A few comments on entropy, the geologic and art.
Robert Smithson’s essay mentions the encroachment of technological ideology into art with “technology” and “industry” becoming topes in the New York Art World of the ’50s and ’60s, where he explains, “The products of industry and technology began to have an appeal to the artist who wanted to work like a ‘steel welder’ or a ‘laboratory technician.'” What Smithson points out is the valuation of the material products of heavy industry and the machine manufacturing, which results in bearing the “stamp of technological ideology.” Steel, when refined and alloyed with other metals, becomes the hard metal that suggests the permanence of technological values. However, as Smithson points out when we think of steel we think of rust as a fundamental property of steel. He adds, “In the technological mind rust evokes a fear of disuse, inactivity, entropy and ruin. Why steel is valued over rust is a technological value, not an artistic one.”
Smithson goes on to say that when conceiving the making of art, excluding technological processes, we begin to discover other processes that are fundamental. He notes, “The break-up or fragmentation of matter makes one aware of the sub-strata of the Earth before it is overly refined by industry into sheet metal, extruded I-beams, aluminum channels, tubes, wire, pipe, cold-rolled steel, iron bars, etc.” This sub-strata vision would prompt artists to rethink their approach to materials and to what constitutes a work. Smithson conceived of the sedimentation of matter, oxidation, hydration, carbonization, rock and mineral disintegration, as all viable methods that could be turned to the making of art.
He goes on to critique technological ideology, saying it has no sense of time other than its immediate “supply and demand.” Smithson believes that technological ideology functions “as blinders to the rest of the world.” Existing in an “ideal system,“ enclosed and apparently refined in the laboratory, such “pure systems make it impossible to perceive any other kinds of processes other than the ones of differentiated technology.”
Smithson mentions Plato’s Timaeus. Plato shows, “the demiurge or the artist creating a model order, with his [sic] eyes fixed on a non-visual order of Ideas, and seeking to give the purest representation of them.” This is the classical notion of the artist producing a mental model. Smithson links this to the modern artist in the studio “working out an abstract grammar.” He goes on to connect this idealized model to the notion of Craft, associating the Platonic metaphysics to the idea of working within the limits of the artist’s craft. Smithson mentions the dislocation of craft and the fall of the studio.
So where did craft and the studio go? Already when Pollock we have an aim towards a “torrential sense of material”, and Smithson likens the work to marine sediments. He adds, ““Deposits of paint cause layers and crusts that suggest nothing ‘formal’ but rather a physical metaphor without realism or naturalism.” The work is without realism and naturalism because it does not seek to depict or reference nature with the metaphor of the ‘window’ or the ‘mirror.’ Rather, already with Pollock we have the opening towards painting that “disintegrates and decomposes into so many sedimentary concepts.” Alongside Pollock, Yves Klein and Jean Dubuffet hint at “global or topographic sedimentary notions.” Such work lends the rest of us an opening to the territory of becoming-earth.
Smithson continues, “A sense of the Earth as a map undergoing disruption leads the artist to the realization that nothing is certain or formal.”
Within this notion that nothing is certain or formal we attain a consciousness of geologic time, entombed in layering processes and topographic displacements.
Download Robert Smithson’s full essay here.