by Robert Smithson
Cultural confinement takes place when a curator imposes his own
limits on an art exhibition, rather than asking an artist to set
his limits. Artists are expected to fit into fraudulent categories.
Some artists imagine they've got a hold on this apparatus, which
in fact has got a hold of them. As a result, they end up supporting
a cultural prison that is out of their control. 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 placed in a gallery
loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged
from the outside world. A vacant white room with lights is still
a submission to the neutral. Works of art seen in such spaces
seem to be going through a kind of esthetic convalescence. They
are looked upon as so many inanimate invalids, waiting for critics
to pronounce them curable or incurable. The function of the warden-curator
is to separate art from the rest of society. Next comes integration.
Once the work of art is totally neutralized, ineffective, abstracted,
safe, and politically lobotomized it is ready to be consumed by
society. All is reduced to visual fodder and transportable merchandise.
Innovations are allowed only if they support this kind of confinement.
notions of "concept" are in retreat from the physical
world. Heaps of private information reduces art to hermeticism
and fatuous meta-physics. Language should find itself in the physical
world, and not end up locked in an idea in somebody's head. Language
should be an ever developing procedure and not an isolated occurrence.
Art shows that have beginnings and ends are confined by unnecessary
modes of representation both "abstract" and "realistic".
A face or a grid on a canvas is still a representation. Reducing
representation to writing does not bring one closer to the physical
world . Writing should generate ideas into matter, and not the
other way around. Art's development should be dialectical and
am speaking of a dialectics that seeks a world outside of cultural
confinement. Also, I am not interested in art works that suggest
"process" within the metaphysical limits of the neutral
room. There is no freedom in that kind of behavioral game playing.
The artist acting like a B.F. Skinner rat doing his "tough"
little tricks is something to be avoided. Confined process is
no process at all. It would be better to disclose the confinement
rather than make illusions of freedom.
am for an art that takes into account the direct effect of the
elements as they exist from day to day apart from representation.
The parks that surround some museums isolate art into objects
of formal delectation. Objects in a park suggest static repose
rather than any ongoing dialectic. Parks are finished landscapes
for finished art . A park carries the values of the final, the
absolute, and sacred. Dialectics have nothing to do with such
things. I am talking about a dialectic of nature that interacts
with the physical contradictions inherent in natural forces as
they are - nature as both sunny and stormy. Parks are idealizations
of nature, but nature in fact is not a condition of the ideal.
Nature does not proceed in a straight line, it is rather a sprawling
development. Nature is never finished. When a finished work of
20thcentury sculpture is placed in an 18th-century garden, it
is absorbed by the ideal representation of the past, thus reinforcing
political and social values that are no longer with us. Many parks
and gardens are re-creations of the lost paradise or Eden, and
not the dialectical sites of the present. Parks and gardens are
pictorial in their origin - landscapes created with natural materials
rather than paint. The scenic ideals that surround even our national
parks are carriers of a nostalgia for heavenly bliss and eternal
from the ideal gardens of the past, and their modern counterparts
- national and large urban parks, there are the more infernal
regions - slag heaps, strip mines, and polluted rivers. Because
of the great tendency toward idealism, both pure and abstract,
society is confused as to what to do with such places. Nobody
wants to go on a vacation to a garbage dump. Our land ethic, especially
in that never-never land called the "art world" has
become clouded with abstractions and concepts.
it be that certain art exhibitions have become metaphysical junkyards?
Categorical miasmas? Intellectual rubbish? Specific intervals
of visual desolation? The warden-curators still depend on the
wreckage of metaphysical principles and structures because they
don't know any better. The wasted remains of ontology, cosmology,
and epistemology still offer a ground for art. Although metaphysics
is outmoded and blighted, it is presented as tough principles
and solid reasons for installations of art. The museums and parks
are graveyards above the ground- congealed memories of the past
that act as a pretext for reality. This causes acute anxiety among
artists, in so far as they challenge, compete, and fight for the
spoiled ideals of lost situations.
statement was published originally in the Documents catalogue
as Smithson's Contribution to the exhibition(1972).
excerpted from ROBERT SMITHSON: THE COLLECTED WRITINGS, 2nd Edition,
edited by Jack Flam, The University of California Press, Berkeley
and Los Angeles, California; University of California Press, LTD.
London, England; 1996
Originally published: The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited
by Nancy Holt, New York, New York
University Press, 1979
ISBN # 0-520-20385-2
you Elyse Goldberg