In his essay, 'Cultural Confinement', Robert Smithson critiques the gallery as the "ideal" space to view art. Smithson uses "asylums and jails" as analagous to galleries and Museums: "Neutral rooms called 'galleries." Talking about works of art within the confinement of the gallery walls he says "They are looked upon as so many inanimate invalids, waiting for critics to pronounce them curable or incurable. The function of the warden-curator is to seperate art from the rest of society. Next comes integration. Once the work of art is totally neutralized, ineffective, abstracted, safe, and politically lobotomized it is ready to be consumed by society." He continues to say "All is reduced to visual fodder and transportable merchandise. Innovations are allowed only if they support this kind of confinement."
Rather than a commodity, Smithson sees painting as a language; he sees painting as a practice rather than just a product. "Language should be an ever developing procedure and not an isolated occurrence. Art shows that have beinnings and ends are confined by unnecessary modes of representation both 'abstract' and 'realistic." In order to clarify he adds that "A face or a grid on a canvas is still a representation...writing should generate ideas into matter, and not the other way around. Art's development should be dialectical and not metaphysical." Smithson is for an art that doesn't isolate objects into the categories of art and non-art, not seperating them from their everyday value. "Objects in a park suggest static repose rather than any ongoing dialectic." In order to clarify he goes on, "I am talking about a dialectic of nature that interacts with the physical contradictions inherent in natural forces as they are - nature as both sunny and stormy." Both feces and jewels are waste. Smithson continues the parallel between the park and the gallery. "When a finished work of twentieth-century sculpture is placed in an eighteenth-century garden, it is absorbed by the ideal representation of the past, thus reinforcing political and social values that are no longer with us." An outdated language for an outdate place based on outdated values. He concludes this thought: "Parks and gardens are pictorial in their origin - landscapes created with natural materials rather than paint. The scenic ideals that surround even our national parks are carriers of a nostalgia for heavenly bliss and eternal calmness." A representation cannot help but to consider itself ideal, and that's ideal for representation right?
Smithson now develops his dialectic: "Because of the great tendency toward idealism, both pure and abstract, society is confused as to what to do with...slag heaps, strip mines, and polluted rivers." He continues, "Nobody wants to on a vacation to a garbage dump. Our land ethic, especially in that never-never called the 'art world' has become clouded with abstractions and concepts." In his conclusion (that's a terrible word to use here huh?) Smithson poses us with a question: "Could it be that certain art exhibitions have become metaphysical junkyards?" Of course we can tell which side of the argument Smithson sides with, and of course he reinforces this point. "The warden-curators still depend on the wreckage of metaphysical principles and structures because they don't know any better. The wasted remains of ontology, cosmology, and epistemology still offer a ground for art." He points at that "Although metaphysics is outmoded and blighted, it is presented as tough principles and solid reasons for installations of art" like we are still making monuments for the gods. "The museums and parks are graveyards above the ground - congealed memories of the past that act as a pretext for reality. This causes acute anxiety among artists, in so far as they challenge, compete, and fight for the spoiled ideals of lost situations. "
You can read the original essay and view all of Smithsons pieces that aren't Spiral Jetty, here. 'Cultural Confinement was originally published in Art Forum in 1972.