Seen from the air, cultivated expanses of land resemble abstract paintings: the polka-dot patterns produced by agricultural pivots in the American West; the vast electrified grids of cities at night. It is an observation that has been made by many writers and by numerous people in window seats on cloudless days. A major branch of contemporary photography consists of high-altitude panoramas of construction sites, cranberry harvests, strip mines, and so on, rendered legible as objects only through reference to a caption. ‘The warm and cool hues of this bauxite waste remind artist J. Henry Fair of a Kandinsky painting,’ reads the note to Fair’s photograph Transition, a gorgeous wash of industrial effluvia typical of his Industrial Scars series. Similarly, the photographer Georg Gerster selected views for his aerial photographs ‘mostly for their design quality, symmetry of town plans, highways and parking lots, the mosaic patterns of agricultural fields that look like multicoloured patchworks’.footnote1

In viewing an object close up, from a great distance, or in a radically new context, we are freed from the straitjacket of automatic recognition and are able to experience it sensuously, as if for the first time. We see industrial infrastructure as art from an aeroplane for the same reason we see a urinal as art in a museum: an accident of perspective might transmute anything into an artistic object. ‘Art is a means of experiencing creativity,’ Viktor Shklovsky stressed in his 1917 essay, ‘Art as Device’. ‘The artefact itself is quite unimportant.’footnote2 This explanation becomes richer when we consider that the defamiliarized vista we see from an aeroplane window suggests the magnitude of the economic system that sustains us and to which we contribute, without ordinarily being sensible of the transformative reach of our activities. In seeing the origin of eggs or the dissemination of electrical power incarnate in a landscape radically altered by human desires and labour, large-scale production appears as creativity in its broadest sense, the realization of will in material.

Yet our aesthetic reaction to this sculptured landscape involves, not just the estranging production of unfamiliarity, but the reproduction of the familiar. The geoglyphic forms below our flight path seem ‘like art’ because our taste has already been schooled by revolutionaries like Kazimir Malevich, who wrote explicitly of aerial perspective’s influence upon the aesthetic of ‘space with no horizon’ evinced in compositions like his iconic 1915 Black Square.footnote3Aeroplane Flying, his Suprematist composition of the same year, offers an illustration of these principles in its arrangement of black and orange blocks; his subsequent Head of a Peasant (1928–32) demonstrates, in the bright geometry of background cropland, the continuity between agricultural forms and his Suprematist experiments, while a formation of aeroplanes in the upper strata of the portrait points to the role of an imagined aerial perspective in the development of that aesthetic. Earthworks pioneer Robert Smithson, whose pieces are themselves often metaphors for the incursions that extraction industries make upon the land, conceived of an artwork that would be viewed from the air as part of a design proposal for a Texas airport; he died in a plane crash in 1973 while surveying a project site.footnote4 Alongside artists who have openly declared an interest in aerial perspective we might name many more whose forms are more subtly reminiscent of industrialized urbanism or agriculture, like the latticed compositions of Piet Mondrian or the patchy ochre canvases of Mark Rothko.

The patterns of city streets, or blocks of sown and fallow land, are thus already recognizable as artistic forms, forms we have previously encountered on canvas. On another reading, however, the turn to geometric forms on vast scales suggests not just artists’ interest in the estranging potential of aerial perspective, but the conscious or unconscious reproduction in their work of underlying social-historical phenomena: the regularity of mass production or the enormity of the human impact upon our environment. The most compelling materialist theories of art have to do precisely with this sense that art is a metaphorical expression of the hard historical facts of economic life, with which it advances in tandem.footnote5 In the most developed forms of this approach—I would cite here Fredric Jameson’s Political Unconscious and Pierre Macherey’s Theory of Literary Production—artworks are read as projections or representations of economic life into the surface world of cultural forms, which constitute more or less fragmented and distorted allegories of historical and material forces.footnote6

Some version of allegorical materialism seems to be the most compelling interpretative strategy available to us at the present time, as it is capable both of accounting for the intuitively felt relationship of necessity between economic activity and artistic production—an artist who has nothing to eat cannot live to make art; art develops together with social and technological changes—and of elucidating the content of artworks across the range of media and the spectrum of high and low culture. From this view a Mondrian painting, for example, reflects in its grid-like pattern the very principle of reproducibility inherent in mechanical mass production.

What then do we make of our sense that production practices are, at least as seen from an airplane, somehow already artistic in themselves? The metaphorical relationship between artwork and other kinds of work here becomes literal. The artefacts of economic life are not just part of a series of proliferating expressions of the underlying conditions of production, art among them, but are themselves perceived as artistic productions: ploughed furrows and planted crops are works upon the canvas of the globe. This attitude has been most urgently voiced at the fringes of the ideological spectrum and has been especially attractive to the chthonic pretensions of the far right. Martin Heidegger, through metaphors of culture as cultivation, views the artwork as a dialectic between the essential impenetrability of the thing-in-itself, ‘the earth’, and the subjective ‘destiny of a historical people’; art is the revelation of ‘the whole’ in the relationship between a given culture and its technologically mediated dwelling in a cultivated earth, exampled by Van Gogh’s painting of a peasant shoe that contains ‘the far-sweeping and ever-uniform furrows of the field.’footnote7 This approach culminates in the sentimental vision of a people of peasants and craftsmen whose destiny is realized in the landscape—a category implicitly including other peoples, with lesser destinies, who in the paradigmatically agricultural meeting of mute earth and expressive human world are not distinguished from the weeds uprooted, or the earth ripped open by the plough.

On the other hand, the view of art and economy as literally rather than metaphorically identical, albeit with a very different valuation of human agency, is also prominent in the leftist vision of a world historically produced through ‘subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation’—as articulated in the Communist Manifesto; Boris Groys has described the attempted realization of this project in the ussr as the ‘total art of Stalinism’ (Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin).footnote8 Indeed Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment until 1929, argued that art and economic development are identical because ‘the task of art’ is to disclose ‘the general laws of artistic taste’ and ‘apply them to a mechanized industry even more colossal than it is now, to the construction of life and the everyday world’.footnote9 He conceives industrial production as a form, the ideal form, of poetic activity.