally believe that these societies manifest such stereotypical feminine attributes as compassion and tenderness. In contrast, competitive, capital-intensive societies reflect such stereotypical masculine attributes as assertiveness and independence.

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Shirin Neshat: Crafting an Artistic "Self": Excerpt from In the Making

Calculating the ratio between the exposure and the concealment of skin on a woman’s body does not yield a consistent measure of modesty and exhibitionism. The glimpse of an ankle inspires incrimination in some cultures, while near nudity is unremarkable in others. Nor is there a cross-cultural measure that applies to specific parts of the anatomy. Baring breasts can be either innocent or scandalous. Women wearing shorts and tank tops on the streets of Manhattan, where Shirin Neshat currently lives and works, rouse less attention than a shrouded woman with an immodest gaze in Iran, where she was born. Neshat has fashioned an expansive visual language that embraces and transcends these polar cultural traditions.

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Interview with Shirin Neshat
by Linda Weintraub

Q: What was the first indication that you were likely to become a
recognized and respected artist?

SN: I haven’t really thought about this at all, maybe because I never really
dreamed or planned to become active or successful as an artist.  Everything has happened so spontaneously in my career that I have no explanation such as that.  In fact, particularly at the beginning, I anticipated that the attention will momentarily fade, that it wasn’t going to be a lasting experience.

Q: What were the circumstances surrounding your first exhibition? 

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TRANSPERSONAL SELF - Studio art assignment related to Shirin Neshat

Besides traits that are unique to you, you share transpersonal traits that comprise your group identity.

Describe yourself according to each of the following transpersonal categories. For 'family' for example, list if you are a daughter, son, cousin, ......

Rate the significance of each of the transpersonal categoires in constructing your identity.




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TRANSPERSONAL SELF - Art history assignment related to Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat is a woman of Allah, a resident of Chinatown, and messenger of gendered cultural values, yet her work is distinguished by vision and revelation, qualities she shares with Georgia O'Keefe. Both O'Keeffe and Neshat discover universal rhythms and patterns, texturs and contours in the specific landscapes and skyscapes of their stark desert homes - O'Keeffe in the western US and Neshat in the Middle East. Although Neshat's engagement with landscape is integral to her concern with humanistic themes, both artists connect, ritualistically, with rocks, sand, trees, plants, oceans, clouds, and other enduring markers of their surroundings.

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Introduction to "Choosing an Audience": Excerpt from In the Making

Production and consumption comprise complementary aspects of art’s cultural course. On the production side, artists transform the private zones of their imaginations, insights, knowledge, emotions, and intuitions into forms that are transmittable to others. On the consumption side, viewers not only have the option of purchasing works of art, they also consume art each time they delight in it, learn from it, and identify with it, or reject it, criticize it, and condemn it. Without the crucial linkage between the creator and recipient, art is stuck in a state of pure potential, like a battery that is fully charged but not in service.As a result, the artistic process really doesn’t culminate until a recipient tunes in to a work’s power source and receives its charge.

By devoting the first chapter to audiences, this book honors the fact that viewers are as essential to art’s consequence as are artists and works of art. Furthermore, it proposes that the audience’s expectations, values, tastes, and concerns are not necessarily after-affects or post-scripts. They can affect artists’ conceptual initiation of works and their subsequent fabrication of them.

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Introduction to "Measuring Success": Excerpt from In the Making

The word success indicates fortunate outcomes, but it does not indicate the nature of these outcomes. Artists are free to choose among countless goals, systems of measurements, and criteria of accomplishment. For some, success is measured according to rulers that have developed a patina from long and frequent use. It is common for recent generations of artists, for instance, to adopt rulers that are keyed to increments of wealth, power, and eminence. Many contestants vie for these three limited resources. Such popular definitions of success involve entering a field of operations crowded with competitors, but they also offer rewards that exceed wealth and fame. One benefit is that their efforts are facilitated by having predecessors whose accomplishments serve as identifiable measures of success that are available for emulating. Furthermore, readymade markers of commendation await artists who subscribe to them. In our culture these might include auction sales, media attention, honorary degrees, foundation support, or solo exhibitions.. But this triumvirate of criteria is not mandatory. Rulers can be self-styled by artists who strive to fulfill independent goals.

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The Commons: Surprise. Astonishment. Dismay. Regret. Solace. Hope. Uncertainty. The ‘commons’ evokes these powerful emotions.

Surprise. Astonishment. Dismay. Regret. Solace. Hope. Uncertainty. The ‘commons’ evokes these powerful emotions.

Surprise: SO MUCH!
You are the proud owner of great swaths of this nation’s arctic/alpine tundra, grasslands, prairies, deserts, and forests that are coniferous, deciduous, and tropical, along with an array of aquatic ecosystems. In addition, you possess a dazzling diversity of flora and fauna residing within these ecosystems as well as the renewable and non-renewable resources deposited upon and within them. Of course, you must share this wealth with every other citizen of the United States. Yet these riches exist for you and me because much of our nation’s incredible wealth is still held in the ‘commons’.  Consider this, about one third of the nation’s land mass is forest, and around 43% percent of that resource is publicly owned! In the Hudson Valley, 60% of the forested land is held in private, non-industrial ownership. As such, the sponsor of this project, the Greene County Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Agro-Forestry Center, is playing a formative role in reviving a fundamental concept of the commons by demonstrating that ‘cooperative’ management can augment land productivity.  The Center is not only committed to preserving the vitality of these land holdings, but to using forests for the production of berries, wild fruits, chips, medicinal herbs, honey, mushrooms, nuts, and maple syrup. 

Raquel Rabinovich: EMERGENCES – Momentary Flux and Enduring Continuity

Emergences consist of moderately sized stones arranged in clusters along the shores of the Hudson River. Indigenous rocks mingle with those the artist introduces to the site –pink marble, bluestone, Corinthian granite, etc. Each mound is measurable according to human scale. Since 2002, Emergences have been installed on ten riverfront sites. In some, the periphery stones scatter from the core so that the sculptures appear to merge into their settings. In others, the borders between sculpture and site are delineated. Yet neither configuration intrudes upon the landscape.

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Adam Zaretsky: ON the pFARM

Adam Zaretsky addresses the fetish for power that has led humanity to pump its intellectual, mental, and physical muscles and dominate other species, earth forces, and each other. His innovative measures to reverse power-mania take the form of cultivating submissiveness.  Indeed, Zaretsky craves submissiveness as others crave power. He has formulated a triad of unlikely techniques to replace aggressive power-mongering with docile obedience: organic farming, sado-masochistic sexual practices, and biotech experimentation. The first is a bizarre charade. The second is a performance spectacle. The third is lunatic science.

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Michael Joo: Where is the Balance? Circannual Rhythm (Piboktok)

When Michael Joo asks, “Where is the balance?” he is not worrying about his check book. He refers to the skewed accounting that occurs on an imaginary earth ledger. One side of this accounting is occupied by forms of life and non-living matter that have escaped human tampering. The other side is occupied by people alive today along with all the things human populations currently use and the residue of all past cultures. The expansion of technological power, material redundancy, and abundant entertainments has long been regarded as a sign of progress. But the diminishing reserves appearing on the non-human side of the ledger is of growing concern. To environmentalists like Joo, such advances advance in the direction of the depletion of humanity’s non-living inheritance, corruption of our relations with other living entities, and spiritual bankruptcy. Joo undertakes a quest for rightful balance between humans and the non-human realm, searching on behalf of all those who feel impoverished in the midst of material abundance. 

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Remember the Ladies: Nature/Nurture

Remarkably, signs of gender are difficult to discern in two art exhibitions where gender serves as the qualifying requirement for inclusion. Equally noteworthy is that insights regarding human relationships with landscape are equally mystifying, although this topic served as both exhibitions’ organizing principle.  Thus, the pleasure of observing the accomplished artworks on display is augmented by the opportunity to contemplate their significance. It is further intensified by their relevance since the shows celebrate two special features of the Hudson Valley - its talented residents and its inspirational vistas.

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Victoria Vesna: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Edmund Burke was only 19 years old when he began an eight-year project that made him a spokesperson for the sublime. The project culminated in 1757 with the publication of A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In his treatise, Edmund Burke laid out several basic attributes of the sublime. The first and most conspicuous is vastness. Things that are small and attractive can be beautiful, he maintained, but the sublime is reserved for physical greatness.

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Exhibitions as Models of Ecological Organization

May I share heartening evidence of the deepening partnership between art and ecology?

Recently I began to notice that galleries and museums were hosting exhibitions that resembled many eco-art works. I started collecting examples in a file named “Exhibitions: Ecological Models of Organization”. It is quickly filling up. These exhibitions share the following characteristics of ecosystems:

Structurally, they function like systems of energy flow patterns (art) within habitats (museums) for communities (arists and audiences).

Formally, they depend upon relationships between these elements.

Temporally, they instigate local perturbations that ripple beyond their borders and initiate evolutionary transformations.

Eight examples of exhibitions that manifest ecological models of organization follow:

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Curatorial Flow Patterns

Rerouting curatorial ‘flow patterns’ away from conventional art practices presents a ‘watershed’ opportunity for curators to promote art’s engagement with the environment and its role in establishing ‘curative’ relationships with habitat.

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To Life! – An Ecological Evaluation of Land-Art

"To Life!" is a phrase that resounds at gatherings of well-wishers and grievers the world over. But when ecologists utter it they refer not only to human life but the lives of microbes and plants and animals, and also the water, air, earth, and sun. This essay examines art's Land-art movement and its relationship to ecology through use of a single acknowledge masterwork from this arena: Walter de Maria's "Lightening Field."

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Alexis Rockman’s Manifest Destiny

Alexis Rockman’s mural-sized painting "Manifest Destiny" (2004) Rockman depicted Brooklyn in the year 5,000 following the complete demise of Brooklyn’s infrastructure. The forty-one years old artist has been honored as a visionary for conveying an urgent social warning, but he has also been criticized for exploiting people’s insecurities.

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The Poster Child (Andy Goldsworthy) vs L’Enfant Terrible (Damien Hirst)

Two artists are both renowned figures in contemporary art world. A consensus of opinion clusters around each, yet they attract opposite reactions. Goldsworthy is honored for pursuing a noble cause and offering an uplifting vision. Hirst is accused of being a blatant opportunist whose works are calculated for shock value.

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The Maximal Implications of the Minimal Line

A straight line, the single most elementary visual unit, is the formal denominator that unites the surprisingly diverse work of fifty-eight artists from the 1960-1980s. They dramatize that the extreme reduction that characterizes the aesthetic code of Minimalism inspired intense creativity and enabled artists to convey concepts related to gender, nature, and industry with wit, humor, elegance, and/or banality.

Process and Product: The Making of Eight Contemporary Masterworks

Gathering evidence of artists’ working methods and thought processes is often conducted by art historians long after an artist died. Louise Bourgeois, Robert Longo, Alex Katz, and Leon Golub are among the eight distinguished artists who participated in the generation of such records. These artists disclose fascinating narratives of their internal and external creative processes.

Janine Antoni: To Draw a Line

In a sculpture entitled, To Draw a Line, the line is formed by a rope across which Antoni walked and balanced until she fell. Each instant of equilibrium was unique, temporary, and precarious. In her preparations, equal effort was expended to master the laws of balance as to obey the laws of gravity. She comments, “As I mature as an artist I become more comfortable being out of balance. That is the place where beauty is found. It is a tenuous, fragile place.”

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Damien Hirst: ‘A Many Splendored Thing’

The market economy has amassed a great arsenal of weapons intended to fight signs of the passage of time because so many people resist decay. Hirst celebrates life by tracking it to its source in the trajectory from age or disease, to death, and then to decay. Often he packages these unsettling reminders of our mortality in cool formalism and appealing colors.

Anish Kapoor: Ethereal Recitals

Anish Kapoor exploits the inherent aesthetic qualities of the earth’s varied substances such as translucent alabaster, reflective stainless steel, opaque fiberglass, clear resin, and absorbent pigment to achieve his non-material goal. Over the course of his thirty-year long career, he has prodded these tangible substances to relinquish their material identities.

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Maximizing Art's Mark / Minimizing Art's Footprint

Ignoring is tantamount to collusion. Denial is no longer an option.  Evidence abounds that Earth’s systems are being stressed and its resources are being depleted. Consider, for example, the exorbitant demands for comforts and the intemperate desires of privileged populations of human beings. Now compound these environmental burdens by adding exploding human populations seeking the same material advantages as their wealthier neighbors. While remedying these conditions is everybody’s business, art instructors can play a pivotal role in environmental reform. They prepare students who, as artists, assume the cultural roles of visionary, missionary, designer, problem-solver, moralist, communicator, and proselytizer.

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