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Updated: May 24

Environmental Art? Fine Art? What's the difference?

As explained to me prior to enrolling in a 3 year Environmental Art Program, and as we from the Fine Art Environment Program at Fanshawe College explained with words and work at the Environmental Sculpture Show at Harbourfront Gallery in 1979, this is what Environmental Art is all about . . .

One example of my own work in the Environmental discipline, which I unfortunately cannot show you because of a near total loss of all records due to a fire that obliterated my studio and most everything in it, was a series of pieces that I created, primarily on a beach, and then photographed from the highest vantage point that I could achieve. That said, but without providing any details, given the new opportunities with aerial photography using drones, I'm thinking I may actually revisit that series. It was a good one. Stay tuned.

The production of art is a compulsive activity of mankind. It plays an essential and basic part in human life and does not exist as some would have it, a separate intellectual and museum exercise or hobby. Art may be a marginal activity but it is a part of the fabric of everyday life, and it is for this enquiry into meeting the deep human need for unity between art and human activity that Environmental Art exists.

In the traditional and academic sense, a 'fine' artist is trained to believe that painting or sculpture is complete in itself, and therefore valid and important where ever it is placed. But art cannot be isolated from the environment merely by a picture frame.

Perhaps one of the most powerful and impressive examples of Environmental Art is 'Valley Curtain'.

On August 10, 1972, in Rifle, Colorado, between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs in the Grand Hogback Mountain Range, at 11 am a group of 35 construction workers and 64 temporary helpers, art-school and college students, and itinerant art workers tied down the last of 27 ropes that secured the 18,600 square meters (200,200 square feet) of woven nylon fabric orange curtain to its moorings at Rifle Gap, 11.3 km (7 miles) north of Rifle, on Highway 325.

It is the work of the artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude, and was designed by Dimiter Zagoroff and John Thomson of Unipolycon of Lynn, Massachusetts, and Dr. Ernest C. Harris of Ken R. White Company, Denver, Colorado. It was built by A and H Builders, Inc. of Boulder, Colorado, President Theodore Dougherty, under the site supervision of Henry B. Leininger.

This was a project that took 28 months to complete.

Imagine driving along the highway in August 1972 and seeing 4.5 acres of fabric strung across the valley from peak to peak. The orange material created a contrast between the blue skies above and the landscape below and was an odd sight for drivers.

That was the scene created more than 50 years ago by “Valley Curtain” (1970-1972) on Highway 325 north of Rifle, Colorado, but not for long. Wind ultimately caused the art installation to be taken down from the Grand Hogback Mountain Range. The endeavor was one of the first large-scale projects done by the late husband and wife artist team Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The duo fascinated an entire generation and beyond with their larger-than-life works of art around the world. Their legacy will be the topic of the Summervail Art Workshop Legacy Project and Vail Symposium’s event Thursday at 6 p.m. at Vail Mountain School.

In reality nothing exists without a relationship in some way to all other objects and happenings around it, so art, as one of the objects or happenings in an area, is conditioned by, and in turn influences its environment.

Sandworm (2012) by Marco Casagrande shown above, was made for the Beaufort04 Triennial of Contemporary Art in Wenduine, Belgium.

Environmental Art is a Fine Art discipline, but specific to developing concepts with sensitivities to relationships of all the conditions and influences surrounding any given area. In effect, as an environmentalist, this issue is approached from two points of view ...

1 – the conscious visual aspects and

2 – the unconscious manipulation of the observer who is influenced by the very presence of the art.

It is most necessary that the presence of art acts as an adjunctive functional influence to the business of living. No matter what the nature of the activity planned, the concepts and materials of art can add a greater dimension to function.

And it is in this respect that the nature of, the delivery of, and the chosen medium for the art should be determined. So, in part, an inherent part of its statement is material.

In the most fundamental sense, just because a painter paints on a canvas does not make the painter an artist any more than it makes his or her painting art. Until relationships are established it remains as simply a painting.

Past experience has shown that it is a fallacy to expect that the ‘fine’ artist is capable of designing and producing art for any situation.

Just as we in the 21st century are conscious that all is not well with our environment, we should know that all is not well in the training that artists are provided to cope with the situation.

There is no art for all occasions, so in that sense, to produce art alone is not quite enough for successful integration into the Environmental Philosophy. The eventual effect of each new artwork on the viewer or user of an area, is a consideration which should be visualized and calculated beforehand as a special solution for that special environment requiring a special education.

From that perspective, what art 'doesn't' deserve special consideration in terms of it's placement?

It was written in 'IBERDROLA', which is where the above photo came from, that "Art and the environment appeal to reason and feelings. What happens when we mix them? The answer is environmental art, a movement adopted by artists of different disciplines, who are inspired by nature or use it as a raw material, transmitting its beauty and encouraging us to take care of it."

In addition, the potentially required compromises and collaborations with other technical specialists, through the architecture, which inevitably takes place, are not to be taken as limitations, but rather as springboards for the artist.

The challenge is to respond without destroying the art, and sometimes to become part of a team of specialists working toward a common goal, that of a greater involvement of all people in the use of an architectural area or human environment. That area howver, may be small and confined, and even then the Environmental approach can shine with pride.

Art in its many varied forms influences the viewer in different ways. So it naturally follows that it becomes the responsibility of the Environmental Artist to make those influences work for societies use, be it a large or small audience.

An Environmental Artist’s specialized sensitivity involves a greater responsibility to the use of an area, the arts relationship to that area, and the fulfillment of a client’s objective. And that sensitivity involves added problems like how to make a clear analysis and presentation, the understanding of visual distortions and relationships in large scale work, methods of installation, team work co-ordination necessary for industrial fabrications, preparation of estimates and contracts, and the ability to produce competent work within a specified time.

The Environmental Art philosophy is primarily a concern with the environment where we work, where we play, and where we live, how people function in those areas, and what kind of art can influence those specific needs.

That said, I think all that's written above begs the question, "Is Environmental Art by definition still Fine Art?"

It might seem that while adhering to the principle of the Environmental discipline that there is little or no room for art for art's sake, which to me feels self-contradictory in the fine art sense.

So is Environmental Art by definition still Fine Art?

If we consider that art, all art, is a product of human experience, yes, it is. And from my perspective, as long as the art is not overshadowed by the perceived considerations required with the material used, unless the intent is create a piece that's more-or-less simply a material statement, and even then art in the Environmental sense should remain true to the definition of Fine Art.

At the end of the day, you don't have to understand it. Either you like it or not.


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