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Art is beauty or disturbance?

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

Michael Heizer at the site of "City." Michael Gova

Michael Heizer, a land artist, completed his magnum opus this year. He began working on it when he was 23. When America was still fighting on Vietnamese soil, he started to spend his own money to develop a mega landscape of positive and negative space in the desert of Nevada. More than forty years passed since then. He is now 77.

He wanted to bring art out of the delicate and sophisticated confine of a gallery. His sculptures or art works have always been massive shapes of stone or metal often to be displayed outdoor or on earth directly.

Of course, his inspiration was rooted in his childhood when he traveled with his father, a leading anthropologist of America. His grandfather was a geologist. Hence his connection with soil and the ancient history of mankind was obvious.

The magnum opus is named , 'CITY', located in the Nevada Desert, and it is one and half miles long with a width of one mile. It's not possible to capture the artwork in a photograph due to its wide expanse.

However, an of image is being shared here just to give an idea to the readers.


Michael Heizer, ‘City’, (1970-ongoing) | Image © Jamie Hawkesworth for the New Yorker

The curious landscape is a reminder of ancient settlements of mankind projected on a minimalist format. There is no sign post guiding the visitor through it. One has to follow one's instinct to navigate the space on foot. In a way, to this correspondent, the whole arrangement also carries an aura of ZEN art.

Even if there are loads of analysis and interpretation of 'CITY' in countless magazines and journals, yet the artist says he simply does not like people looking for meaning in what he does. He is loud and clear that there is nothing to dig underneath his creation. Just be there and feel it.

A million dollar question pops up at this point. What is it then? Is it art? If so, why?

Look at this artwork by the same artist. It is a doorway with a massive rock hanging from top and blocking part of it. Doesn't it stop one on her track? Doesn't it give an uneasy feeling of getting trapped or even trampled? A kind of claustrophobic suffocation seems to cloud the senses of the viewer. But meaning? Perhaps none! At least the artist says so.

But what is good in sending a wave of disturbance through a piece of installation? Instead of that, the artists could have made a nice and delicate teddy bear or a flower. At least there would be an element of beauty and pleasure in such objects. And we could name them art without any deliberation or argument.

But no! This is art. A cutely made teddy bear is not.

Nobel prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, says that Bad things prevail in our mind. One classic example he draws is about the bowlful of cherry.

Below is the photograph of a bowl full of cherry. Doesn't the bowl look tempting? Sweet, succulent cherries piled on the bowl. It is also beautiful in a way. But yes, it is not a rare thing. After all, anything beautiful is expected and hence does not unsettle our mind. The neurons in our head remain in peace.

But when we see the same bowl full of cherry in the following image, we cringe in disgust! Just one cockroach ruins the charm of so many cherries! Just one cockroach! Bad things are so potent that they can overshadow the impression of overwhelmingly larger number of good things.

And not only that, we remember the bad ones, not the good ones. What leaves us shaking in terror or repulsion or fear is hardly ever forgotten.

As an artist, one must choose between the two. Create beautiful things that leave us pleased but undisturbed or come up with artworks that shake the viewers and leave an indelible mark. After all, every artist wants to be remembered. Right? What stays in the memory is not the balanced part of experience, but the unbalanced ones. The exceptions, the unusual outliers of routine.

Hence, Michel Heizer's peculiar and often disturbing rocks or massive shapes are true artworks destined to stay in the mind of the mankind whereas the dust mites of history will consume the beautiful Radha, Krishna, Ganesh, roses, and other fine beauties in a blink.

This correspondent remembers the words of artist Prabhakar Kolte during a recent exhibition in Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai. He was explaining to a band of artists about what is art. He said, 'Look, when we grow angry and fight against each other, we end up rough and loud. We may also hurl abuses like, you bloody fucking bustard....and hold on. That is damned expression. You must express your sorrow, agony, anger or frustration through art.'

An artist who mainly painted absurdly beautiful and flawless landscapes and flowers, asked, 'Why not good feeling? Why you are saying that only the expressions of bad feelings count as art?'

Prabhakar Kolte walked away without any response.

How right he was!

Art that lingers in the mind of viewers are usually disturbing. Art is not meant for maintaining the status quo of life. It is to pave an uncharted territory and break open a new frontier.

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