“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun,” Solomon intoned in the great wisdom book, Ecclesiastes. The cosmic joke is that, 5000 years later, we are still frequently surprised by that realization.
I was reminded of this yesterday while looking at work by Andy Goldsworthy. He is a Scottish sculptor, photographer and land artist. That last designation is a broad category ranging from ephemeral patterns cut into fields to stonework that comes close to conventional sculpture.
Goldsworthy’s work is always beautifully crafted. His stonework is built for the ages; his more ephemeral work is meant to be photographed and then allowed to decay. He respects nature enough to add no artificial pigments.
The oldest land art I know of is the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire. It has been reliably dated to the late Bronze Age. (There are many other hill figures in Britain whose dating is less reliable.) Mount Rushmore National Memorial (1927-41) is another example of land art. It’s a common enough form of advertising along our Thruways, with town or company names spelled out in shrubs or rocks.
Winston Churchill was an accomplished painter, writer, and gardener when he wasn’t busy being Britain’s foremost 20th century statesman. When he purchased Chartwell in 1922, the estate’s grounds were done in a conventional early 20th century style of overlapping rectilinear lawn terraces and perennial gardens. Churchill burned off his frustrations by literally reworking the landscape of the estate—clearing land, building walls, terraces and dams, and creating lakes and a water garden.
Churchill was working emotionally; he created a personal Eden where he could repair when daily reality overwhelmed. This isn’t brilliant or high-concept or even unique, but it’s meaningful. Despite working with the simplest materials, Goldsworthy is creating intellectual art, focused on his ideas about the land and conservation. The divide between the conceptual and the visceral marks Churchill and Goldworthy as men of their particular times.
We live in a time of conceptual art, but, sadly, there is very little thinking that’s truly original. And that is, perhaps, the self-limiting factor in conceptual art. In the war between gut and brain, gut almost always wins out. Our thinking may be unoriginal, but our feelings are uniquely and instinctively our own.
But the real lesson to be learned here is that most of us do art every day. We call it by other names, but any time we do something unnecessary, something to beautify the world or make it more gracious, we’ve committed another act of art.