Landscape: A Critical Theory


 Landscape Theory:

Critical Theory & Philosophy


 Dave Holmander-Bradford

This paper focus on landscape theory, it’s practice within Western society and the relevancy of using nature as a base foundation to convey idea and meaning. I will discuss how it applies to my specific body of work. Some questions I hope to answer are what is my practice as an artist? What role medium specificity and genre play in identifying myself within an artist movement?  How specific coalescing subject like social/feminism/economic/political/environmental impact my work? Where do I fit in within contemporary conceptual art?  What specifically is it that I want my art to accomplish?


Think about landscape. Ask yourself the question. What is it? You say that simple, it’s a picture, a panoramic view of the mountains, maybe the setting for a formal European garden. Stop there. You say a formal European, which kind?  Do you mean French formal Garden like Garden of Versailles with its symmetry? What about the Brits? Didn’t they have formal gardens? Have you thought about Stowe Garden with its Rotunda in England? Oh! I forgot about the English landscape parks. But wait, isn’t the Rotunda architecture? So, to such extent that this means there is landscape architecture, which include cityscapes. Exactly! Is not as simple one might think to define landscape. It is being all the afore plus much more, it all inclusive and encompassing. It is where we live both in its natural state and in it reconfiguration by humans. It is something we can never escape nor be separate from.


For a broader understand just for a moment think about what it is not. It is not static. Landscape in its natural environment unaltered by man is ever changing from season, severe weather, earth quakes etc., and the alteration by human activity weather intentional or not by design and calamity. Therefore, when considering a visual image as a painting or photograph we see an illusion of what the landscape might have appeared to be at a moment of time. It’s not possible to consider landscape without the effects of human activity.

Within this context, we might consider a self-reflection. For example, Dennis Cosgrove suggest in his musing from Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape “a way in which some Europeans have represented to themselves and to others the world about them and their relationship with it, and through which they have (commented) … on social relations.” However, James Elkins counters their more limited scope by suggesting “there seems to be a kind of opening now: a sense that it is possible to see beyond that reading if not outside of it” (89)
I believe what is being said here if I might fast forward since the 16th century through early to mid-20th century visual landscape was largely limited to an inward identifiable psychosis which limited European experience of expression and creativity. Therefore, the European model landscape subject matter was largely limited to social and economic activity and pastoral scenic pleasantry with a high concentration expressionistic realism coupling a high concentration of aesthetics.

It is Michael Gaudio  in Landscape Theory  who advances this more fully where he cites
“Art history writing on landscape in the last few decades has made it impossible  not to recognize that landscape is, at some fundamental level, intimately engaged  with ideology.” But he counters this point not to lose sight of the whole point of landscape. “To make a claim, to say that landscape painting is fundamentally or essentially of ideology, runs the risk of losing the landscape itself.” (89)
For the contemporary artist who desired to express conceptuality in their work this intersection of ideology and space converge into a consolidating synthesis.

Core to the very essence of landscape Anne Whiston Spirn confects in her article One with Nature of the same text, the word itself coveys’ insight into theory and is a derivative of landshap a Dutch word and Old English landscipe. Land meaning region or piece of land inhabited by people and scape referring to association, collective or partnership. It’s use dates to the 1500s. However, earliest wall painting date to 330 CE of the Roman and Greek period and early Christianity. (54)

It is almost impossible for any astute student of art history to not recognize that there is some impact of a Marxist influence on most works of art. Key is ideological meaning, subjectivity, representation and lived experience etc. While it may seem sublime, landscape art almost always conveys some level of class/social/economic/political distinction.  Elkins elaborately distinguishes this reality as being oblivious to most landscape artist.  “I am concerned (of the) … totally dismissing (attitude) the Marxist perspective or attempting to think outside of it is too radical a step, at least if we think of Marxist analysis not just in terms of class… In my opinion this kind of spatial structure challenges first, the assumption about landscape as being purely about a natural, geographical piece of land by pointing out other factors, … at work.” He Continues, “This approach suggests a fundamental reconfiguration of the structure of the representational and non-representational aspects of contemporary cultural (and) landscape.” (117) What Elkins is projecting that even if an artist does not intent to project a social/economic/feminist etc. concern the very nature of the both the aesthetic specificity and spatial constraints which equates to representation work and non-representation to a lesser degree it is ever present. Thus, we must conclude in general terms all ideology in some way equates to a form of Marxism and sub ligates even the most peripheral incidents of visual landscape.


Roman, Virgin and Child with Prophet. Early 3rd c. (7 p6)

To the larger point in this discussion in how we define landscape in contemporary terms it is greater than a flat painted surface or photo emulsion and it is greater than a momentary gaze. Thought it may be convoluted it is necessary to consider the wider implications. Elkins is a master at deciphering intentionality of the landscape artist and these offering are intended to build a greater foundation upon which to process thought and practice.  “What remains unacknowledged within geography (and I believe he is speaking to what happen on it by way of human activity) and art history is the transformation of (the) place of social relations into the space as (it is) shaped and structured by a global flow. Hence the proliferation of landscape metaphors- town-scape, city-scape, motor-scape (and) in contemporary society theory and human culture/geography.”
He continues to define five specific areas of cultural globalization and their economies which impact art.
“finances-scape, …techno-scape, …ethno-scape, … media-scape, … ideo-scape” (117)
It is within this frame of reference that contemporary conceptual artist find their place. It being a given paradigm that no artist works in autonomy it is difficult not to consider individuals not influence by today present globalize community

As we consider American landscape it is necessary to establish an anchor point from which to develop and understanding moving forward. There are three division which I would like to focus on. They are landscape architecture, landscape geography, and landscape as it relates to North American painting beginning in the mid-19th century.

It may seem quite odd but there is very little natural landscape within regions occupied by humans. Therefore, we conclude that most space in contemporary society reveals some evidence of intentional designed landscape whether it be specific building design or urban layout etc.  Each appointment equivocated to landscape and signifies historical perspective. What is of interest with American landscape is it lack autonomy regarding European precedent. It would seem. Cosgrove builds the case in which American landscape architecture is very much a continuum to social event in Europe beginning the Black Death which reconfigured the population of the continent and resultant mind set.  Herein, a restructuring coinciding the opportunity of westward expanding in North America. To which he says, “America was a very concrete reality to be transformed from wilderness waste to a cultivated garden, to be made fertile, to be shaped by tools and practices inherited from Europe and adjusted to the conditions of the American environment”. (161)

What America landscape offered which European could not was pluralistic sociality, large scale industrialization, and urbanization. Though still agrarian mid-19th century by 1890’s transformation of such was underway of the geographical scape. On a grander scheme the real conflict and tensions were competing ideologies of feudalism verses capitalism. (XVI) These models of social organization pose similar yet differing results. On the one hand, they are both focus on material production; however, where they differ feudalism’s goal is to produce wealth for a few while capitalism provides wealth for the masses. It is in this historical context transitioning to a capitalistic economy which American landscape painting find its unique place and character distinguishing itself from all other. The vastness of North American continent and the opportunities afforded to explore the new space provided the foundation for economic growth. Artist were commissioned to paint remote place which in turn a viewing public with their newly formed disposable income could be enticed to visit.

Thomas Moran Tutt'Art@
Thomas Moran Tutt’Art@

Thomas Moran (1837-1926) Tutt’ (Hudson River School)


Thus, we conclude that painting and photography are the specifics of this essay but must insist mirroring their interconnectedness to the geography and architectural to provide a full and comprehensive illusion.

Considering my own interest in landscape and it consecutiveness to outdoor endurance activity there seems to be a long history of arts and sports, The Olympic Games were instituted in 776 B.C.E. One must conclude that during this Geometric age such endurance activity was already quite well established as already evidenced during the Mycenaean period with its “primitive spirit of rivalry”. (15) Still earlier evidence date to the Egyptians in the second millennium B.C.E with archeologist finding wall paintings and reliefs. There depictions reveal a sociality of the sporting activity by multiple social class functioning as entertainment. Representation of these events are preserved as visual works of landscape while not limited in category. Architectural landscape form reveal in many ways the intentional design of place some surviving to the present day such as Valley of the Olympia including the Alpheios.


Valley of the Olympia

A purview from a historical perspective is still found utility in works of art throughout the centuries and within this tradition I place my own body of work as a conceptual narrative.

The Olympia event of ancient Greece are recorded in the historical landscape of the space and the visual images created by artist for the conceptual appeal of the populist. Subjectivity they evidence an intensity of training, diet and commitment (thus a social/economic/political commitment by inference) by the participating athletics as a communicative medium to promote the sport and solicit interest from others.


Diomedes, Museo Archeologico and Scene of horse, Paris, Musee du Lourel

As an endurance athlete, I place my body of work within a similar scope contextualized by idea and conceptuality of subject. Examination of specific ideas, subjects and intentionality might take on the following characteristic. Beyond the more obvious consideration such as being a competitive cyclist and much of my current work explores Rail/Trail recreations space. It purports a social/economic/life-style/environmental/political and deliberative feministic skew. I try to convey intentionality in my work and presence of place. Intentionality because it exposes a lifestyle and social reality not advantaged by most people utilized for healthy life-style activity; also, environment concern finding new clean non-polluting activity from once industrialized rail beds. The conversion of these rail beds involve political will and economic funding in the interest of the public. Thus, these efforts are inclusive of all persons, free use and open to all.

The current body of work is not limited to the previous stated intentional and visual observations but within the depth of viewing experience is a passion to express a spiritual dimension. Though my work may not reveal an obvious religious quality to the contrary in a subtler way it intentionally is presented to express a natural setting of a divine essence by an omnipresent eternal creator. It is within the landscape a creator personification and handy work of divine formation is assimilated by a sensory awareness offered to enquiring souls. Here with is religious art. While I acquiesce that one might need a predisposition of faith in an eternal creator to acquire such a conclusion I strive that even the agnostic or atheist will still experience an impassionate outdoors’s point of view presence in the viewing experience.

By way of summary specificity, I concur with Elkins who states, “landscape is a spiritual and aesthetic response to nature … (but he continues by adding) landscape is a product of natural forces, the proper object of natural science or natural philosophy, perhaps altered by human intervention”.  And it is ideological interpretation and especially phenomenological experience.

In What Painting Is James Elkins detail the anguishing work of artist (painter) of an earlier period faced. By far most had to be some variant form of an Alchemist just to acquire their hue and pigment “whereas they shared many substances-linseed oil, spirits, brilliant minerals for color… language of alchemy … vitriol, sal ammoniac and blood”. (19) Here the painter/alchemist must deal with the Prima Materia. From Levity.Com a summary of the complexity is described.

“In alchemy, Prima Materia, Materia prima or first matter, is the ubiquitous starting point required for the alchemical magnum opus and the creation of the philosopher’s stone. It is the primitive formless base of all matter like chaos, the quintessence or aether. Esoteric alchemists codescried the prima, Materia using simile, and compare it to concepts like the anima mundi.”[i]

For the contemporary conceptual artist one can only assume a blessing and convivence of acquiring painting media and supplies from a commercial. However, this does not have to be at the expense of intrinsic quality in the artist experience of connecting with the paint, the brush and stroke. His/her studio will still fill with the aromatics of open paint on pallet and cleaners. The landscape artist will struggle with meaning and meditative courage in pain or adversity. As Elkins puts it the studio is a kind of psychosis. “Liquids are life and so it is particularly important that oil painting takes place between solid and liquid, in the realm of the viscous, the gluey, the phlegmatic” (19). So here in I place my work, a work and undertaking still in progress as it should be as the Alchemist did not know the result from the start my work place within the 21centry is a blend of known and unknown the end results yet to be determined.


Works Cited


Ammwe, Manuel, Achim Hochdorfer and David Joselit. Painting 2.0, Expression in the information Age. Munich: Museum Brandhorst, Muumak, 2016, Print.
Atkins, Robert. Art Speak, 3rd edition, A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to present. New York:  Abbeville Press, 2013, Print.
Bayles, David, and Ted Orland. Art & Fear, Observations …(and)… Art making.  Santa Cruz:  The Image Continuum, 2001, Print.
Christopouls, George A. The Olympic Games in ancient Greece. Athens: Ekdotike Hellados S.A., 2003, Print.
Cosgrove, Dennis E. Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998, Print.
DeLue, Rachael Ziady and James Elkins. Landscape Theory, (The Art Seminar).
New York: Routledge, 2008, Print.
Elkins, James. On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. New York:  Routledge, 2004, Print.
Elkins, James. What Painting Is. New York: Routledge, 1999, Print.


Kagan, Jerome and Ernest Havemann. Psychology: An Introduction, Second Edition.   New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1968, Print.
Livingston, Jane. The Art of Richard Diebenkorn. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1997, Print.
Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club, A Story of Ideas in America. New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001, Print.
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. New York: Prentice Hall, Inc., and Harry N. Adams., 1995, Print.






[i] Levity.Com.

One Comment on “Landscape: A Critical Theory

  1. Pingback: Landscape: A Critical Theory – DAVE HOLMANDER-BRADFORD

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