Spiral Jetty

Robert Smithson's monumental work of landscape art is being threatened by oil-drilling interests. On the one hand, I agree that this is a travesty & a threat to the existence of a pure & beautiful work of art. Anyone with a shred of aesthetic consciousness ought to contact Jonathan Jemming in Utah (801-537-9023 jjemming@utah.gov)  referring to application No. 8853 to protest the short-sighted writing over of this work of art with a work of commerce that is contrary to long-term human interests. But we need to think carefully about what we are protesting. I have been struck by the simplistic rhetoric of some of the appeals to "save the jetty." Art, especially an art like Smithson's, requires an ability go think past easy categories such as the aesthetic. Writing over Spiral Jetty with access roads & pipelines & cranes is, yes, akin to slashing an old master painting with a knife. An act of vandalism. And yet, it is, on the other hand, consistent with the conception of Smithson's art that the jetty would be threatened, even "ruined" by future human activity. Landscapes are inevitably changed by human activity -- I've seen whole mountainsides in Vietnam terraced into twelve-foot wide rice fields -- and Spiral Jetty will be transformed by human activity over generations. So I don't think we can rightly consider Smithson's great work of art in the same way we consider an old master canvas. That is, it cannot be "conserved" in the same way. And this is not just a matter of practicality or of semantics, but is inherent in the conception of the work. The question then becomes, What sort of change ought we to sanction? "We" being the citizens of a putatively free polity with an interest in our own human future. But the work itself asks us to consider the grounds of our defense. Do we act merely to preserve a pure aesthetic object in its (Kantian) "uselessness" or to defend a site that focuses our attention on the political implications of our interventions in the physical world? I think the purpose of Smithson's project is to call our usual ideas about art into question. His great work of art provides us an opportunity to act in favor of decency & beauty, but that also forces us to think past the usual and comfortable categories into which we put works of art. I suppose there is an opposing argument -- that we ought to preserve Spiral Jetty until "nature" sinks it into the geology of its location -- but such an argument assumes that we are not part of the natural order. An interesting thought experiment might be to ask ourselves under what circumstance might it be acceptable to alter or impinge upon Spiral Jetty.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

5 thoughts on “Spiral Jetty”

  1. Smithson’s work through most of his short life was on how the earth is reshaped by industrial work. He was a native of New Jersey and his ideas came from the earth of New Jersey. So, what he would do with the oil drilling would be to turn that into his art. Also, Smithson intended his work to be impermanent. His last work was creating islands in the Caribbean by starting with mangrove plants. So I think it’s likely Smithson would have said goodbye to his spiral jetty and then filmed the effect on the site of the oil drilling and after that set to figure out a way for art to take back the site.

  2. I’ve just been looking at essays by and on Smithson that I’ve been able to find online. I’ll bet anything that Smithson intended his film of the making of the jetty to be the art, and the jetty itself to fall apart eventually under natural and human impacts. His entire life’s work was about disintegration, decay, and entropy. To protest oil drilling in general on or around The Great Salt Lake makes perfect sense to me, but not centered on trying to save the jetty. For natives of New Jersey, as I am, and other heavily worked and industrially developed landscapes beauty has to be found defying the usual assumptions about what beauty is. I recall looking out a train window in New Jersey when I was young with my father, uncle, and cousin at a huge orange pile of industrial sulfur while were on our way to Yankee stadium. It was a beautiful sight. According to my father the Meadowlands, which still is home to wildlife, especially birds,had mostly still defied development when he was a boy, and his father, my grandfather, said to him as they drove across it on their way to Manhattan, “Son, one day this will all be developed.” I think if Smithson had been around to see the stadium going up he would have observed it and might have incorporated it into an essay or film. The City of Salt Lake has grown and been developed exponentially since Smithson did the jetty. The area around the Great Salt Lake is going to be developed because it’s one of our major city sites. It’s not a place that should be expected to all be preserved as a national park would be. The health and well being of the people must be considered, and beauty is a part of that, so there is good reason to protest oil industry activity in the middle of a residential area.

  3. Albert, you say more boldly what I took as one half of my thesis / antithesis in the post. I think we agree that Smithson’s art calls our usual ideas about preservation and conservation into question. That was the point I was after.

  4. I guess that’s because I’ve been a fan of Smithson my entire adult life, 27 years. I hadn’t heard of the Spiral Jetty protest, and this topic just left me animated.

  5. I don’t think the fact that the Spiral Jetty will be gone one day anyway justifies it being destroyed for oil-drilling interests right now. Smithson’s work should be left alone until nature wears away at it, but I hope this protest is successful.

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