Although the works of nonacademic art environment builders are beginning to be included in an expanded definition of art, many of these works still remain in a more tenuous and often precarious position. Academic art and folk arts are typically protected in some way, housed in galleries or museums, regarded as national treasures, or cared for by the community from which they sprung; even if they are in a private home and in use, they are relatively safe.
Most if not all of these art environments, however, are continuously at risk: even after more than fifty years of active, aggressive community work on behalf of the Watts Towers, for example, they are still not as stable or as protected as we would like them to be. A constant litany of issues with local governments underscores the precarious nature of the continued existence of most art environments, and this is exacerbated by the generally more fragile state of these sites, even as they are being created.
There are obvious divergences between the quality of craftsmanship and the quality of materials used among the different creators and their sites, but even a fortuitous combination of the best of both can result in structural instability as these sites are tested and challenged by environmental forces, by vandalism, or by changing ownership, and incremental corrosion often takes over from there. Regrettably, it is fairly often the case that there is a lapse somewhere either in the construction process or in the delicacy of the materials used, which results in what museums have come to term “inherent vice.”
This enjoins the discussion of the ephemeral state of these works, and how best to approach the often fugitive quality of their existence. Some of these sites are already in a state of complete disrepair, scarred by vandalism and neglect; others will no doubt succumb to economic pressures, as the heirs balance the aesthetic value of their parent’s or grandparent’s or aunt/uncle’s work with the commercial value of the property, with the latter typically trumping the former; still others, perhaps, will ultimately die a more dignified death.
As I have confronted these challenges, my research in this field has grown beyond pure fieldwork research on heretofore under- or unrecognized sites into political activism. For example, I had been working with Francisco González Gragera for several years when I learned of the municipal government’s injunction preventing him from further work; in response, I visited the offices and wrote several letters to the mayor of Los Santos de Maimona and to the Junta of Extremadura appealing to them to reconsider these mandates.
This kind of campaign has become an essential part of my work on the art environments in Spain (and elsewhere): interviewing the artists, their families, and community members, and documenting the sites with photos and video has become closely tied to political advocacy, as I have written letters, organized petitions, sent emails, made phone calls, and held meetings with officials at all levels of Spanish government to try to protect and secure these sites.
I am proud that this work has resulted in some significant successes: González is not only now working again, but his work is being lauded by a new generation of political leaders; the steep fines on Blas García for building life-size dinosaurs and other structures on his private, fenced-in property have been excused, and there is now some “timid recognition” of the worth of his constructions for his community; and Pujiula’s work has now been honored as a Bien de Interés Local, a local heritage site, by the same municipality that once disavowed any knowledge of his work and was instrumental in forcing him to dismantle and burn its earlier incarnations.
As art environments challenge our artistic and social norms, study of their manifestations cannot conscionably focus solely on documentation without advocacy. And these small successes, one by one, indicate positive progress towards greater inclusivity in art historical definition.