Freedom Ain't Free
Many, if not most, of art history's great inflection points have been covered in the rhetoric of rebellion against the status quo––specifically the monetization of fine art, or even capitalism as a whole. Yet in most cases, if you wheel a Caterpillar onto the mythology and start digging, you barely have to overturn the topsoil before uncovering the money quietly planted underneath––and I think fine art is unquestionably better for it.
I was reminded of all this on Tuesday night, when I went to the MOCA-sponsored premier of "Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art." For the uninitiated, Land Art (or Earth Art––choose your favorite label) refers to the creation of works centered on elemental materials like dirt, sand, and stone, often embedded in nature itself rather than a traditional art viewing space. And like other avant-garde movements before and after, it sought to reveal the art market as nothing more than a cringe-worthy teenage phase in the life of visual culture. As Vito Acconci explains in the trailer, "We really thought the work we were doing was going to end galleries."
"Troublemakers" primarily tracks Land Art's development through the work of Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, and Walter de Maria. All three men eventually created some of the movement's most iconic, epic, and enduring pieces in the deserts of the American Southwest. But "Troublemakers" also acknowledges that, even as these three artists looked past the gallery system to the likes of Stonehenge, Angkor Wat, and Machu Picchu for inspiration, none of their 20th century monuments would have been possible if key patrons hadn't slipped wads of cash into the back pockets of their dirt-caked jeans.
Ironically, the First National Bank of Land Art, the would-be gallery-destroying movement, was the pioneering gallerist Virginia Dwan. She didn't just feature forward-thinking in-gallery installations by Heizer, Smithson, and de Maria (not to mention equally commercially challenging work by Carl Andre, Ed Kienholz, and others). She also personally financed two of the most storied earthworks in art history: Heizer's "Double Negative" (1969-70) and Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" (1970).
How did Dwan manage these literally and figuratively landscape-altering feats? She happened to be one of eighteen heirs to the 3M corporation. Although she has downplayed the scale of her inheritance at times, pointing out that she shares it with seventeen other beneficiaries, 3M reported $1.3 billion in net profit this past July. So I think it's still fair to say that she could be profit-agnostic when considering her artists' most ambitious proposals.
Of course, Dwan was not alone in establishing Land Art's grand legacy. The Dia Art Foundation fully financed de Maria's "The Lightning Field" (1977). Heizer's magnum opus, "City," has received an untold amount of funding from Dia, LACMA, the Lannan Foundation, and others over its 40-plus year construction process. And the list of donors to James Turrell's own decades-in-the-making masterpiece, Roden Crater, is long and illustrious. (It's apt that if you stay on the page long enough, its background color cycles to green.)
The point is this: One of the art history's most iconoclastic movements––a movement that aimed itself at commerce's heart like a sniper's bullet––wouldn't have achieved its most epic ends without equally epic patronage. As the intersection of high art and high tax brackets continues to take fire from all sides, Land Art is a reminder that money still has the power to change visual culture in monumentally positive ways. It just needs people with vision to guide it to the right places.