Speaking art to power

Review of ‘Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and And Art in the Changing West’ by Lucy R. Lippard


"Baby with Tractor at Sunset," 2009, a 20-foot-tall cut-out sculpture by John Cerney on Highway 10, in Goodyear, Arizona. This is one of the pieces of land art that Lippard critiques to explore the relationship between culture and land.
Stephen Chalmers, From Undermining, Courtesy of The New Press

Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West
Lucy R. Lippard
200 pages, softcover:
The New Press, 2014.

A unique blend of personal narrative, stream-of-consciousness and art criticism, Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West is hard to classify. But it all adds up to a satisfying look, from an unusual angle, at the harmful effects of resource extraction on tradition, ecology and human health in the American West.

Curator and activist Lucy Lippard’s new book initially resembles a fine-art volume: Beautifully reproduced images of gravel pits, landscapes and artworks fill the top halves of its pages; captions scurry along the bottom like footnotes. Lippard’s own words cut through the middle like a vein of granite. She writes about works that criticize land use while acknowledging that artists themselves have also exploited the land, at times treating it like just a giant canvas. “There is a point where artists too must take some responsibility for the things and places they love, a point at which the colonization of magnificent scenery gives way to a more painfully focused vision of a fragile landscape and its bewildered inhabitants,” Lippard writes.

The text reads less like art criticism than an extended account of Lippard’s own quarrel with the West’s extractive industries and the global economy that empowers them. Readers familiar with Lippard’s 1997 book Lure of the Local will recognize her tendency to approach impossibly large subjects through the details of her own immediate circumstances. Here, she considers the scope and unrelenting nature of resource extraction through digs — for gold, gravel, mica, oil, natural gas and uranium — around her hometown of Galisteo, New Mexico. She records often-futile local efforts to thwart powerful multinationals and the politicians who support them. One of the most poignant sections describes the struggles of Native Americans to protect their sacred sites, even as the tribes remain susceptible to the influence of money. Lippard doesn’t flinch from the complexity of these issues, noting that some tribal members have been willing to accept the health risks of uranium mining simply because they need jobs.

Yet Lippard –– an art critic who spent decades in the “Lower Manhattan activist/avant-garde art community” –– credits Native artists with successfully challenging what she calls her own “Yankee predispositions” regarding art and culture. Native artists help inspire Undermining’s final call for art as a form of resistance, one that creates awareness of problems while building consensus about how to solve them. “Of course art cannot change the world alone,” she concludes, “but it is a worthy ally to those challenging power with unconventional solutions.”

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