Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West
(The New Press, 2014)
It is not insignificant that Lucy Lippard’s latest book begins with the word “I.” While it is structurally one of the simplest words in the English language, with Lippard’s voice it speaks beyond monosyllabic clarity and points to the radicality at the heart of her criticism, demonstrating the reformist potential of Undermining in the process. “I live in one of the lower levels of a pit, an arid ancient seabed in northern New Mexico called the Galisteo Basin, where clouds of moisture circle the mountains and then ignore us, going on to other high places.” Inserting herself centrally into her work, Lippard’s lack of deference to the formality of critical distance is emblematic of what makes the book so powerful. In keeping with a long, multifaceted, and idiosyncratic career as a writer, activist, and curator, Undermining is a lesson in the possibilities of criticism: the places it can travel, the subjects it might encounter, and the relationship it can have with the personal, the political, and with art.
A reductivist might describe the book as an environmentalist treatise, but this “wild ride,” as its title suggests, is a far more complex, genre-defying project. Undermining is about the many ways land can be used—or, more often, abused—and the subsequent cultural implications of those interactions. The changing West serves as the book’s physical and metaphorical foundation, but, free of the confines of a strict environmentalist agenda, the argument travels far and wide: from Native American reservations, where the sanctity of sacred sites is continually being disrespected, to Ground Zero in New York City, where phases of destruction and construction mirror the ongoing cycle that depletes the resources of the world around us. Throughout the book, Lippard interrogates the relationships between humans and their surroundings and the ability of art to intervene in, interact with, or somehow improve the results. In this way, the book continues the best aspects of Lippard’s writing and serves as a reminder as to why she is one of art’s most important figures.
Like many feminist art historians of my generation, I was introduced to Lippard through her work as one of the most important and vocal figures of the feminist art movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Her writing and political activism—practices she purposefully intertwines—argue for the validity of feminist artistic practice and its contribution to the trajectory of contemporary art, cementing the very terms and critical frameworks that continue to structure how the political aspirations of the movement are understood. Always conscious of the necessity of social and political change, Lippard has rightfully served as an example of the values and possibilities of the best of feminist art criticism. And while the passing decades have done nothing to diminish the importance of Lippard’s feminist work, the political and social terms of feminism have changed immensely. So as someone who is deeply invested in the current and future potential of feminist thought and methodology, I have a responsibility to ask what is next. What is the future for a critical practice that wants to use the political functions of feminism today to create new fruitful possibilities for political inquiry in art? I see a glimmer of an answer in Lippard’s work, which I believe in not only because I see how Lippard continues to question what criticism is and what it can do, but because I need the lessons that her work begets to ensure that my own will be a continuation, rather than a reiteration, of its example.
Given this personal interest and investment in Lippard’s practice, I took particular lessons away from this latest work, lessons that didn’t always neatly fit with the perspective I brought to reading it. It is precisely this awareness of my own subjectivity that has made Undermining particularly difficult to engage with critically: constantly thinking about my own experience, I struggled when thinking about how to craft an appropriate response that would do the book justice as a varied and complex work of criticism that undoubtedly has many different things to say to many different people. So rather than attempt to impart a particular structure onto my response to it—rather than write toward something—I am attempting to let myself be guided by what I perceive as inherent in Lippard’s choice of a first word: a practice that writes for something. Lippard describes her methodology for the book as “simple and experimental.” “One thing leads to another,” she writes, “as in life.” Trying to learn from this lesson, I am leaning on new impulses and relying less on others; trying not to cover everything but instead focusing on what feels right, with the belief that doing so will produce a result I didn’t expect but was perhaps looking for all along. This is the best way I can think of capturing the spirit of a book that is so re-imaginative and wonderfully difficult to pin down. Ultimately, then, this is an attempt at a new way of relating to my own writing practice and, perhaps above all, an appreciation of a critical awareness I aspire to.
Language is a vital tool in the arsenal of any writer, but in Undermining, Lippard expresses a particularly mindful understanding of how language figures into her work. She writes:
Sometimes the tools I bring from a lifetime in and on the edge of the arts are pretty useless when confronting land use and abuse. During roughly twenty-five years in the western United States, I’ve learned a new vocabulary, or perhaps forgotten the old one. It’s a stretch to squeeze modernism, modernity, post-modernity, and the shifting mainstreams of the art world into the framework of my current lived experience, which is what I always work from.
In considering how best to give voice to her subject and most effectively speak to her concerns for it, Lippard demonstrates a belief in the importance of specificity, an important lesson in the otherwise overly saturated—and often thoughtless—critical landscape. Rather than rely on jargon, Lippard asks herself (and her reader) to think of other ways a work might read as “smart,” coming up with alternatives that are erudite because they are based in the realities of personal experience and thus resonate as true. Borne out of a sensitivity to place, her acknowledgment of a new, conscientious vocabulary allows Lippard to portray, speak to, and thereby potentially change the realities and injustices she depicts.
I gravitate toward this particular passage—which is emblematic of Lippard’s general regard for specificity with regard to language—because I see it as an important aspect of effective criticism that is extremely easy to overlook and difficult to heed in practice. Good writing always requires care and thoughtfulness, but in the case of politically oriented criticism, true appreciation and respect for one’s subject say much more than an ability to reference external theories or concepts that, while they might speak to another’s litmus of legitimacy, alone do nothing to forward new and helpful knowledge. If second-wave feminism helped us understand that the personal is political, Lippard’s work has helped me realize that the efficacy of the personal is grounded in its specificity; that the very transition of a singular experience into universal understanding that would help to reorder thought or action only has a chance for success because of an investment in and an attention to the specifics of individual experience that are not easily abandoned.
Appreciation of Lippard’s specificity and care with language begs certain potentially thorny questions about the words used to characterize her work. The word I thought of most while reading the book was “political,” but I also found myself struggling to understand my own impulse to reach for that term, constantly asking myself what I thought the word meant. Just as the word “political” seems to consistently evade a stable definition, so too does the word signifying Lippard’s other subject, art. Undermining does not delve into the masochistic rabbit hole that is the question of its meaning, but in a book whose subjects seem overwhelmingly outside the realm of fine art, it threatens to rear its ugly head. Political art criticism is surely a genre in and of itself, but what this confluence of words actually means is—perhaps because of the lack of definitive specificity of its morphemes—always a struggle to articulate. Rather than attempt to answer these questions, I felt that Lippard was instead asking me to consider how and why, as writers, we choose our subjects and why we place them under the banner of certain brands of criticism.
An uncritical reader might complain that the “art” Lippard refers to in the book’s title is difficult to find and, consequentially, that calling the work art criticism might be a bit of a stretch. Lippard tackles so many subjects in Undermining—fracking, adobe architecture, water politics, global warming, uranium mining, to name a few—but only a small handful, including a brilliant reassessment of Land Art, seem to fall within the designation of art criticism. The diversity in subjects then begs the question as to why Lippard chose them, given a continued insistence to talk about her work using that very term. In other words: can a book that is not always about art still be art criticism?
While I may have found Lippard’s discussion of Land Art to be one of the most interesting parts of Undermining, it wasn’t what I found most compelling. Instead, I found myself thinking more about the topics I didn’t relate to: I was drawn to those moments where my way of thinking was challenged, where I had to stop and consciously consider how the given topic fit into the book’s larger project or into what I thought was art. Ultimately, then, this book is not about shedding light on the art we can already see, but rather about using the tools of pre-established forms of criticism to unearth new topics and to dismantle the distinctions that would otherwise cage subjects and keep them in hermetic isolation. In this way, Lippard doesn’t ask what art is; she asks what it isn’t, and perhaps more importantly she asks why and to what end a lens of art criticism might be broadly applied. So while Lippard’s subjects seem much bigger than art—which in the face of climate change, racism, and nuclear fallout can seem all too frivolous—the entire point of maintaining this potentially limiting framework is to think about how art might transcend that characterization: to ask art and art criticism to challenge the assumptions that would designate them to the realm of superficiality or insignificance in the first place. Ultimately, I found Lippard asking me to be comfortable with discomfort, and to turn that discomfort into something productive that will keep art criticism moving forward. Lippard clearly still believes in the power of art and artists to ask questions, to reveal and revel in the new. Rather than simply speak about these abilities, Lippard holds both art criticism and its subject accountable to their potential, pushing the act of writing and encouragingly asking for more.
Lippard’s example shows that it takes a lifetime to fully explore the tenets of a personal philosophy of art criticism. I don’t expect to fully understand the logic or lack of reason behind how or why or what I write—about art, about Undermining, or about anything else—for many sentences down the road. That being said, I know what I gravitate toward and what I value, and Lippard’s criticism gives me the space, the questions, and the difficulties to refine these things as much as possible. In a personal quest to create work that does something, works like Undermining are essential. Without them, I would lose the valuable experience of learning about myself, a self-consciousness that I know will only make my work more specific, more demanding, and, consequentially, better.