Every year, thousands of people flock to the first public beach in America, Revere Beach (est. 1896) for the International Sand-Sculpting Festival. These are wonderfully complicated works that sculptors create in a short time, and they don’t last very long. Shortly after the festival is over, the sand sculptures disappear.
Another sculptor, Herb Parker, makes nature based sculptures. Some of his sculptures last weeks, months, or at best a couple of years. But most of his work could not last forever.
In a video on his website from Lake City, SC, Parker says he likes making ephemeral work because his work never has the potential to become a fixed eyesore. On the other hand, he also shared that people have said they think of his work after it has gone. While some permanent sculptures can get ignored over time, it is almost like his work lasts longer in the memories of people who saw it.
Whether one likes sand sculptures or other nature based artwork, these works raise the question about fleeting beauty. Is something truly beautiful only if it has some permanence? Clearly not, but our actions seem to suggest that we place a higher value on those beautiful objects that have a degree of permanence (or that are long-lasting). How can something stand the test-of-time, if it doesn’t last long enough? People pay to have temporary experiences every time they take a vacation for example. Why should aesthetic experience be any different with objects made by people?
A guiding principle of capitalism is ownership, and you can’t really own an object that is going to disappear. How can you own a sandcastle that will “fall into the sea eventually”?
Having a mixture of permanent (or semi-permanent) aesthetic objects and temporary aesthetic objects helps develop our sensibility to appreciate these objects. In some ways, it may help us confront our own mortality as a kind of existential moment. These objects are beautiful and will disappear as surely as I too will disappear eventually.