Moving earth in the name of art

There are those who insist that the art museum is dead. That its only possible function today is to display outdated art, or to serve as an educational facility where youngsters can be warned of the dangers of trivializing or commercializing art.

These individuals believe the art museum is an artificial institution originally established to display great wealth in the form of art and subsequently utilized to categorize and ritualize the various forms of contemporary art. They hold that the art museum evolved during the second half of the 19th century to facilitate a form of cultural one-upmanship in which rich industrialists and nations bought prestige and power with the purchase of great art. And that it has since grown to resemble a huge filing cabinet in which art is neatly labeled and placed in room after room and floor after floor in the manner of so many filing cards.

But mostly they are upset because they believe this has led to a subversion of art's true purpose. And that art, as a result, is increasingly seen merely as an object, as something worth a great deal of money, or as something that can lend prestige to those who own it.

Art, they argue, has become detached from the everyday flow of life and society, and has been artificially enthroned and sanctified in our museums. They believe that these museums have become temples of culture in which an ever-increasing number of individuals stand in near-awe before a bewildering array of works of art. And that, while only relatively few of these people understand what they are looking at, all are fully aware that the objects before them have been designated as Art, and are thus to be treated with great respect.

This, claim the critics of the art museums, is not the way art should be viewed. Let there be museums for the art of other times and places, and for the earlier art of our own period, but let us also make art more of an everyday activity, more of an everyday source of significance and pleasure. Let us remove today's art from the arid, sterilizing climate of the museums and bring it into our homes, streets, and offices, our working and recreational lives. Let us, in short, truly humanize it by making it a full and dynamic part of our lives rather than a cold and idealized byproduct that bears as much relationship to humanity as a hard-boiled egg does to a chicken.

Those who feel this way have made many specific suggestions as to what should be done - from murals on the sides of industrial and slum buildings to complex constructions in public parks. But of them all the most interesting, and the most difficult for the public to understand, are the generally large and remotely situated structures and projects known collectively as Earthworks.

These are intended to be so huge and inaccessible that no one could own them outright, and neither could they be neatly categorized and hung on a wall. But best of all, they were to be so far from urban art centers that only the most devoted art lovers would seek them out.

The most famous of these was Robert Smithson's ''Spiral Jetty'' (1970), an inward-curling extension of rocks bulldozed into position at the edge of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. It was huge, obscure in meaning, and difficult to find, but it became a pilgrimage site for many before the waters of the lake rose and it disappeared from sight.

Another well-known, out-of-the-way project was Walter De Maria's 1977 ''Lightning Field.'' It consisted of 400 stainless-steel poles embedded with precise regularity in a mile-long section of New Mexico's valley floor 200 miles from Albuquerque. Every pole was sharpened and set to serve as a lightning rod during the valley's frequent thunderstorms.

Without doubt, the most famous artist to have taken art out of the museums and put it into a natural environment is Christo. For years, he has temporarily altered the surface of the earth with huge sheets, curtains, fences, and billowing drapes. His best-known and most ambitious project, ''Running Fence'' ( 1976), consisted of a white nylon curtain that meandered over almost 25 miles of rolling countryside north of San Francisco. It dominated whatever section of land it traversed and did more to alter the public's notion of art's range and possibilities than anything else of recent date.

There were other Earthwork projects as well, some placed in the most remote regions of the American West, and others kept close to human habitation. In 1977 , for instance, Carl Andre set up 36 glacial boulders in the center of Hartford, Conn., and Robert Morris dispersed several groups of loose basalt rocks on a freshly mowed lawn at a European exhibition of avant-garde works.

But these were only some of the more famous names involved in such projects. No one knows how many other boulders were placed in particular configurations, or how many holes were dug or fields plowed in the name of art.

Although the Earthwork idea has dimmed considerably in the 1980s, several of its major figures have retained their reputations, both for what they accomplished in the 1960s and 1970s, and for what they've undertaken since. Michael Heizer, in particular, continues to ride high, and to probe into new directions. Not only is his ''Complex One'' (1972-76) - a huge geometrical mound-structure made of rammed earth and concrete situated several hours' car-ride from Las Vegas - the quintessential Earthwork, but he has designed and completed other major projects as well. Among the more fascinating of his designs is one for a truly monumental and incredibly difficult-to-achieve project that would place a huge, square, man-made ''crater'' near an irregularly shaped natural one. It's a project that boggles the mind and can certainly be said to take art out of the arid and sterilizing climate of the museum - if, that is, it really is art, and the accusations against the museums are justified.

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