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What Is Environmental Art?

Debra Barnhart
Debra Barnhart

Often dealing with ecological issues, environmental art can have a myriad of forms and be made from a variety of different substances. Environmental art alludes to the natural world through subject matter, materials or the site chosen for the art. Some environmental artists, however, are more concerned with the finished artwork than its impact on the environment.

Environmental art is a broad term encompassing earth works, site works and other types of art that relate to the environment. The term became popular in the 1960s and 1970s when several different artists chose to use the landscape as the medium for their works of art. One of the best known environmental artists is Robert Smithson, who in 1970 completed Spiral Jetty. This earth work spiral, which is made out of black rock, earth and salt crystal, sits on a shore of the Great Salt Lake. Spiral Jetty was submerged under water for several decades until 2004 when the water level of the Great Salt Lake dropped due to drought conditions similar to the time of the artwork’s construction.

Woman painting
Woman painting

Two other artists of the same era as Smithson, Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer, used the landscape to make artistic statements in different ways. In 1971 Walter De Maria built Lightning Field , which consisted of a group of 400 stainless steel rods positioned in a flat open field in New Mexico. As its name implies, during a storm Lightning Field could attract an ever-shifting array of lightning bolts. Michael Heizer completed Double Negative in 1970 by bulldozing about 240,000 tons of dirt and rock in the Mormon Mesa in Nevada to create two 30-foot (about 9-meter) wide ramps.

Environmental artists are divided between their concern with the final product and concern for the environment. Smithson, De Maria and Heizer clearly were not very concerned with the effects of their alterations to the landscape and the damage that it might cause to the environment. Other environmental artists, however, like Richard Long show more concern for the environment. Most of Long’s environmental artworks consist of minor adjustments to the landscape. Artist Ulrike Arnold uses natural pigments that she gathers from around the world to create paintings on canvas.

Some artists, like Allan Comp, reclaim contaminated land to create environmental art. Comp worked with a group of artists, scientists and engineers to restore an area polluted by coal mines. The park that Comp and his associates created is also a natural water treatment system that filters toxic metals from the water.

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Discussion Comments


@indigomoth - Well, I think there's a place for all of that though. I mean, I'm not all that fond of that kind of art either, but someone must be, or it wouldn't keep happening. And there are plenty of other kinds of art around to keep me happy.

I actually saw a movie recently where they followed a plastic bag (pretending it had a personality) from its making to its final resting place and I thought that was a really good combination of art and environmental awareness. It was funny, but it made a point and it was beautifully shot as well.

That's the kind of combination I think more people should be aiming for.


@pastanaga - I think that most artists are quite aware of environmental issues these days. They have to be, really since environmental awareness is expected of them by the rest of their community. If they are exposed as being particularly careless or destructive in their work, they could lose favor.

I know this has happened several times with film productions, for example when they filmed The Beach they destroyed the environment they were filming, introducing foreign trees and so forth. And people found out about it and boycotted the movie.

What I don't like is when people go too far in the other direction and barely make any kind of artistic statement at all. They make some kind of abstract thing out of driftwood or rocks and call it art when really it is just a pile of stuff on a beach that my toddler could have made.


I think it is lovely when an artist is respectful of the environment in which they create their art. There have been a few times when I've seen an outdoors piece of art and thought to myself, that's neat, but what are they going to do with all that plastic afterwards?

So much outdoors art is only temporary, especially when an artist wants to make a huge statement, which would become a nuisance if it was left up for too long.

It's not necessary to pollute in order to make art and in fact I think it shows more artistic value and credibility if you consider all the factors when creating something, instead of only seeing it from an artistic viewpoint.

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