As with many Utah poets, actors and painters, the reputation of artist Robert Smithson and his "earthwork" Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake is better known outside of Utah. Constructed in 1970, the 1,500 foot coil of rocks draws visitors from the international art world.
Now a Canadian oil exploration firm wants to erect an oil derrick four miles from the jetty.
Many people who see the jetty as a mere novelty are asking "Why not? What's the big deal?"
Art aficionados, however, are saying it's tantamount to painting a Frankenstein scar on the Pieta.
Obviously, the rhetoric has gotten hyperbolic on both sides, but at the end of the day we side with the artists. The Spiral Jetty is fast becoming a state treasure. Major gallery exhibitions in other states have featured photographs of the jetty taken from the air and the untainted canvas of water it was "painted" on. Plugging an ugly mechanical device so close would be exactly the wrong message. It would show a state choosing greed over things of the spirit.
One reason the jetty is prized has to do with Smithson's authenticity as artist. Constructed in the badlands of Box Elder County with no one around but the ground hogs, the jetty was hardly conceived as a commercial work and its isolation shows it was never a ploy to gain fame. It was the vision of one artist, a man true to his nature and his gifts, who wanted to bring a small bit of order into a chaotic world. In short, it was a labor of love of art.
The images of Smithson at work on the jetty are romantic running along the shoreline, bottle in one hand, yelling at dump trucks as they hauled ton after ton of stone onto the lake bed. But such lore and legend would not have legs if the work itself weren't up to snuff. And whatever detractors may say the Spiral Jetty is up to snuff as a work of art. Writing to the Deseret Morning News from Leicester, England, Dr. Tim Martin called it "one of the most important artworks of the post-war period" and said exploring for oil so close to the jetty would be an "oil well poked in the eye of the America Mona Lisa."
We're not as loud. But when it comes to the jetty, we're just as proud.
Today, many Utahns lament the destruction of classic buildings and swaths of landscape in the name of "progress." We should let that remorse serve as a guide for future choices.
We need to keep the Spiral Jetty pristine not just for us, but for the generations to follow.