Twenty-two hours west of Atlanta, in the plains of the Chihuahua desert, not far from where the Rio Grande bends toward the Gulf of Mexico, is the dusty town of Marfa, Texas. Marfa’s most distinguishing feature is its isolation from everything. Radio signals don’t reach it, there are no hospitals, and water for cattle has to be shipped in by train. Despite its remoteness, it is ostensibly the center of the universe for minimalist art. In the late 1970s, Donald Judd, a patriarch of minimalism, decided to move to Marfa.
A successful artist in his lifetime, Judd arrived in Marfa with enough money and resources to buy several buildings, including an entire WWII prisoner of war camp. Inside these buildings, he installed some of his most monumental works, along with specially commissioned pieces by Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain. There in the stark landscape of the west Texas desert, Judd and his colleagues were able to execute their work without any limitation on space, and without the meddling of the New York art scene, which they had come to distrust. For those interested in minimalism, Marfa promises to be the purest example of this kind of art.
In July, enticed by this promise, my wife and I made the drive to Marfa. I expected to feel like a pilgrim or an explorer going beyond the protections of civilization in search of transformation and treasure. This, however, was far too romantic for the reality of this place. I quickly realized that I had never left the comforts of my normal life in order to make this trip. There were boutique hotels waiting for us, an organic grocery, a book store with all things McSweeney, and Marfa’s own NPR affiliate. Marfa, it turns out, is an oasis of talk radio in what is otherwise a desert of radio-silence. I should have been tipped off by the half-dozen New York Times articles I read in preparation that this was not unexplored country, but those authors play into the illusion of isolation in Marfa, and I wanted to indulge in it too.
When I returned home to Atlanta, there was a letter waiting for me from the Judd Foundation which maintains Judd’s properties in Marfa. The letter thanked me for my visit and congratulated me for joining “the intrepid group of art lovers who are willing to make the trek to Southwest Texas.” But I couldn’t shake the thought that there was nothing particularly bold about this trek. All that could have been intrepid was extinguished when they built boutique hotels.
The author Henry James had a similar feeling about hotels when he toured America in 1904–5 by train. His dispatches of his time on the Eastern Seaboard from New York to Florida were compiled as the book The American Scene in 1907. In the concluding chapters, James is staying in a well-appointed hotel in Lake Worth, Florida, near Fort Lauderdale. At that time, the town was still flanked by swamp and forest, that James describes as the jungle. Pondering this wilderness from his comfortable hotel, James writes a mournful criticism of American culture. He accuses his “great lonely land” of being dominated by a “hotel-spirit.” By which he means that the guiding values of the country are “the habitable, the practicable, [and] the agreeable;” all qualities that describe a hotel.
He describes America as one “universal Waldorf Astoria.” He writes, “The hotel was leading again, not following—imposing the standard, not submitting to it.” James believed the hotel-spirit set the limits of the American psyche, and hotels themselves showed the complacent end of the American frontier. But what is of particular interest to art lovers is that James does not see this as a social failing, but instead as an aesthetic one. He sees an opposition in American life between charming space and open space, between comfort and freedom, or more explicitly between a hotel-civilization and the ability to perceive beauty. For James all this “seemed to cause the general question of the future of beauty in America,” and his answer to that question was resigned and mournful. He foresaw that hotels and the hotel-spirit would close off America’s aesthetic horizons forever.
It is a bleak picture that James paints, but, almost a century later, the philosopher Cornel West has tried to redeem it. West has taken up James’s idea of a “hotel-civilization” and made it an important theme in his writing about race in the past two decades. West is not concerned explicitly with the aesthetic dimensions of a hotel mentality, but instead with its political dimensions. West argues that in America, “There’s an obsession, just like a hotel, with comfort, convenience, [and] contentment.” This creates the particular character of American race relations.
According to West, when Americans engage with suffering, misery, and pain, their first reaction is to “push a button and it disappears.” Following the metaphor from James, this means race issues are left for housekeeping to deal with. As West puts it, “Leave your room and it’s dirty; come back, it’s clean. You don’t see who cleans it.” For West, the hotel is a powerful metaphor to explain the dismissive nature of American race relations, but, unlike James who saw the hotel-spirit as totalizing and final, argues that it can be changed. Part of the power of the idea is its emancipatory potential, and once we acknowledge our current situation, we can work to change it. West’s point is that we don’t have to stay in the hotel.
Back in Marfa, I was inclined toward the pessimism of James. There the open spaces and uncomfortable environs of the Texas desert have been tidied, tamed, and toured daily from nine to five. The freedom and the beauty that lured Judd there were really only for Judd. All of us late-comers have missed it and it won’t oblige our schedule. If we, however, think about Marfa in light of West’s more progressive vision of a hotel-America, we might consider Marfa not as a destination, but as a point of departure toward something new and perhaps beautiful again. If James and West are right, America still needs its frontiers to be pushed aesthetically and politically. For West this can be done if we confront our obsession with “comfort, contentment, and convenience.” Resist these and the wilderness will return even in the arts.
Alex Robins is a PhD student in philosophy at Emory University. His research examines the history of aesthetics with a focus on American theories of art.
Theory in Studio is a series dedicated to highlighting philosophic terms, trends, and figures and showing their relevance to contemporary art. By providing context, the series seeks to demystify theory and introduce ideas that might help inspire future studio practice.