Politics of Land Use and Art in the American West

A journey into gravel pits, archaeology and land use through an art frame.

| October 2014

  • More artists and activists are taking up land use challenges to dig deeper into underlying issues.
    Photo courtesy The New Press
  • “Undermining” by Lucy R. Lippard brings together art, land use and politics in the American West by addressing issues such as mining and fracking.
    Cover courtesy The New Press

Undermining (The New Press, 2014), by Lucy R. Lippard, addresses the politics of land use and art in an evolving American West and offers a skeptical examination of the "subterranean economy," comprised of the industries that pull their wealth out from the earth itself. Lippard weaves a number of themes, including fracking, mining, land art, adobe buildings, Indian land rights and photography into a tapestry that illuminates the relationship between culture and land. The following excerpt focuses on the beginning of Lippard’s quest to use gravel pits as a metaphor for the underground level of a modern cultural landscape.

My accidental preoccupation with gravel pits began in 2000 when I wrote an editorial in my community newsletter bemoaning the incursion of gravel mines west of our rural village. I was taken aback when the local earth mover—a progressive guy who’s also a painter and a skeptical environmentalist—reproved me. He said (in so many words): Hell, you used gravel for your road. Everybody wants gravel, but they don’t want gravel mines. Robert Baker [a friend’s pseudonym for an unpopular local gravel tsar] is a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch. If you’re going after gravel miners, take on Lafarge, a multinational gravel mining company. They’re taking over the American West, putting the locals out of business.

That was a surprise. I’d naively considered gravel pits, when I considered them at all, as the epitome of local enterprise. Mom and Pop have some otherwise unproductive land and a pickup, they need money, and they go for it. I’m told this is the way it used to be. Global takeovers are harder to imagine.

Scale is a big issue, visually and economically, even in the once open-ended West. Most landscapes are actually designed by culture at the hands of anonymous amateurs who work by trial and error and privilege function over form. Then hired professionals try to make sense of what’s there and capitalize on it with their own individual talents. The very term cultural landscape is a way of thinking about art and landscape issues that was partially invented by John Brinckerhoff (J.B.) Jackson—a seminal cultural geographer who lived in New Mexico, just west of where I settled. He defined landscape as "a concrete, three-dimensional, shared reality"—a collaboration between people and nature rather than an idealized picture or view of what lies beyond our own centers.



Soon after my conversation with the earth mover, I was looking for a novel way to approach land use through an art frame for a symposium on cities. I began to think about gravel pits as a metaphor for the underground level of a twenty-first-century cultural landscape, or the "subterranean economy," to take a Jackson phrase out of context. That seemed a fitting subtext for cultural practice. An increasing number of artists/activists are taking up the land use challenges—not just shooting photographs of undermining, but digging deeper, so to speak, into the underlying issues.

Chiseled on the façade of an old grammar school in Fort Benton, Montana, is this admonition: "INDUSTRY IS USELESS WITHOUT CULTURE," a message that still resonates in the post-industrial age. Culture is a far broader term than art and can embrace social energies not yet recognized as art. If much contemporary art appears divorced from the popular expectations of "fine arts," it remains a way of seeing, sometimes more connected to or embedded in life than previously expected. While entangling visual art with the cold realities of our current environment, some artists are realizing that they can envision alternative futures, produce redemptive and restorative vehicles with which to open cracks into other worlds, and rehabilitate the role of the communal imagination. Artists are good at slipping between the institutional walls to expose the layers of emotional and esthetic resonance in our relationships to place. They can ask questions without worrying about answers. I continue to count on the reconstructive potential of an art that raises consciousness on the land, about land use, history, and local culture and place, considered at length in my 1997 book, The Lure of the Local. Writing about conceptual, feminist, and political art as "escape attempts," I’ve concluded that the ultimate escape attempt would be to free ourselves from the limitations of preconceived notions of art, and in doing so, help to save the planet.

In the 1930s, Henri Cartier-Bresson complained: "The world is going to pieces and people like [Ansel] Adams and [Edward] Weston are photographing rocks!" In a plea for the importance of the esthetic at a time, like today, when art can seem insignificant compared with the perils offered by life, Adams replied that a rock was more socially significant than a line of unemployed. I wouldn’t go that far. I’m usually on Cartier-Bresson’s side, but maybe I’m following Adams here by forcing the gravel pit on you because it offers a way to create in writing and images a context for the microcosmic aspects of global change our western landscapes and rural villages are undergoing—cultural and social changes similar to those that took place in the Southwest after World War II.

Out on the margins, where local scars cover for global perpetrators, we live in a distorted mirror image of the center, which perceives our "nature" as primarily resource. Here negative space can be more important than what’s constructed from its deported materials elsewhere. The gravel pit, like other mining holes, is the reverse image of the cityscape it creates—extraction in aid of erection. If the modern city is vertical (a climb, leading to a privileged penthouse overview), landscape is predominantly horizontal (a walk, through all walks of life). Like archaeology, which is time read backwards, gravel mines are metaphorically cities turned upside down, though urban culture is unaware of its origins and rural birthplaces. Where the vertical rules—from nineteenth-century surveyors planting flags and proclaiming dominion from the loftiest mountain peaks to the hundredth stories of skyscrapers where corporate CEOs (the real occupiers of Wall Street) peer down at protestors—the power of upward is added to outward mobility.

Like graves these pits—whether they are dwellings or burial grounds or archaeological digs or the remnants of industries that claim to keep us alive—are eventually abandoned, their meanings forgotten, leaving stubborn scars on the land. Such "dead zones" are illuminated by Timothy J. LeCain in Mass Destruction, his fascinating book on the giant western copper mines. Sometimes the graves are more recent. In February 2004, an Albuquerque man died in a gravel pit, New Mexico’s "first mine fatality" of the year. And after the European conquest, the graves of innumerable Native people were cheerfully excavated and "collected" by cultural institutions, while others have been turned under in the process of mining.

Since 1990 it is required by law (The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA) that human remains found on public lands be returned to the tribes for proper burial. It is rare that non-Native people have the same problem, though consider the clamor for proper burial of unidentified scattered body parts after September 11, 2001. Or the 2012 newspaper report about the Lowellville Cemetery in eastern Ohio, beneath which, "Deep underground, locked in ancient shale formations, are lucrative quantities of natural gas." With two other local cemeteries, Lowellville received offers from a Texas firm for their mineral rights, plus percentages of oil and gas royalties from companies claiming that no graves would be disturbed. The offer was rejected. Area activists are fighting for a citywide drilling ban.

Sometimes there is justice. In 2004, gas drillers plowed through the cemetery of a historic Black coal camp community in West Virginia. The resulting lawsuit took six years, but the company was ordered to pay $200,000 in punitive damages, plus $700,000 in compensatory damages.


Copyright © 2014 by Lucy Lippard. This excerpt originally appeared in Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.




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